The New Jersey Devils’ blue line needs some retooling this summer, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have pieces they can build around. One defenseman who should be part of the solution is Damon Severson. Like many of the team’s players, he got off to a slow start this season. But his play took off after the team fired John Hynes as their head coach on Dec. 3.
The 2019-20 campaign may not have reached its official end, but there’s no guarantee play resumes after the league suspended action due to the coronavirus. And even if games get going again, the Devils would have only 13 left on their schedule. That likely won’t change how Severson or any other player’s 2019-20 went. So without further ado, let’s begin looking back at his performance.
Severson’s Steady Improvement
Severson can get a lot of heat from Devils’ fans on social media. At times it’s warranted, and other times it isn’t. He’ll make the occasional, head-scratching turnover in the defensive zone. And his decision-making with the puck on his stick in pressure situations could be better.
But looking at the big picture, he had the strongest effort of any of the team’s defensemen. The Devils had a Corsi share (CF%) of 48.07% with him on the ice at five-on-five, ranked first among their defensemen. They also had an expected goals share (xGF%) of 49.94% with him on the ice, second to Dakota Mermis, who only played in 10 NHL games.
The turning point for Severson, at least offensively, was when the Devils moved on from Hynes — he had five points in 26 games under Hynes. But after the coaching change, he totaled 26 points in 43 games under Alain Nasreddine, who took over as the interim HC. That comes out to a 50-point pace over 82 games, which would have easily been a career-high.
Another area where Severson thrived was on the power play. He averaged 4.30 points per 60 minutes (points/60), ranked first among Devils’ defensemen. He also became their top shooting threat and operated as the quarterback on their first unit. Combine that with his even-strength play, and he had a positive impact at both game states.
Severson’s offensive contributions were always there, but he needed to improve defensively. He did that this past season and was the Devils’ best defenseman, especially down the stretch. His name has come up in trade rumors in the past. But given his age, contract status, and the improvement he made in 2019-20, he’s worth keeping around moving forward.
Building Around Severson
In addition to Severson, the Devils’ biggest strength on defense is in their prospect pool. Ty Smith capped the WHL regular season with 19 goals and 59 points in 45 games and captured a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship. He’ll be turning pro for 2020-21, and will likely be playing in NHL games sooner than later.
Related: Top 10 Devils Prospects
The Devils’ next wave of defense prospects includes a couple of others who are close to playing in NHL games as well. Reilly Walsh just completed his junior season at Harvard, and if he signs with the Devils in the coming days or weeks, he’ll be playing professionally in 2020-21. There’s also Kevin Bahl, whom the team acquired in the Taylor Hall trade, who isn’t far off from playing professionally, either.
That’s a lot of young talent coming up, but not all of them will be NHL contributors right away. Severson has proven he can play tough minutes against teams’ top lines. But he’ll need a steady partner with NHL experience rather than the rotation of defensemen he played with for most of this season. That’s where the next GM will have to be competitive in the trade market or free agency.
The Devils haven’t been aggressive in free agency for more than a few years now. It’s possible that changes with a new GM, but I still wouldn’t bet on it happening. With that said, one UFA defenseman who should be on their list is Brenden Dillon. He doesn’t offer much offensively, but he’s one of the better defensive defensemen in the league. He shouldn’t be too expensive as a UFA, and he’d give the Devils’ top four a significant boost.
Adding Dillon would allow him to play with P.K. Subban, while Severson could partner with Will Butcher. The latter two have played over 450 minutes together at five-on-five since 2017-18 and have a 51.11 xGF% as a pair. Severson’s improved defensive game could help mask some of Butcher’s defensive flaws too. So it might be time to give them consistent minutes together.
And even though he gets criticized from time to time, Severson’s a more than capable top-four blueliner. He’ll turn 26 years old in August and has a very reasonable cap hit of $4.16 million through 2022-23. If the NHL season is over, it’ll have been his best one yet, so it makes sense to rebuild their defense around him. Because in the end, that’d be the best way for the Devils’ defense to get on the right track for 2020-21.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017