The New Jersey Devils may be in the middle of a three-game losing streak, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t positives to take away. One of the bright spots from this losing streak — and really the last few games — has been the defense pair of Damon Severson and Ty Smith.
Smith and Severson have played lights out since head coach Lindy Ruff paired the two together on Jan. 28. They’ve put up some of the best 5-on-5 numbers on the team and are showing they’re worthy of top-pair usage. Let’s dive into their numbers and why they’re trending towards a more significant role. Plus, some quick notes before tonight’s rematch with the Buffalo Sabres.
Smith and Severson’s Emergence
Ruff has been pretty consistent with his defense pairs through the team’s first 14 games. Severson found himself with Dmitry Kulikov for the first six contests of the season, while Smith mostly played alongside Matt Tennyson. Severson put up some great results with Kulikov and formed arguably the Devils’ best defense pair early on.
Meanwhile, Smith put up plenty of points with Tennyson, though their 5-on-5 numbers weren’t pretty at all. The Devils had a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 37.1% and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 30.8% with them on the ice. So it was quite evident that wasn’t going to be a workable unit for long stretches of the season.
But even though that pair struggled, it’s pretty clear Smith wasn’t the problem. And with Severson excelling alongside Kulikov, it made sense to pair him and Smith together to see what they could do.
It turns out that decision has paid off for Ruff in a big way.
Smith and Severson have played eight straight games together and have logged over 112 minutes at 5-on-5. In that time, the Devils have a CF% of 63.4% and xG% of 66.1% with them on the ice. The caveat is they have an offensive zone start percentage just above 65%. That’s the highest from the Devils’ current group of defense pairs, meaning Ruff has kept them out of tough defensive situations.
But Ruff’s usage of his defensemen appears to be changing based on the Devils’ last game, which was a 4-1 loss to the Sabres. For most of this season, the Ryan Murray and P.K. Subban pair had been getting the hardest defensive minutes. In that loss to the Sabres, they had the highest offensive zone faceoff percentage of the Devils’ defense pairs. And there were signs in the team’s previous game against the Washington Capitals that Ruff was leaning towards using them that way.
On the flip side, it was Smith and Severson who were starting to get more minutes in higher leverage defensive situations. They’ve handled the tougher assignments relatively well, and it’s probably a good bet that trend of giving them those minutes will continue. How Subban has been playing, at least defensively, may have something to do with it, as well.
Subban’s Defensive Struggles Forcing Changes
The Devils acquired Subban at the 2019 Draft with the hope he could anchor their blue line. But the hard truth is that the acquisition has not worked out as they had envisioned. He had the worst season of his career in 2019-20, and while he’s been a bit better this season, he’s not had a positive defensive impact.
That’s likely why we’ve seen Subban and Murray’s usage change over the last couple of games. And it’s for the best, for Subban and the team. He’s not capable of playing hard defensive minutes as he did during his prime. While he hasn’t had the same defensive impact he’s had in the past, he still has something to offer offensively. So changing his usage to a more offensive role makes sense moving forward.
As for Smith and Severson, the decision to give them more difficult defensive minutes appears to be the right move. It starts with the play of Severson, who’s arguably the Devils’ best defenseman at the moment. He’s had the most positive, two-way impact of any of the team’s blueliners. He’s eliminated the mental gaffes from previous seasons. And his effectiveness in transition fits the way Ruff wants the team to play.
Smith still has a ways to go defensively, but he’s only 20 years old. He’s shown signs of defensive improvement as the season has gone on, and his potential is through the roof. His hockey IQ is among the best from the team’s blueliners. He makes smart decisions with the puck, and like Severson, he’s highly effective in transition.
With tougher defensive minutes, it’d be fair to expect Smith and Severson’s numbers to regress a bit. But given how each plays, they should be capable of handling top-pair minutes. Ruff doesn’t want the team to be spending time in the defensive zone. He wants them to push the pace. They’ll need puck-moving blueliners to break out of the defensive zone cleanly to get the puck ahead to their forwards. And Smith and Severson are the two best-equipped defenders for the job. They’ve shown they’re capable of being a top defensive pair, and Ruff is making the right move treating them as such.
Before their rematch against the Sabres tonight, I figured we’d go over some brief notes.
1) Despite three straight regulation losses, Ruff has mostly kept his lines intact heading into tonight, with a couple of minor changes.
It is a bit of a surprise to see the Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt line remain together. The three of them have been a unit since Hischier returned to the lineup on Saturday, but their results aren’t great. They have a CF% of 47.7% but an xG% of 29.8%, and it’s because they’re bleeding quality shot and chances. If this line gets off to another rough start, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ruff pulls the plug on them early on.
There’s also the curious case of Nikita Gusev. He’s played a bit better since coming back into the lineup on Sunday, scoring two goals in two games. With that said, Ruff is not doing him any favors by placing him on the third line with defensive forwards.
Gusev had success with Travis Zajac last season, but if he’s staying on the third line, it makes sense to give him a shot with Miles Wood. Yegor Sharangovich has not played particularly well, while Wood has been one of the Devils’ best players at 5-on-5 and has shown he can score. That unit of Wood, Zajac and Gusev has similar vibes to when Blake Coleman rounded out that line in 2019-20. That’s also when Gusev had the most success.
2) The Devils aren’t getting blown out of the water during their three-game losing streak. You could argue they should’ve even won one or two of those games. With that said, it’s because their goaltending has given them a chance. They’re giving up 2.56 xG per 60 minutes during the skid, so they need to tighten up defensively. They’re also only averaging 1.79 xG per 60 minutes, so they need to get to high-danger areas more often when they’re in the offensive zone. If they can do both of those things, then they should be in a good spot to pick up the win and end their losing streak.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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