Devils Defense A Work In Progress, But on the Rise

Last season was undoubtedly a nightmare for the New Jersey Devils across the board. Offense, goaltending, and defense need to be better for them to have a successful season. Adding players like Jack Hughes and Nikita Gusev should help clear up the scoring problems and in goal, Mackenzie Blackwood is expected to take the next step in his development and split the starts with veteran Cory Schneider.

On defense, there weren’t wholesale changes amongst the group, but the additions should help bolster what was a corps that struggled mightily at times. Obviously, the marquee move was acquiring PK Subban from the Nashville Predators for a pair of young defenders (Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies) and a pair of second-round picks (2020, 2021). The other significant addition will (likely) be 2018 first-round pick Ty Smith making the jump from the WHL to the NHL; the opportunity is there if he doesn’t fall flat on his face during training camp. 

Talbot Bastian Carrick Provorov Gudas
Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Cam Talbot, New Jersey Devils right wing Nathan Bastian and defenseman Connor Carrick with Flyers’ Ivan Provorov and Radko Gudas defending. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Connor Carrick saw action in 20 games with New Jersey last season after a trade from the Dallas Stars and was re-signed for two more years this offseason. Carrick is likely in a battle with Mirco Mueller to remain on the roster as the team’s seventh defenseman.

Lefty Righty

A huge part of last season’s disaster was injuries and veteran blueliner Sami Vatanen missed 32 games and when he was out of the lineup he was sorely missed. In the Devils’ first preseason game Vatanen and Subban were paired together and despite both being right-handed shots the duo looked solid throughout.

Sami Vatanen New Jersey Devils
Sami Vatanen, New Jersey Devils, January 20, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“I think he and I are (both) pretty laid back; we just kinda go out there and don’t care what side we’re on. Just go play,” said Subban, the former Norris Trophy winner who made his home debut with the Devils in the preseason 3-2 overtime win against the Boston Bruins. “I think sometimes too much is put into having a righty and a lefty (on each pair). I think sometimes it can make a difference but at the end of the day we’re playing hockey and the way the game is played now, there’s no such thing as a defenseman or a forward. It’s a five-man unit. You defend as five guys and you attack as five guys so you can end up on either side.”

“You just play hard. It was good (tonight) playing with him,” added Subban who was on the ice for three of the four Devils goals. “Sami is a sound guy. He moves the puck well and makes some really smart reads back in our D-zone. I’ve been very lucky to play with some good defensemen in my career and he’s definitely one of them.”

Then unprompted Subban started heaping praise on his first impressions of Smith, who barely missed making the Devils NHL roster last season. “Smitty is a young guy but, man he looks good out there.”

Agent Smith

Smith played the first preseason game paired with Carrick and although he recorded two assists (as did Vatanen) but the duo was on-ice for all three of Boston’s goals, including the tying goal with 49.6 seconds left in regulation. Carrick also contributed on the offensive side with a goal, and despite the fact that the pair is likely competing against one another for a roster spot there is zero animosity from the veteran towards the teenager.

Ty Smith
Defenseman Ty Smith holds up a trophy after his team won the 3-on-3 tournament at the New Jersey Devils annual July Development Camp. (Photo Credit: Steven Wojtowicz)

“That’s the nature of it,” Carrick said of being paired with someone who he may be competing against for ice-time. “You show your best, you hope he shows his best and as a player, you always want to vote for yourself. I want a place here. I want to play here for as long as they’ll let me, whether it’s five or ten years, whatever (it is). There is always competition in the National Hockey League. No one is going to show up with five D and say, well we couldn’t find anyone.”

“He’s a great skater, he’s got a great stick; we were egging each other on and communicating early,” said Carrick of being paired with the Devils’ prized prospect on defense. “It’s the first time (this season) where we are taking some contact with guys who are really coming for you. I thought he did well. The challenge your faced with as a young pro is ‘how can I come in against veteran players who have been through this and show my best’. With all the hype, all the pressure, all of the fatigue – I thought he did well.”

Detail of the Devils

Both Will Butcher and Damon Severson are a year older and savvier, and captain Andy Greene may see his ice-time decrease a bit and that could make his game sharper if others can pick up some of the slack in defending the blue paint. Those three along with Subban, Vatanen, Carrick, Smith, and Mueller will look to do a 180 from last season.

“This is a mobile group. I think if you ask a lot of the guys here to describe their game they would say ‘puck-mover’. There’s some edge, there’s some bite there, and that will only aid our identity as a team that wants to be hard to play against,” said Carrick. “We’ve talked about the offensive talent in this room and it’s our job to get the puck to them and let them carry the mail. I think we have a group with the depth that can do that.”