NJ Devils Defense: Are They Good Enough To Get The Job Done?

Andy Greene Devils
Andy Greene is proving to worth the contract that NJ gave him in 2011. (icon SMI)

After a 5-1 blowout loss to the New York Islanders that was followed up by a tight 2-1 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators, it’s no surprise that a few questions about the team have surfaced. However, I am a little surprised that the majority of the people seem to be focusing in on our defense as being a problem. I posted a quick question on a popular NJ Devils forum asking for thoughts on the current state of the defense and more times than not, the answer that I got back was that it is awful. Are the Devils really that bad off? The Devils have been making due with adequate defensemen for a long time and they’ve been in the upper echelon of the league in shots and total team defense for close to a decade without top quality defenders. Isn’t it fair to say that the Devils have a much stronger defensive unit than a few years ago when guys like Mike Mottau and Mark Fraser saw significant playing time?

According to statistics, the Devils defense has been one of the better teams in the NHL this season when it comes to preventing shots by the opposition. Through 16 games, the Devils are allowing an average of 26.7 shots per game by their opponent, which ranks 5th best in the league. They also have a 2.25 goals against per game average with is 7th best in the league. Their penalty kill is one area that is cause for concern, currently ranked 20th in the league at 80.6% but they do lead the league in shorthanded goals. Statistically speaking, there isn’t much to back up this notion that the Devils have a terrible defense.

Now that we’ve looked at the very basic statistics, let’s look at what each defenseman brings to the Devils. As I mentioned above, the Devils haven’t had a true number one defenseman since the day Scott Niedermayer took his talents to Anaheim but Peter Deboer has been finding a way to be successful despite that.

Recently, DeBoer paired Andy Greene and Adam Larsson together and I think that combination is really starting to work out. They have great chemistry together, both are very good at passing the puck and both have been creating turnovers, especially behind the net. A very telling statistic to me, when looking into their Corsi numbers is that when Greene and Larsson are not on the ice, shots against NJ jump dramatically. Simply put, the Devils appear to be a much better team with Greene and Larsson on the ice than with any other pairings they have.

Bryce Salvador has probably had the toughest assignments this season as he’s usually on the ice against the oppositions best players. As the captain of the New Jersey Devils, this is exactly where I expect to see him play. The problem is, he hasn’t been great at defending against the opposition’s best. If you are a believer in following Corsi ratings and advanced statistics, you will notice that Bryce Salvador’s on-ice Corsi is the lowest on the team and that his on-ice shooting percentage isn’t very high either. Those statistics would suggest that Salvador is a struggling d-man. However, one bright spot in Salvador’s game has been his play on the penalty kill. He’s been aggressive and a real asset on a team whose penalty kill has been disappointing so far this season.

Both Mark Fayne and Bryce Salvador not exactly wowing fans this season. (Photo By Andy Martin Jr)
Both Mark Fayne and Bryce Salvador are not exactly wowing fans this season. (Photo By Andy Martin Jr)

Mark Fayne is a defenseman that I find to be a little underrated. Yes, he’s been struggling lately which has gotten him the healthy scratch treatment but I do feel he’s a better option than some of the other defenseman on the roster. We don’t know how long Fayne will get the healthy scratch treatment but he just might have to wait until the play of a teammate has DeBoer reconsidering his defensive assignments. However long that is, I hope to see Fayne out there again soon.

Marek Zidlicky seems to be the guy that gets all the bad press after the games and all the bad comments on Twitter during the game. I’ll admit that I am not a huge fan of Zidlicky’s defensive abilities but that is why he’s out there. Every team needs an offensive-defenseman and Zidlicky is ours. He handles and moves the puck the well and has the ability to score more than a few goals. The reason that Lamoriello brought Zidlicky to NJ was to help the power play unit, something that he does do. Zidlicky has 1 goal and 6 assists so far this season and there’s no reason to think those numbers won’t improve, especially on the PP. He may not be the best defenseman on the Devils but he’s certainly not the worst.

I had higher hopes for Anton Volchenkov when the Devils signed him. At the time of the signing we heard a lot about his physical play, his need to block shots and that he was going to be the closest thing NJ had to Scott Stevens since Scott Stevens. It really hasn’t panned out that way. Yes, Volchenkov is a big body but he’s also a slow body. If the forwards don’t slow down the opposing wingers coming as they approach the defensive zone, Volchenkov gets in trouble nearly every time. Volchenkov plays well from the net to the corner but that is a pretty limited skill set to be the highest paid defenseman on a team. His size appears to be the only thing keeping him on the ice at the moment and even that wasn’t enough to save him in a game against Pittsburgh earlier this season.

That leaves us with our 7th defenseman Henrik Tallinder. Recently, due to Mark Fayne’s sloppy play, Tallinder has been seeing some ice time while Fayne sits but usually it’s Tallinder who’s the one sitting out. Next to Peter Harrold, Tallinder has played the least amount of games this season. It’s kind of disappointing to see because Tallinder hasn’t been awful for NJ. He’s certainly not a number one defenseman but I don’t think he was ever advertised to be a number one defenseman. He was a positive role-model for Mark Fayne in his rookie season and did the same for Larsson last season before missing 40+ games with a blood clot issue. Tallinder can be an asset and at times, would be a better option than Volchenkov defensively but he doesn’t have the size to keep Volchenkov off the ice. Getting Tallinder into the lineup at this point means sitting someone that might not deserve to sit.

Peter Harrold is technically our 8th defenseman but he’s only seen the ice once this season and that’s not enough to judge him on. I’m not sure how useful Harrold would be should we need him since he’s missed so much playing time so I’m not 100% sure why he’s still in NJ and not back in Albany.

Martin Brodeur
Whatever the state of the Devils defense may be, they still have Martin Brodeur in between the pipes. (Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE)

Yes, there are aspects of the defense that could be better but that’s the case with just about every NHL team. We’ve seen teams with speed and an aggressive fore-check give NJ problems this season, which could cause more problems down the road should coaches and scouts watch tape on NJ. There is still a lot more hockey to be played and a lot more work to be done. This is the same defense that helped us get to the Stanley Cup Final last season and I thought their play during the regular season last year was far worse than it has been this season.

In short, the defense is not a problem, especially when Marty Brodeur and Johan Hedburg have been playing as well as they have this season. There have been games where the defense hasn’t shown up (same can be said about the entire team) but for the most part they are doing what they are paid to do.  What fans should be focusing in on is that NJ is still missing a top 6 winger and as a result, they probably have several players playing one line higher than they should be. Maybe the recent addition of Alexei Ponikarovsky combined with a healthy Dainius Zubrus will change that but for now, I think that’s a bigger issue than the Devils defense.