For any NHL team, depth is a must when competing for a playoff spot. New Jersey Devils defenseman Steven Santini figures to play a part in that in 2018-19. On Aug. 14, the organization re-signed the restricted free agent to a three-year deal that carries a cap hit of $1.42 million a year.
He’s coming off the heels of a season where he finished with 10 points in 38 games and struggled in a top-pair role. Although the Devils still value him, he has yet to become a fixture in the lineup. Is 2018-19 the season he earns regular playing time on the Devils’ blue line?
Santini Showed Potential in 2016-17
The 2016-17 Devils were a team to forget. They struggled to compete on most nights, especially in the second half of the season. They finished with their worst record since 1988-89 when they won just 27 games and finished with 66 points.
There weren’t many bright spots, but Santini was one of them. He had a relative expected goals for (Rel xGF%) of 1.88%. The Devils averaged 52.36 shot attempts against per 60 minutes when he was on the ice, which made him one of the team’s best shot suppressors. They also had an expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) of 1.96 with him on the ice. That was the best of the team’s defensemen who played in 20 games or more.
Santini’s five-on-five numbers didn’t come against lesser competition, either. He had the fourth highest defensive zone start rate (DZS%) of the team’s defensemen. He earned the trust of Devils head coach John Hynes, and as a result, saw time on the penalty kill. He averaged 16:05 of ice time a game and ended the season with seven points in 38 games.
A Sophomore Slump for Santini
Santini got off to a strong start as a pro in 2016-17. However, things did not go as smoothly last season. His five-on-five numbers took a significant plunge from his prior season. In 36 games played, he finished with a minus-12.33% relative Corsi For (Rel CF%) and a minus-11.96% Rel xGF%.
Those were the worst on the Devils by a wide margin and were among the bottom two in the NHL for defensemen with more than 200 minutes played. He was eventually phased out of the lineup and was returned to the AHL to fine tune his game for the remainder of the season.
There are a couple of reasons for Santini’s second season struggles — the first being his usage and how Hynes deployed him. Santini’s DZS% was 40.75%, which was the highest of any defenseman in the NHL with more than 200 minutes played. On the other end, his start rate in the offensive zone was 15.58%. In short, that means Santini was getting close to no offensive zone time.
Another reason for Santini’s troubles has to do with his passing ability. The following visual shows his impact in the offensive, neutral, and defensive zones in each of the last two seasons.
The most notable area of concern for Santini was his zone exit rates. It’s something he struggled with during 2016-17, and playing difficult defensive minutes in 2017-18 surely didn’t help matters. It becomes tough to relieve pressure when consistently dumping the puck out of the defensive zone. It also becomes harder to get the puck forward to start an offensive rush.
Santini had the most difficult minutes of any Devils’ defenseman last season. At the same time, he handled it as poorly as he could have. If he can improve his puck-moving ability, it’ll help his chances at bouncing back in 2018-19.
Related: Keys to Devils’ 2018-19 Success
Santini Key to Devils Defensive Depth
The Devils blue line is in a much better place than it was at this last time year. They had yet to acquire Sami Vatanen, while Will Butcher was still an unknown asset. Vatanen is a lock to play in the top four, as is Butcher after his fantastic rookie season in 2017-18.
However, the team still has spots to fill out for third pair and depth roles. Mirco Mueller and Egor Yakovlev should battle to play on the left side, while Santini and Ben Lovejoy will compete on the right side. Santini will have to earn that spot, and there’s good reason to believe he can do so this preseason.
When games begin in a few weeks, Santini should be able to play a much more suitable role. He won’t have to face the harsh minutes he did in 2017-18 with Vatanen playing on the top pair. Hynes can shelter him and put him in situations that will allow him to succeed. That should give him a chance to get back on the right track.
Time will tell if Santini can bud into a top-four defenseman. For now, the Devils don’t need him to be one, nor are they paying him like one. They will benefit from him providing steady third pair minutes and a physical element they lack on their blue line. If he can do so, he’ll help answer any uncertainty the Devils have regarding defensive depth.
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Advanced stats from Corsica Hockey
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