The Devils have started the season 3-0 and are sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference. They have been exciting to watch, scoring 16 goals, while only giving up six. The team’s ten-goal differential is second only to the Chicago Blackhawks. But, are they for real? Or is this another year like last year, when the team went 4-0-1 in their October home games and had us all excited, only to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Yes, we must be cautious. And yes, New Jersey has only played against Colorado, Buffalo, and Toronto so far this season, not exactly defensive powerhouses. But, there is a big difference between this team and the one that took the ice last season. The Devils have seven new players on their roster to start the 2017-18 season, and all seven have recorded at least one point in the Devils first three games. Those players include Jesper Bratt (3g-3a), Marcus Johansson (2g-2a), Will Butcher (5a), Brian Gibbons (2g-1a), Nico Hischier (1a), Jimmy Hayes (1g) and Mirco Mueller (1a). The team has three fabulous rookies; Hischier, Butcher, and Bratt (the team points’ leader who looked great in development camp but, frankly, is a surprise on the ice thus far). Add to that, established Devils’ all-stars Cory Schneider and Taylor Hall. And then top it off with acquisition Marcus Johansson, and you have a playoff contender. Add to that the acquisition of Brian Boyle, a defensive face off specialist who is currently ill, but expected to be back later in the season, and Travis Zajac, due to return after their recovery, and this is an impressive roster.
The questions really lie on the blueline, not up front, however. So, let’s take look at the blueline—captain Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, John Moore, Mueller, Dalton Prout, Steve Santini, Damon Severson, and Butcher–eight players that will likely determine the success of the Devils’ season.
At age 34 (35 at the end of this month), Greene has worn a Devils’ uniform for his entire 12-year NHL career. In his third year as captain of the team, he is a left-handed shot who, at this point, is mostly a defensive blueliner. Thus far this season, Greene has been paired with Severson, a right-handed shot. The 23-year-old, former second-round pick, is an offensively minded blueliner, who is still learning defense (Severson can at times be severely lacking in his own zone). Last season, he had more than twice as many giveaways than takeaways (54 to 24), but had the most shots among New Jersey’s D corps (125). With a six-year extension signed last month ($4.167 million per year), the Devils have told Severson that they believe in him and want him to stay. He is definitely a player to watch, as for the Devils to be successful this season, Severson will have to cut down on his giveaways and generally play responsibly in his own end.
Moore was paired with Butcher in the first game of year (although tonight it looks like Moore will be with Severson). Moore is a 26-year-old blueliner that always seemed to be on the cusp of breaking out into a good two-way second pairing defenseman, but never quite got there. Mostly, his issues were in his own end. But it appears that the Winnetka, Illinois native might have finally reached his potential. Much more solid in his own zone than he has been in the past, Moore can now play both ends of the ice. An excellent puck distributor, if he stays healthy, Moore can be a big contributor to the blueline.
Butcher is the consummate offensive defenseman. In just three NHL games, the shortish blueliner has shown why he won the Hobey Baker award last season. He can run the power play, shoot from the point, and has the vision to create plays that wind up in the opponents’ net. A highly prized free agent that the Devils were very lucky to get, Butcher has shown that, even when he is not making plays, he is drawing attention away from his teammates to the Devils’ advantage.
One of the reasons that Butcher signed with New Jersey was surely the presence of Santini in the defensive corps. The two played together on the National Team Development Program’s blueline for two seasons in 2011-12 and 2012-13. Santini, a right-handed shot, is strictly a defensive player, who can hit and provide some grit on the blueline. At 22 years old, and with only 62 professional games under his belt, Santini is still developing, but he has the potential to become a second pairing player.
Mueller is another 22-year-old defenseman, brought over from the San Jose organization. Not a full-time NHLer until now, the left-shot Mueller was touted as a two-way player when he was drafted. He has shown some offensive upside in the AHL, but it is not clear yet whether this will translate to the NHL. The other as yet part-time NHLer on the Devils’ blueline is 27-year-old Prout, who will make his season debut tonight (Mueller will sit). Prout, a tough defensive defenseman, will be needed to match up well against the Caps tonight.
In addition to Mueller, the other defenseman in the press box tonight will be Lovejoy. The 33-year-old defensive blueliner has only seen action in one game thus far this season. At this point, the seventh defenseman on the team, Lovejoy is in the second year of his three year deal.
Will the defense create enough chances for the forwards to take advantage of? Almost certainly. New Jersey has the speed on the blueline and up front to create enough scoring chances. The question this season will be, are they strong enough on defense to help netminder Cory Schneider steal the few games that will make the difference between moving along in the post-season or going home in April? It looks good right now and, when you analyze the team, they look like a playoff contender, but New Jersey has not run into a good all-around team yet this season. Tonight, with Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, the defense will get a test, and then there are the Rangers and Tampa Bay coming up in the next four days. We’ll know more by Wednesday morning.