A season ago, an injury to a defenseman of Dougie Hamilton’s caliber would’ve been a devastating blow to the New Jersey Devils. They’ll still feel the impact of losing their best all-around defenseman on the team. But unlike 2020-21, their blue line is better equipped to handle losing Hamilton, who’s You can keep it out for life with a broken jaw.
There are several reasons. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald went out and spent to make the Devils’ defense better. He signed Hamilton in free agency and also acquired Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche in a trade just before July’s expansion draft.
Even before then, Fitzgerald’s Acquisition of Jonas Siegenthaler before the 2021 trade deadline is proving to be one of the biggest steals of the last year. Add improved play from Devils veterans, and there’s reason to be optimistic they can overcome Hamilton’s injury.
Siegenthaler & Severson Have Raised Their Game
With Hamilton out of the lineup for the last week, Siegenthaler and Damon Severson have taken over as the Devils’ top defense pair. The results so far have been amazing. But it didn’t start with Hamilton going down with an injury. They were playing very well before that.
Siegenthaler and Severson have been a pair for a little more than a month now, and they’ve thrived at five-on-five. They’ve played 250 of their 290 minutes together since Dec. 1, posting a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 51.79 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 54.49 percent. For the season, they have a 52.31 CF% and 55.48 xG% as a tandem, the best numbers among the team’s most common defense pairs.
Severson and Siegenthaler both played excellent hockey, but they are each very different defensemen. We’ll start with Siegenthaler, who has been quite the pleasant surprise. He didn’t play much with the Capitals because of their defensive depth, but he always had solid underlying numbers. Still, it would’ve been hard to predict he’d be this good with the Devils.
Siegenthaler has, without a doubt, been the team’s best defensive defenseman. But it doesn’t stop there; he’s also arguably the best defensive defenseman in the league right now. His defense at even strength has earned him an expected goals above replacement score (xGAR) 5.7, which is the highest among all blueliners. He may be a bit of an offensive black hole, but he’s had a significant positive impact defensively at even strength, as the dark purple and blue bars below indicate:
As for Severson, he’s been solid defensively, too — his even-strength defense has been worth an xGAR of 1.3. But unlike Siegenthaler, Severson is the team’s best puck-moving blueliner after Hamilton. Since Dec. 1, Severson and Siegenthaler have been regular defense partners. He has scored 11 points in 15 of his last fifteen games. Both styles seem to compliment each other well.
Severson has joined COVID protocols yesterday. But with only one game on schedule between now and Jan. 19, he shouldn’t miss much time. That’s a bit of good news for the Devils, as they’ll need him and Siegenthaler available as often as possible since they’re the backbone of the team’s blue line without Hamilton.
Graves & Subban Have Something To Add Too
Siegenthaler and Severson are the Devils’ clear-cut top defense pair at the moment, but let’s not forget about the rest of the blue line. Graves had played mostly top-pair minutes before Hamilton’s injury, and he’s having a good season to this point.
Known as more of a defensive defenseman, too, Graves’ even-strength defense has been worth an xGAR of 1.6. He’s excelling in that regard, but his offensive game has gone up a notch this season. He has 13 points in 31 games — a 34-point pace over 82 games, which would be a career-high. Subban is playing with P.K. in a second pair role for the Devils. Subban is currently on the bench. But there’s no reason he can’t handle softer minutes after playing against tough competition alongside Hamilton.
Speaking of Subban, it’s obvious he’s not the player he used to be before the In 2019, the Devils acquired him. He was a below-replacement-level player in his first two seasons in New Jersey. However, his goals above replacement (GAR), for 2021-22 is 2.3.
Subban’s defensive game has declined significantly, but he still contributes offensively. His strong offense has earned him a GAR 2.9 and xGAR 1.3 in 2021-22. Both are solid. His 13 points in 33 games would put him on pace for 32 in 82 games, the most he’s had since 2018-19 when he had 31 with the Nashville Predators.
Subban’s on-ice results at five-on-five have been above water too. He has a 51.22 CF% and 50.6 xG%, so the Devils aren’t getting caved in during his shifts, even though his defensive game has declined. Graves has more offensive upside than Siegenthaler, but he’s still a defensive defenseman first. Like Siegenthaler and Severson, his and Subban’s contrasting styles suit each other well.
Smith’s Turning It Around Would Be a Great Step
The Devils’ top-four is in good shape with Siegenthaler, Severson, Graves and Subban. That wouldn’t have been the case in 2020-21, but they still have some depth concerns with their third pair. It starts with Ty Smith, who’s having a tough, tough go of it nearing the halfway point of the season.
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Smith posted 23 points in 48 games in his rookie season. That would have put him on pace to score 39 points in 82 games. The defensive game wasn’t there, which isn’t a surprise for a 21-year-old defender, but he made up for it offensively. Smith has been one the league’s worst defensive players this season. His offense has dried up, as he only has nine points in 31 games, so he’s not adding much to the lineup right now.
Smith skipped training camp and the start of the regular season with an injury. It sure looked like that affected him for the first few weeks, and he’s yet to recover from that. Since he’s still on his entry-level deal, the Devils can send him to the Utica Comets in the AHL. But that doesn’t seem likely at this point, so the best they can hope is he turns it around. Head coach Lindy Ruff isn’t going to play him against elite or even mid-level competition, so he needs to find a way to take advantage of that, specifically offensively.
With Hamilton out, Smith will likely have a combination of Christian Jaroš and Colton White as defense partners. Neither moves the needle significantly, but they’re reliable and have played well in limited minutes when called upon by Ruff. At best, they should allow Smith to activate offensively. Smith’s biggest strength is their ability to do this.
All in all, the Devils’ defense is in a good spot, even without Hamilton. Severson has been replaced by Siegenthaler, a top defensive defenseman. Subban and Graves can be a good second pair, and Smith could give them a boost if he starts to understand it. As long as players can stay healthy, the Devils’ defense should be able to overcome Hamilton’s injury.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils journalist for The Hockey Writers. He has a knack for advanced stats and prospects, signings, and trades. He was previously a writer for Devils Army Blog from 2015-2017, a New Jersey Devils fanblog.