Sunday, July 20, 2008


The Defense As it Stands

So far this offseason, the Devils' signings have taken three forms (all posts by Gulitti):

1. New forwards - Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.
2. Depth signings for Lowell - Jay Leach, Jon DiSalvatore, Chad Wiseman, and the return of Scott Clemmensen to the Devils organization.
3. Re-signing Jay Pandolfo, Petr Vrana, and Bryce Salvador.

Notice that the team didn't sign any new defensemen. There's a common thought process I've noticed from Devils fans that the defense could use an upgrade for next season - an example of this was mentioned by Tom Gulitti after the initial free agency extravaganza. It's definitely a reasonable desire. After all, good is never as good as great; and even the best teams in the league in any sport can always find areas to upgrade. When Gulitti talked with Lou after the Salvador signing, the GM we trust says:

Lamoriello said the decision to re-sign Salvador doesn't mean he won't look to upgrade the defense through free agency or via trade. “This does not mean anything we have is status quo," he said. "This does not in any way say that. This is a foundation as far as getting better.”

If you take that to mean that Salvador is part of the Devils upgrading their defense, then I'm inclined to agree. Among the Devils blueliners, Salvador does bring experience - which is invaluable for a position like defenseman. He's also a solid, stay-at-home defenseman, of which the Devils do not have too many players of that type. The only other one I'd confidently say fits that style is Colin White. Most of the other defensemen are more all-around (note: that is not the same as two-way), decent defensemen. A full year of Salvador should prove to be a benefit.

Curiously, Lou said that the retainment of Salvador is not the only move he'll make, giving further fire to the thought that the Devils need an upgrade on defense. To a point, this makes sense. The Devils blueline - with 8 signed and 2 prospects who will be looked at closely in training camp - there doesn't seem to be a true puck-moving NHL-caliber defenseman in the group. Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya - two players who have really stepped up their game last season - showed flashes of that they could do it, but not enough to do so on a regular basis. Given that the Devils' transitional game relied a lot on guys like Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski to make that first pass or to lead the breakout, this has been a flaw in the Devils' offense.

Therefore, I think it's important to note that if the Devils trade for a defensemen - at this point, I think they will make a trade because they don't have a lot of cap space to sign someone significant right now - it should be for someone who specializes in passing, puck movement, puck control, puck poise, and other traits associated with that sort of thing. I would not expect your traditional "#1" defenseman to lead the blueline. While it would be great for the defense, those players don't just grow on trees. Such talent commands a high price in a trade, and I don't think it'd be worth giving up, say, Zach Parise for a stud defensemen like Jay Bouwmeester. If only because it would further reduce an already low goal-producing team just to improve the defense. Also, with the signing of Salvador, I don't think the Devils need another stay-at-home defenseman.

That all said, it's worth pointing out that the Devils' defense last year wasn't all that bad. On paper, it was littered with questions. "Can Martin really lead the defense?" "Will Johnny Oduya stop falling down and be a top 4 defenseman?" "Who in the hell are Mike Mottau, Andy Greene, and Sheldon Brookbank and why are they getting so many minutes?" "How will Karel Rachunek and Vitaly Vishnevski fit into the team?" (Answer to the last one: Not particularly well.) Questions aside, they did a lot better as a unit than one would think. While the goals against total was so low thanks to the Best Goalie in the World, Martin Brodeur, the defense did help him out. Yes, the opposition was more accurate than New Jersey, but the defense did enough to limit them to an average of 27.5 shots per game. That's good for eighth lowest in the league, and an average of .2 fewer shots per game would have put the team in the top 5 in that category. As excellent as Marty is (as well as John Madden and Pandolfo), that stat is primarily a result of the play of the blueline - and it's a pretty impressive one, I think.

The coaching staff did a great job handling 8 (and eventually 9) defensemen and having the unit play much better than it would look on paper. Interestingly enough, I think the defense will be better in a way should most of the same players stay together. Just like with forwards, defensemen build chemistry with each other. With improved communication, knowing just what your partner will do in various situation, and knowing what to do while your partner is along the boards or in front of the net or elsewhere, the defense as a whole will be much better. As the season went on, the individual players started performing with more confidence and providing better performances. The best example of this is Johnny Oduya, who went from depth defenseman with an unfortunate knack of falling down, to playing 20+ solid minutes with Paul Martin. The role of chemistry is invaluable among defensemen, just as it is with forwards. Coming into this season, Mottau, Brookbank, and Greene would all have had a full season of hockey. They could be even better this season now that they know what to expect. The same can go for Martin - who has grown into the #1 role for New Jersey - and Oduya - who has grown into playing well on the top pairing. The chemistry among these players will only be further solidified, short of a bizarre pairing changes at a constant rate.

So should the Devils continue to make upgrades, they shouldn't blow up the whole unit. Otherwise, you'll see just as the defense was in October - players all over the place positionally, leaving Marty out to dry on a regular basis. That wasn't good. Overall, they did rather well enough last season and the addition of one player who can move the puck fairly well on a regular basis would likely be the last piece of the proverbial puzzle. So, yes, I agree the unit could use an upgrade; but I don't think they were as bad as one may think by looking a lineup with Mike Mottau on the second pairing, averaging 20:03 a night. They did all right.

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In my own humble opinion.

Colin White has a serious eye injury that he is still dealing with. Salvador seems like a move to bolster the D and be insurance against White in case White is out for a time, or for good due to his injury (and I hope he is healthy).

Is Salvador that much better than Matvichuk? I believe Salvador is more expensive. 2.9 million per.

Andy Greene is on the hot seat to be a top 6 or traded. He is 27 in Oct. He had promise but really didn't impress that much last season. Looking at the Devils stock in D men, Corrente and Fraser are looking ready to at least have a shot at the NHL. Someone will have to go for them to have a crack. Greene has trade value. He is earning 600k and is a RFA next season. I would like to see more of Andy and hopefully see him blossom as a Defense man who can help the Offense.

Vishnevski, who had a good year last year, is earning 1.8 million. He is physical and solid, but again you have Lowell Devils nipping for a chance to play. I like Vishnevski but with so many D it can be psychologically weighty to think that if you mess up you are benched for another player, or three, that are behind you. If you are in Lowell then you believe that you will never see the NHL as a Devil because they are 8 deep. The Devils don't need that pressure, which they had last year. Too many Defense man is tricky. Trade for Draft picks and save some cash.

Oduya, Holik, Rupp, Gionta and Madden are UFA next season so having cap space is going to be needed. Trading a D-man for draft picks to free up cap space may be a good move.
Actually, Arlo, you hit on a good point about prospects/AHLers making a case for themselves in camp. The names that keep coming out of reports are Corrente, Eckford, and Anssi Salmela.
John, when the D prospects make a good impression what does this mean for the upcoming season? Guys like Greene, Mottau, Oduya, Brookbank are cheap against the cap, in their prime, and still have a possible upside - as do the prospects. The trouble is that the Devils have a lot of "could be" guys (except for Oduya who I believe has shown to be a keeper). Each of the others seem to be "hold your breath" players. The biggest question is who will blossom into a quality NHLer. That is why they can use 1 more proven D man who will solidify the D line. Perhaps someone like (maybe not him, but like) Luke Richardson signed for one year 500k. Give the Devils depth and room to assess the prospects and young NHLers like Greene and Brookbank.

Corrente has loads of talent and will probably be in Lowell. He needs to play hockey with his head and heart and stop dropping the gloves so often. He has missed too many games with stupid injuries, especially to the hands. He needs to mature and play with disciplined rage to be an NHLer.
That assessment of Corrente kind of sounds like a Scott Stevens in his early years. Not saying he will be the next great D-man but it sounds promising!
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