How many times have fans heard “offense wins games, defense wins championships” or “if we score, we might win, if they never score, we can’t lose?” These quotes and others like them emphasize the correlation between defense and a team’s success. Look back at any Stanley Cup Final match-up, and in every scenario, the team with the better defense won the series.
The New Jersey Devils’ defense has been in question since the departure of Ken Daneyko, Scott Stevens, and Scott Niedermayer. There have been some impressive moments, but mostly it has been a revolving door of players like Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas who were projected to be the solution to the defense but never played to their expectations. It seems that this season the Devils finally have found the pieces they have desperately been missing on the blueline.
The defense looks completely different than it did last season, which is a good thing. General manager Tom Fitzgerald put in work this offseason and brought size and strength to his defense. Of course, like anything new, there is an adjustment period.
“We just gotta get better, we have given up too many odd number situations, said Coach Lindy Ruff when asked about his team’s defense. “Most coaches don’t like chances against, I’m one of those who didn’t like some of the chances we gave up. Some of that is puck management, that has nothing to do with the defense. Some of it is a few players in previous games skated by us. We are working on our game and will continue to work. Our defense is almost totally retooled from last year, and it’s an area we will continue to work on.”
It appears that Ruff will keep the newest Devils defenders together as the teams’ first pairing. Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves have both been a pleasant surprise in the first few games for New Jersey. Both players came with high expectations, and fans have liked what they have seen so far.
Dougie Hamilton & Ryan Graves
As fans know, Dougie Hamilton was the big offseason acquisition. He previously played for the Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames, and Boston Bruins. The 6-foot-6 defenseman finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting last season and seventh the season prior. On July 15, 2021, Fitzgerald traded for 26-year-old Ryan Graves, who played three seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, appearing in 149 games and earning 46 points. He was paired with Cale Makar, who won the Calder Trophy in 2020 and was nominated for the Norris Trophy in 2021.
It has only been eight games, but both defensemen have delivered. Hamilton scored his first goal as a Devil 17 seconds into their season opener and currently leads the team with four assists and six points. Graves has shown he is a reliable defenseman who can make stretch passes down the ice and jump into the play when necessary.
With all the spotlight on Hamilton this summer, it appears fans are only now realizing how brilliant Fitzgerald was trading for Graves. The 6-foot-5 defenseman has been Ruff’s top choice on the penalty kill averaging a little over three minutes of ice time, which leads all Devils. He appears to be the stay-at-home defender the Devils have been desperately looking for.
Graves told me that New Jersey’s system is quite different from Colorado, and it’s been an adjustment to learn Ruff’s system. Once he and Hamilton feel more comfortable playing together in New Jersey, this pairing will only improve. Hamilton will continue to quarterback the first power-play unit, and Graves will be the go-to on the penalty kill.
Ty Smith & Damon Severson
Ty Smith and Damon Severson are the only defensive pairing that returned from last season. Severson has been with the Devils since the 2014-15 season and is the longest-tenured player on the roster. Smith is the youngest player on the Devils’ blue line and begins his sophomore season in the NHL. Last season he finished seventh in Calder Trophy voting earning 25 votes.
Last season Smith finished second on the team with assists with 21. This season he missed training camp due to an injury and only appeared in five games. He’s had a rough go so far, but that does not mean he won’t improve with time. He told the media there are no excuses and looks to simplify things and compete.
Fans can expect to see more of the same from Severson. He’s had his share of highlight-reel moments but has endured the large task of being part of the top pairing going against the best of the NHL. Most likely, he will be part of the Devils’ second defensive pairing and will see a drop in ice time compared to previous seasons. Until Smith finds his game, it will be up to Severson to find consistency during their time on the ice.
P.K. Subban & Jonas Siegenthaler
The Devils received both these players via trade. P.K. Subban came to New Jersey on June 22, 2019, and Jonas Siegenthaler on April 11, 2021. This is the only defensive pairing that has remained intact through the first few games. Subban is the oldest player on the blue line at 32 and believes his team received a great young defenseman in Siegenthaler.
“I think it was kind of a steal for us, honestly, to get a guy like that with his size who can play in kind of all situations,” said Subban. “I compare him, and I told him this in training camp, that when I look at him, I see him as a (Mattias) Ekholm type player. I think that’s the guy he can be. I think he can be like that, he has a tremendous upside, and the sky is the limit.”
Siegenthaler has not registered a point this season but has shown he can play a physical game and a willingness to stand up for his teammates when needed. Subban has three assists on the season and told media he has been happy with his game and takes pride in helping guys out.
The Devils defense has a long way to go but has vastly improved. If Hamilton can play well under the microscope that came with his $63 million contract, it will allow other players to quietly perfect their game. What players and fans can agree on is there is excitement surrounding the Devils this season.
“This is the most excited I have been since I have been in New Jersey with our defensive core,” said Subban. “It’s exciting to play with these guys, I mean, I am comfortable playing with anyone on our defense. This is the best defense I’ve seen since I’ve been here. We are really confident going into games that we can defend against any team, and the coaching staff has shown a lot of confidence in all three pairings.”
The Devils will continue their California road trip and face the Los Angeles King on Friday at 10:30 EST. It has not been confirmed, but they may be without Hamilton as he left last night’s game in the first period with a lower-body injury.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and covers both the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly Youtube show produced by THW. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettosBlog and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.