New Jersey Devils leaning heavily on young group of defensemen

By John Iadevaia

Jon Merrill - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Defenseman Jon Merrill has dealt with injuries and inconsistencies in his sophomore NHL season. In 31 games, Merrill has two goals, seven assists, and a minus-10 rating. (courtesy of Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

 

It has not been a good season for the New Jersey Devils, as the team has fallen out of playoff contention and appears to be in transition. While the season may soon be lost, the team’s mindset now shifts to see the growth and development of their talented, young defensemen. There have been some growing pains along the way, along with some surprises earlier in the year, but the organization is giving the young players the responsibility, ice time, and patience needed to grow and become NHL players.

Damon Severson, D, 20

Similar to Eric Gelinas‘ breakout last year, Damon Severson became the Devils biggest impact player from game one of the 2014-15 season. He not only surprised many by making the opening night roster out of training camp, but he was paired with Andy Greene on the first pair to create a formidable even strength duo. The former Kelowna standout not only showed how dangerous he was attacking but impressed with his defending and controlling the pace of the game.

Throughout October Severson played brilliantly, but opposing teams eventually adjusted to him, and his production slowed. However, he continued to make an impact at even strength, even as New Jersey began to tumble down the standings. After 32 games played, he collected four goals, 12 points, a minus-four rating, and 16 penalty minutes.

On December 6th in a game against the Washington Capitals, Severson blocked a shot from Alexander Ovechkin which fractured his ankle, but he somehow continued to play through the injury for the next few games. It was finally discovered that he suffered a hairline fracture and would be sidelined for the next four to five months.

Seth Helgeson, D, 24

Seth Helgeson began the season in Albany before he was called up to New Jersey after Bryce Salvador was sidelined to a lower-body injury. He played 21 games and added two assists along with a plus-three rating and 16 penalty minutes. Like Salvador, Helgeson was brought in for his physical, responsible play. Thus far, he needs to continue adjusting to the NHL, but he is showing signs of development on the third pairing. Some areas he has struggled in are handling quick forwards on one-on-one rushes and positioning miscues in the defensive zone. Yet he has shown flashes of what he can bring like his coverage on an improving penalty kill unit. He was recently sent back down to Albany but he will return to New Jersey soon enough.

Jon Merrill, D, 22

Coming off a strong rookie season, Jon Merrill looked to cement his spot within the Devils top-four. It has been a bumpy first half for the second year pro as injuries continue to trouble his career. Back in September, he suffered a head injury, missing most of training camp as a precaution. Later in November 1st match versus Columbus, he was slashed on the arm and missed the rest of the month as a result.

When he was in the lineup, Merrill received a heavy workload. He was averaging well over 20 minutes a night under Peter DeBoer facing top competition like he did last year. However, his quality of play wavered as New Jersey continued to struggle as a team. It seemed as if Merrill was overwhelmed and overplayed then, but he has markedly looked a bit sluggish on a few nights this season. One notable breakdown was against Washington on December 20th when Ovechkin deked past him to score a highlight reel goal. Another was back in October when he was a minus-five against Pittsburgh.

Since DeBoer was relieved of his duties, Merrill’s ice time has decreased. One of the reasons has been Adam Larsson‘s resurgence on the Devils blue line, but the Michigan native has looked more comfortable since the holiday break as he remains in the Devils top-four. In 31 games played, he has nine points, a minus-10 rating, and 14 penalty minutes.

Eric Gelinas, D, 23

It is difficult for a rookie who came in with a bang in his first season to have the same impact in the second year. For Gelinas last year, he shot out like a cannon but slowed down towards the end of the season. His defensive coverage was an issue last season and it has persisted into 2014-15.

Gelinas was one of the three young defensemen (along with Merrill and Larsson) that were going to get extensive time to start the year. Then Severson forced his way into the lineup and threw a wrench in that plan. As his steady play made him a lock to play every game, Gelinas went in and out due to his inconsistency. Now the 6’4, 215 pound blueliner has been using the body more this season and remains a viable source for scoring, especially with his booming shot. However, he continues to suffer defensive lapses. Thus, his ice time in games varies pending on the circumstances of the game. On December 17th against Ottawa, he played 26:38 then only saw 6:36 seven days later against. On the season, he has played in 32 games, has scored 11 points, 68 shots, 22 penalty minutes and has a plus-one rating.

2015 World Junior Tournament Update

There was much intrigue when Miles Wood made the Team USA roster for the World Junior Championship. Despite being a highly touted player from the high school level, there was concern how he would handle playing amongst junior, college, and NHL players his same age.

While he did not find his name on the scoresheet, Wood did not look out of place throughout the tournament. He was mainly used in the bottom six where he provided a physical presence on the ice. He did get into trouble against Canada and Russia by visiting the penalty box which resulted in goals against, but he normally does not play that role despite playing admirably at it. Overall, he played in five games, taking three minor penalties and finished with a plus-one rating.

The experience will certainly help Wood as he finishes his final year at Noble & Greenough before shipping up to Boston College next season.

Other Notes and Signings

Defenseman Steve Santini was not medically cleared in time to partake in the World Juniors tournament, but he has returned to the Boston College lineup. He returned to the blue line on January 10th against Northeastern where he played on the third pair with Noah Hanifin. Santini recorded his first assist of the season as BC won 4-2 over the Huskies.

On January 14th, the New Jersey Devils signed free agent prospect Joseph Blandisi to a three-year entry-level contract. Blandisi was originally a part of the Colorado system but the club did not sign him over the summer. Blandisi is in the midst of an excellent season with Barrie of the OHL where he is among the league leaders in scoring. He adds depth to the forward position and adds some quality to the system that desperately needs it amongst their forward prospects.

Prospect of the Month

New Jersey Devils Prospect of the Month - Reid BoucherA strong finish to 2014 seems to have rejuvenated AHL forward Reid Boucher. The streaky scorer has been mired in a cold streak since the season started and has been very unlucky despite being an active shooter. He was recalled to New Jersey for four games during the fall but he was not able to find his scoring touch there. It seems he found it when he returned to Albany as he was red hot in December with seven goals and nine points in 10 games. Now comes the hard part for Boucher, maintaining that execution on a consistent basis in the second half of the season.