In previous posts, I have often marveled at the defensive depth the Devils possess in their system. While all those defensemen who will battle for roster spots have their strengths and weaknesses, the front office should be thrilled to know that servicable NHLers will be ready in Albany if any injuries occur. There are plenty of d-men who will have to prove, through practices, scrimmages and preseason games, that they should be in the opening night lineup. Today, we will discuss the men who shouldn’t have to battle for spots, and will surely be important pieces in the lineup come the start of the regular season.
Anton Volchenkov: Perhaps the Devils’ best defenseman, Volchenkov battled injuries last season, but was able to play in 57 games. While he did not score a goal, the “A-Train” (or whatever you would like to call him) did have eight assists, and a +3 rating as well. However, scoring and production should not be expected in any great quantity from Volchenkov. When he is at his best, there aren’t many defensemen in the NHL you would rather have out on the ice with a lead to protect (or a penalty kill to overcome), as he is arguably the best shot-blocker in the NHL and an outstanding defensive defenseman. Hopefully he can stay healthy throughout this year, as the Devils want Volchenkov, who best embodies their style over the past two decades, in the lineup every game.
Truthfully, there is no one else I could put in this category for next season. Bryce Salvador has bordered on this in his time here, but we are not sure what to expect from him, or even if he will be in the lineup on opening night. Mark Fayne was probably the closest to this amongst other defensemen; however, he still has work to do with shutting down the opposition defensively, as Volchenkov has done so brilliantly his whole career.
Andy Greene: Let me start by saying this: the Andy Greene of 2010-2011 was not in this category. I have stated, in fact, my belief that he was probably the most disappointing Devil of last season in what was a very disappointing year. However, Greene received a four-year, $12 million contract this offseason based on what the Devils know he can provide to their defensive corps. This year saw a drop in goals and assists for him, as well as, most noticably, a -23 rating, a -32 drop from his +9 in 2009-2010. When Greene is at his best, he could potentially serve as a first liner (he has a very strong chance of doing so alongside Volchenkov this season), and can also bring production to the Devils’ powerplay. Hopefully, we see the Andy Greene of old emerge this year; while he was never “excellent”, he certainly was much better than his horrid performance from last season. If he plays similarly to 2010-2011, however, the Devils might have wasted $3 million over the next four years.
Henrik Tallinder: In the final three months of 2010 (the first three of the season), there was no one on the defensive corps I was more frustrated with than Tallinder; even more, in fact, than the aforementioned Greene. Going into 2011, the former Sabre had a horrendous -23 to show for his first three months in Devils’ red, and his four-year deal worth $3.375 million a season looked like an absolute waste. However, as if a gigantic weight suddenly dropped from his shoulders, Tallinder remarkably turned his season around completely. This came with the addition of rookie Mark Fayne to the lineup; once he and Tallinder found the necessary chemistry on their line, the Swede took off. While his point production has never been anything to write home about, it was his defensive play that saw a remarkable turnaround. Tallinder recorded a +17 in the three and a half months of play in 2011, and played up to his questionable contract. How about a stat to show his importance in New Jersey: in wins, the Swede was a +28 last season; in losses, a -34.
Mark Fayne: If anyone questions, based on his lack of a full year of experience, Fayne’s place on this list, they should, at the least, be convinced by what he did for Tallinder last season. In 57 games last year, the 24-year-old recorded four goals and ten assists, to go along with an impressive +10 rating. Fayne showed some offensive prowess in his time in New Jersey, and eventually did earn some opportunities on the powerplay. Defensively, he was never overwhelmed; truthfully, you could make the argument that Fayne was one of the Devils’ best two defensemen overall last year. There really cannot be any argument otherwise; he must be paired with Tallinder once again next season, as the two looked extremely comfortable playing alongside each other during the team’s tremendous run last season.
These three are certainly capable of playing on the Devils’ top two defensive lines next season; in fact, I expect them to do just that. Come opening night, I would think Volchenkov and Greene are paired on the first line, and Tallinder with Fayne on the second. Both of these lines feature two defensemen that compliment each other perfectly; Volchenkov’s defensive prowess compliments Greene’s scoring ability, while Tallinder’s experience and hockey sense compliments Fayne’s youth, energy and forechecking strength.
This is just the first of what should be four posts regarding the Devils’ defensive depth. The four defensemen I just covered should all see much playing time from the get-go, and have the ability to make a huge difference throughout the season. Next, I will cover two defensemen who ran into injury issues at some point last year: Bryce Salvador and Matt Taormina. Both have shown talent, when healthy, in New Jersey (especially Salvador, obviously), and now the question surrounding both is whether they should be ready by the season opener, as well as whether they will be able to stay healthy throughout (in Taormina’s case, he may have to start off in Albany regardless of his health).
I have looked forward to documenting the surplus of servicable (at the least) defensemen in the system for a while now, and I will try and give as detailed an outlook as possible over these four posts (and potentially more).