The New Jersey Devils have changed up the defensive pairings pretty much every year. They’ve undergone changes on the defense every season. They went into the 2017-18 with Andy Greene as the top defenseman, with Damon Severson and Will Butcher as top options. They traded for Sami Vatanen in the first few months to give themselves another top guy. The next season, Severson really took that top spot. Then, they traded for P.K. Subban in 2019. He didn’t work, so they added a veteran Dmitri Kulikov and a rookie Ty Smith to bring hope to the blue line. That next offseason, Tom Fitzgerald paid out the ear for the services of Dougie Hamilton and traded for Ryan Graves.
None of these moves made the Devils a good defense. That’s a lot of moves, but there were always issues. From 2019 to 2022, no team has given up more goals at 5v5 than the New Jersey Devils. They allowed 495 goals, 12 more than the Detroit Red Wings at number 31.
In the 2022 offseason, Fitzgerald surprised everyone when he sent Ty Smith and a third-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for John Marino. It was a surprise for its impact on the lineup (putting Severson down in the lineup), but it also showed a sell-low tactic on Ty Smith.
This might end up being Fitzgerald’s best move short of taking Dawson Mercer in the NHL Draft. Marino fit right into the lineup. There were parts of the first half of the season where he looked like one of the best defensemen in the league.
Marino had some struggles in the middle of the season, but he turned it around towards the end of the year. That success followed him in the playoffs, where he was largely the Devils best defenseman. He led the team in time on ice, playing 215 minutes in 12 games. He has one legitimately bad game, Game 1 of the Carolina Hurricanes series. In Game 5, with the Devils facing elimination, Lindy Ruff played Marino more than 30 minutes.
Next year, the Devils have two major decisions to make. Damon Severson and Ryan Graves are both free agents. Do the Devils want to commit to either of them, knowing there are teams that will pay for their services, or do they want to commit to Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes in the NHL lineup?
Hughes is a formality. He’s making the NHL lineup from day one. He proved he belongs in his short stint in the playoffs. And this is why Marino is going to be the top defenseman for the Devils. He will be paired with Luke Hughes this season. When looking at the right-handed defensemen, the Devils will likely pair Hughes with Marino.
The other two options, Hamilton and likely Nemec, play too similar a game to Hughes. It would be a chaotic mess when they are on the ice. They would be high-volume offense and barely any defense. So, pairing Hughes with Marino allows him to spend time with a safe defenseman who knows where to go on the offensive side.
Marino is going to be the top option next season. He will be their main penalty killer, and he will be paired with Luke Hughes. After one year of learning Ruff’s system, he should be even better next season.