The New Jersey Devils tried multiple partners for Luke Hughes this offseason, including fellow top-five pick Simon Nemec. Hughes seemed like he made the most sense with defensive dynamo John Marino, but an injury has him playing below his normal ability. So, he’s found his way on the third line with a surprising partner.
For the Devils last preseason game against the New York Rangers, Luke Hughes was paired with veteran defenseman Brendan Smith. The rest of the lineup looks like it will be the same as the opening night lineup, so we can assume the same for the defensive pairings.
It’s not ideal, as Smith was expected to be the seventh defenseman coming into the season. It seemed like a lock that either veteran Colin Miller or rookie Simon Nemec would be the Devils third right-handed defenseman.
After a pretty disastrous preseason, Miller played himself out of a starting job. He had the worst high-danger chance percentage at just 35% (according to Natural Stat Trick). Only Graeme Clarke and Justin Dowling were worse at the stat, and they are both in Utica now. Miller was allowing terrible chances, and he likely lost his chance to pair with the youngest Hughes brother, at least for now.
Smith is a fine enough defenseman for his role. He can come into and out of the lineup and play at the same level. That level is basically a replacement level, which is fine for a seventh defenseman. It’s not so great when he’s trying to replace the production of Damon Severson (although Luke Hughes will do a lot more to help with that). What’s even worse is Smith is forced to play on his offhand.
Smith is a left-handed defenseman trying to keep up with the also left-handed Luke Hughes. It gives the Devils an instant disadvantage. Of course, they can overcome this, but it forces them to work around those issues.
It’s something we didn’t think would be an issue. Many outside the Devils beat have said the losses of Severson and Ryan Graves will hurt this team. As of right now, it seems like the Devils biggest hole will be at that third right-handed spot. That is a huge hole across the league, as there isn’t a ton of depth at the position.
Overall, it will be fine. Miller will get a chance eventually. Hughes could be with Marino by game number three. Kevin Bahl has earned his chance in the top four. This isn’t the end of the world, but it is worth mentioning this is not at all what we expected.