The New Jersey Devils are heading into the regular season with a strong team that’s ready to prove that they’re worthy contenders for the Stanley Cup. Their offense is intimidating, with one of the strongest forward groups in the NHL. Right now, one of the question marks with this team is the right side of the third-line defense.
The left side of the bottom pairing is set with Luke Hughes. While it seemed like he’d be a great fit with John Marino in a top-four pairing, Kevin Bahl earned that job in the preseason. Hughes might not be ready for that pairing, although he likely will someday.
The right side of the bottom pairing, though, is now somewhat of a hole. Last year, that was Damon Severson’s job. He’s now a Columbus Blue Jacket. The fact that Severson is now on the Blue Jackets’ second line shows how strong the Devils were defensively last season. Dougie Hamilton is among the top offensive defensemen in the NHL right now, and John Marino has developed into a reliable shutdown defender. The right side was stacked.
Heading into training camp without Severson occupying the right side of the third line, it was Colin Miller’s job to lose. He failed to impress during the preseason, which prompted Lindy Ruff to slide veteran Brendan Smith into the role next to Luke Hughes. Smith will be getting the reps beside Hughes for now.
Considering Smith was supposed to be the seventh defenseman on the team, this is not ideal. What makes this particularly troublesome is Smith is playing on his offhand side. He’s done it before, but it’s not the best plan. It signals a weakness for the Devils on the right side of the defense.
What are the Devils’ options? Well, Simon Nemec earned a spot on the NHL roster but was sent down to Utica. He deserves to be on the roster, but Lindy Ruff won’t pair Nemec with Hughes. He won’t put the two rookies together, and frankly, that’s understandable even though good Nemec looks right now. So he’s not the answer…yet. In the meantime, he’ll get more reps for growth in the AHL than he would as a seventh defenseman in the NHL.
The answer could be that Smith does well enough, and maybe this pairing won’t hurt the defense. His veteran presence could be a good thing for Hughes. If he limits the penalties and stays out of his own way, this line might work.
Another answer could be Miller getting another look and panning out. It’s a long season, and he’s not going to stay in the press box forever. If he makes the most of his next chance and shows the Devils something great, he could end up being Hughes’ partner after all.
Do the Devils need to hit the market for a strong right-handed defenseman? It’s possible that Smith or Miller won’t get the job done as a regular third-line defensive match with Hughes. If the pairing of Hughes/Smith or Hughes/Miller starts to hurt the Devils, they should look for an upgrade at the position.
If they choose to look elsewhere, a rental would be the way to go. They shouldn’t trade for a defenseman who has significant time left on a contract. That could create a situation where Simon Nemec is blocked from making the jump to the NHL. That third-line spot should be his in the not-too-distant future, so it wouldn’t make sense to trade for a player who would be in Nemec’s way.
It’s hard to replace the production that Severson brought to the table, but the Devils are strong enough up and down the lineup that this might be a non-issue. For now, the Devils will see how Hughes and Smith do as a pair in the regular season.