Tag: NJDevils

In Defense of “Stay-At-Home” Defenders (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bahl)

In Defense of “Stay-At-Home” Defenders (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bahl)

To get to my point I have to spend some time on the backstory.  The New Jersey Devils traded Taylor Hall.  I’ve made no secret that I am a Devils fan.  So, this trade hits very close to home for me.  While pundits and fans alike battled over what the return should be, I dug my heals in that the Devils needed to acquire, as a part of the deal, a really strong “shut down” defender.  When they acquired prospect Kevin Bahl, I was quite happy.  I got an alert about the trade while out at the mall, Christmas shopping with my fiance.  My initial reaction was, “They did it.  They got Bahl.  YES, perfect.”  By the time I got home, I had friends messaging me asking my input and they were shocked at my thrill.  A scan of twitter and the hockey “blogosphere” told me why.  A cascade of buzzwords flooded hockey twitter.  Phrases like “NHLe” and “no-offensive upside” dominated the conversation.  My moment of thrill and joy was shattered.  So if I sound like I took this trade a little personally for whatever reason, this is why.

The definition of a stay-at-home defender really depends who you’re talking to.  To many folks, the concept is outdated, and denotes a defender who isn’t top 4 potential.  That’s only partially true.  The truth of the matter is that there’s a gap in the talent caused by a few factors.  The NHL has changed the way it calls hooking, slashing, and interference in ways that favor the offensive player.  It’s all part of the NHL’s long quest to increase scoring.  These defenders who learned to defend under the old rule sets are having their tools taken away from them, and thus their effectiveness wanes.  Working in tandem with the rule changes is the fact that the speed of the game has increased.  With the game being faster, the big, slow defender has been left in the dust.  We see this around the league.  Scoring is up, but we also see numerous fan bases (The Devils included) clamoring for improved defense.  There just doesn’t seem to be enough talented, defensively capable, stay-at-home defenders available to go around.  The rule changes have hindered the effectiveness of some members of the current generation of NHL defenders as well as the prospects who came up playing their junior hockey under the older rules.  They learned and developed to play a style of game that no longer exists.  This is where your Samuel Morins and your Jamie Oleksiaks (and to some degree Erik Gudbranson) come into play.  They are big (6’6 and 6’7 respectively) defenders designed for the NHL of 2013, not 2020.  Therefore, in many eyes, the concept of the stay-at-home defender is also a concept not made for the NHL of 2020.  I don’t agree.  Instead, the talent level, skating ability and hockey IQ of the next generation of stay-at-home NHL defenders has to elevate to be able to accommodate today’s game.  Kevin Bahl is part of that next generation.

The “stay-at-home” or “shut down” defender also is a victim of modern analytics.  I engaged in a twitter exchange recently with Byron Bader, the creator of the NHLe Player Comparison tool.  Bader is someone whose opinion and work I have an immense amount of respect for and he’s a very good twitter follow.
bader exchange cleaned up
I talked to him about this tweet and he was gracious enough to respond.  In our discussion I asked if the lack of offensive upside would cause a big hit to NHLe rating.  He informed me that it definitely does.  With this information in hand, I decided to use his
NHLe Comparison tool to do some research of my own.  I went for comparisons of Bahl to players whom I would consider “successful shut-down defenders”

defensive defender comparions
You’ll notice under the players’ names the words “average producer” and “replacement producer.”  This brings me to my problem with the NHLe model for rating this kind of player.  According to the NHLe model,  Nikita Zadorov is a replacement level defenseman.  Chara and Johnson are “average.”  Chara is mostly here just for the sake of the outlier comparison although I don’t expect Kevin Bahl to be the next Chara.  However it does not seem unreasonable, given his size and skillset, to expect that he might be able to be the next Zadorov or Johnson.  In fact, in watching film he plays a lot like Nikita Zadorov.  That said, based on the NHLe model, Zadorov is “replacement level.”  If you watch the Colorado Avalanche at all, and you get the opportunity to watch how effective Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov are, you will understand where I’m going with this.  Colorado is an incredibly successful team right now and they’re very difficult to play against.  Zadorov and Johnson are a big part of that.  Their contributions to their team are beyond what I would consider “average” or “replacement level.”  There aren’t many like them in the league right now.  They’re big, strong, physical defenders who are also able to skate with forwards and take away offensive chances.   I challenge any hockey fan to watch these compilation videos of Zadorov and try to claim that is not a player they would want on their team.

The issue at hand is that the analytics crowd would tell you that Zadorov is a 3rd pairing defender.  However, his usage and minute consumption is clearly that of a top 4 defender.  Among Avalanche defenders, Zadorov averages the 3rd most minutes at 5 on 5 and the 4th most on the penalty kill.  Erik Johnson is 2nd in 5 on 5 and 1st on the penalty kill.  The actual usage, and contributions of these players, far exceeds their projections based on the NHLe analytic model.  This is because the model is based very heavily on the offensive production and contributions of a player.  I haven’t focused in on Johnson as much as Zadorov here, and that’s because Johnson is the pinnacle of what a stay-at-home/shut-down defender can be in the modern NHL.  Through 12 NHL seasons he has averaged over 22 minutes per game and often playing against the toughest competition the NHL has to offer.  All this while offering, give or take,  30 points per season.

My film review of Kevin Bahl tells me that he’s a player that is closer to a Nikita Zadorov than a Samuel Morin.  This type of player is becoming an endangered species in the NHL.  But they are still players that coaches, teammates and fans want to see, and CONVERSELY, opponents DO NOT want to see.  I’m not attempting to conclusively say that Kevin Bahl is the next Nikita Zadorov.  I am saying that my expectations for Bahl are based around the fact that this is the type of player he could become.  Because they are an endangered species, this type of player is incredibly difficult to find.  Trying to draft one, or project one, is always going to be a gamble.  However, the potential payoff, particularly for the New Jersey Devils, of having a big, strong, hard hitting defender to sure up their defensive zone play in the future, is a gamble that was worth taking.

What a New York Rangers Rebuild Might Look Like.

What a New York Rangers Rebuild Might Look Like.

(Writer’s Note: I’ve opted to avoid a lot of pictures, because this bad boy is going to be… wordy)

Much has been made about the Rangers decision to tear it all down.  Much analysis has been done about how Jeff Gorton went about dismantling the remnants of a team that made it to a final a few years ago and was a perennial playoff contender.  Many Rangers fans cannot remember the last time a true rebuild was done.  It might even be reasonable to say this is a true first for the MSG faithful.  But, one need only look across the river at their bitter rival, the New Jersey Devils, to see a road map to success.  Gorton certainly took the lessons of his Hudson River Rival GM.  The Rangers GM has seven picks in the first three rounds of a drafted loaded with top and middle tier talent.  The Rangers will be in a position to draft several franchise cornerstone type players to bolster their current prospect pool.

That existing prospect pool is where it gets interesting.  Continuing with the Devils example, GM Ray Shero inherited a prospect pool with no real blue-chip prospects and only four players with any considerable NHL viability.  Miles Wood and Blake Coleman have made their presences felt this season while Steven Santini and John Quenneville have yet to make a real heavy full-time impact for the Devils.  Other “top” prospects in the Devils’ system at the time have gone on to become career AHLers.  Aside from that, there were no really good quality young players already in the NHL either aside from Damon Severson.  In this regard, the 2018 offseason Rangers are miles ahead of where the 2015 offseason Devils began.

The Prospects

The Rangers prospect pool has an interesting mix of high potential ceiling players and a couple real blue-chip prospects.

Sean Day (D)
Day was taken 81st overall in the 2016 draft.  The Rangers had mortgaged the future to make another unsuccessful dash at a cup, so Day was their first pick in this draft.  The massive young defender has been a dominant physical player and point producer in the OHL.  This season he was part of a blockbuster trade between the Windsor Spitfires and the Kingston Frontenacs that also sent Gabriel Vilardi to Kingston.  Day has put up 45 points in 47 games and should be expected to grow to be an NHL contributor some day.

Tim Gettinger (LW/RW)
The Rangers snatched up Gettinger in the 5th round in 2016.  There were a few projections that had him going as high as the 2nd round.  The 6’6″, 203 pound, Ohio Born winger has been a constant contributor to the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds for the last 3 season.  What he might lack in foot speed, Gettinger more than makes up for using his reach and size in battles.  He could be a longer term project, but that might be ok if he hits the NHL around the same time as the Rangers’ 2018 draft picks.

Brandon Crawley (D)
Arguably the biggest surprise of the 2017 draft for the Rangers.  Rather than send him back to London, they opted to keep him close in Hartford.  His numbers in Hartford weren’t impressive or anything, but it’s worth noting that he hasn’t looked lost or outclassed as an 18-year-old pro.  Conventional logic dictates that he’s going to get more experience, more size and stronger.

Patrik Virta (C/RW)
The Rangers took a 7th round flyer on the Finnish forward in 2017.  The (at the time) 21-year-old already had 2 full seasons with TPS of the Finnish Liiga under his belt when the Rangers took him.  This year though, Virta was a breakout player finishing 3rd on the team in points with 40 in 58 games.  Virta could be one of those foreign players that comes completely out of no where in a couple of years.

Libor Hajek (D)
The big piece of the trade that sent JT Miller and Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay.  Libor projects as a future top-tier defender in the NHL.

Lias Andersson (C/W)
Andersson’s high-profile throwing away of his Silver medal should not outshine his performance at the WJC this season.  He was one of Sweden’s top players throughout the tournament and was dangerous from anywhere on the ice.  At worst he’s a future role player, and at best he’s the future leader of the team.

Filip Chytil (C/W)
Chytil seemed so close to sticking with the Rangers this season (I thought he would), but then he was sent down to Hartford of the AHL.  28 points in 41 games isn’t exactly tearing up the league, but it is another 18-year-old kid in his first professional season.  Chytil’s speed and abilities to create and gain open space are potentially game breaking if he can put it all together at the next level.

Adam Huska (G)
I’ve heard far less chatter about Huska than I have expected to after seeing him play a couple of times.  The 7th round pick in 2015 has been a real stalwart for the UConn Huskies for the last 2 seasons.  His NCAA numbers good.  He keeps his team in games and makes big saves.  He’s listed at 6’3, but when he stands in his crease he looks MASSIVE.  He has all the attributes you want to see from a future NHL goaltender and at 20 years old, he has time to develop at UConn before the Rangers have to make a decision on him.

What does this mean?
Three of the players listed above are defenders.  Combine that with Brady Skjei already on the roster and that Rangers could be set on defenders before they even draft in 2018.  They also have two definite future top 6 forwards, along with two guys with real potential to be role players on the team.  Those guys get added to a good core mix of players all under the age of 26.

Before we even talk about drafting players, with just the players listed above the 2019-2020 Rangers could look something like:

Filip Chytil – Mika Zibanejad – Pavel Buchnevich
Ryan Spooner – Lias Andersson – Jesper Fast
Chris Kreider – Vladislav Namestnikov – Kevin Hayes
Jimmy Vesey – Tim Gettinger – Patrik Virta

Libor Hajek – Kevin Shattenkirk
Brady Skjey – Sean Day
Marc Staal – Brandon Crawley

Henrik Lundqvist
Adam Huska

This is not really a depth chart.  It’s more of an example of how the Rangers could field a good young lineup with just the players they have in system, and the players they have on their current roster without 2018 draft picks.

The 2018 Draft
So the Rangers have:
3 – 1st rounders
2 – 2nd rounders
2 – 3rd rounders

They’re likely to have a top 10 pick and 2 picks in the 20-31 Range.  The IDEAL situation for the Rangers would be to win a lottery upgrade and get a top 3 pick, where they can select Filip Zadina.  Zadina would give them a real game changing scorer in system to couple with Andersson or Chytil.  For this next section though, we’re going to assume the Rangers do not move up in the draft and we’re going to assume they pick 8th.  There should be a plethora of exciting defensive prospects available at number 8. This draft is loaded with high-end defensive talent.  Defense is a spot where the Rangers appear to be strong, but adding another blue chip defensive prospect to the mix certainly couldn’t hurt them.  To that end the Rangers will probably want to select one of:
Evan Bouchard, Quinton Hughes, Ryan Merkley, Adam Boqvist, Noah Dobson, Bode Wilde, Jared McIssac.

All these players have the potential to become top-tier defenders at the next level.  For this example, the Rangers select puck moving, offensive dynamo, Ryan Merkley.  If Merkley falls to the Rangers when they pick, they almost have to select him.  He checks in under 6 feet tall, but he has the elite puck moving skills and puck carrying skills that teams covet in the modern NHL.  His defensive game needs development, but his puck moving and attacking capabilities, in a system with other young defensive prospects could make him a game changing player for New York.

The other 2 Rangers picks are from Tampa Bay and Boston.  Both teams expect to make deep playoff runs so those picks are likely to fall after pick number 25.  For our conjecture, we’re going to assume they’re picks number 28 and 30.  A spot where the Rangers are weak is right-wing depth.  There’s not a lot of true right wings in system, or at the top end of this draft.  With many teams gobbling up the defenders, there may be some surprise right wings left around the bottom of the first round.  German wing Dominik Bokk and Czech winger Martin Kaut are both worth the Rangers time to look into.  If Swiss wing Nando Eggenberger is available at this point, he too would be worth the look.  If big defender Kevin Bahl is still available, this might not be a bad time to take him.

With their first pick in the 2nd round the Rangers most assuredly should take Nathan Dunkley from Kingston of the OHL.  He’s almost worthy of first round consideration to be honest.  The move from Kingston to London this year hurt his numbers a bit, as he no longer had Jason Robertson to feed the puck to.  But Dunkley is an unselfish, tenacious forechecking center.  He’s the ideal complimentary piece to any line that has a dynamic scoring winger.  With the wings that the Rangers are likely to have in system after this draft, Dunkley is a slam-dunk.

With the second pick of the second round, the Rangers should keep chasing wing depth and take the huge Russian wing from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Yegor Sokolov.  In his first year in the QMJHL, Sokolov didn’t put up impressive numbers, but that’s not entirely uncommon for young Russian-born skaters in that league.  Sokolov’s size and strength are the elements that Rangers are looking at here.  The, not-yet-18-year-old checks in at 6’3 and 223 pounds.  There’s still room for a big power forward who’s not afraid to go to greasy areas.  This kid can be that.

The third round is a time for the Rangers to look for the best player available that suits their needs.  There’s going to be a bunch of solid future defenders remaining.  Filip Kral, Stanislav Demin, Michal Ivan, Ty Emberson and Xavier Bouchard are all worth picks in this round at the defender position.  If the Rangers are looking to add forward depth, Swiss players Jeremi Gerber and Philip Kurashev could still be available here, while 6’8 giant Curtis Douglas also figures to be available.

Lets figure then, that the Ranger’s draft goes something like this:
1st round: Ryan Merkley(D), Martin Kaut(RW), Kevin Bahl(D)
2nd round: Nathan Dunkley(C), Yegor Sokolov(RW)
3rd round: Filip Kral(D), Jeremi Gerber(RW)

These 7 players all add depth in places where the Rangers are currently a little weak.  Right Wing is a place of special concern and having defensive depth is the life-blood of successful franchises.

The Future, When?
The development time of these prospects can be anywhere from 1 to 5 years, but 2-3 has been the norm for young players lately.  This means that by 2019-2020 the Rangers could be seeing all of their good prospects currently in system and their best prospects from this draft ready to go with the team ready to make another real stab at the playoffs by 2020-2021.  That 3 year turnaround would find the Rangers with the majority of their current core still in the primes of their careers.  So, Rangers fans, based on this time-table and this conjecture, your team will be able to turn it all around in 3 seasons or less.  In the grand scheme of the NHL that’s quite good, and the team that comes out on the other side is just plain scary.  Look forward to it, it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Devils Should Bring Gionta Back to the Beginning.

Devils Should Bring Gionta Back to the Beginning.

Do you know who the Franchise record holder for goals in a single season is for the New Jersey Devils?  It’s Brian Gionta with 48 back in 2005-2006.  Brian Gionta’s tenure with the New Jersey Devils is a fond memory for some fans.  In 7 seasons in a Devils uniform, Gionta tallied 312 points in 473 games while truly embodying the blue-collar, hard-working style that was synonymous with the Devils.

Those days are long behind him now.  Since he last suited up for the Devils in 2009, Brian Gionta has gone on to Captain two franchises (Montreal and Buffalo) and compete in a total of 1006 NHL regular season contests.  Since leaving the Devils, with the exception of an injury shortened 2012 campaign, and the lockout shortened 2013 season, Gionta has NEVER produced less than 33 points in season.  He also has brought much-needed leadership, work ethic and depth to the franchises he’s been a part of.


He didn’t get a contract this summer.  With rumors swirling about the NHL not participating in the Olympics, Gionta was contacted and asked to stay in shape.  At the Winter Classic, Gionta was named as the captain of the United States 2018 Olympic Team.  While not only a great honor for Gionta, it’s a chance to show that at 39 years old he still has some gas in the tank.  He might even have gas in the tank for 1 more playoff push after the Olympics.  This is where the Devils come into the picture.


Devils fans can be an interesting bunch.  One peculiarity that I can speak to from personal experience though, is that they love their links to the glory of days gone by.  Devils Alumni from the 1995, 2000 and 2003 cup teams are revered by the fan base, and are always favorite guests at events.  Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias are practically team royalty, capable of doing no wrong in the eyes of fans who will forever remember them as cup hoisting heroes.  At 39 years of age, Brian Gionta is the last member of the 2003 Devils squad that is still an active hockey player.

The 2018 Devils are a young team.  The only players over the age of 30 on the active roster are: Brian Boyle, Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, Drew Stafford, Travis Zajac, and Cory Schneider.  There’s not a tremendous amount of playoff experience on this roster outside of Lovejoy and Boyle.  The Devils find themselves right in the mix for the 2018 playoffs as the new year dawns.  Brian Gionta brings a veteran presence and a hard work ethic that fits in with what the Devils have been doing all season.  It’s also worth noting that Gionta is a right-handed shooter.  The only right-handed forwards on the Devils’ roster currently are:  Kyle Palmieri, Stefan Noesen, Jimmy Hayes, Travis Zajac and Drew Stafford.  Stafford and Hayes have fallen out of favor as the season has gone on and found themselves as healthy scratches often.  This means, with regularity, the Devils are only dressing three right handed shooting forwards per night.  While Hayes and Stafford do add some wing depth, it seems likely that the Devils GM might look to move one or both of them at the trade deadline.  Brian Gionta is solid, capable, right-handed wing depth that can be added without having to part with any assets to obtain him.

IF Gionta has a strong showing at the Olympics, Devils General Manager, Ray Shero, should bring Gionta back to where it all began.  Brian Gionta should suit up in the red and black one final time, for one last improbable run at hoisting Lord Stanley’s cup.

The Captain Came Back

The Captain Came Back

For the last three seasons, the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL have been a real contender in the OHL.  This was due, in no small part, to the contributions of last season’s captain, Michael Mcleod.  In back to back seasons in Mississauga, Mcleod averaged over a point per game while also being one of the top 2-way centers in the OHL.

In the 2016 NHL Draft the New Jersey Devils selected “Mikey” Mcleod 12th overall, and later selected fellow Mississauga standout Nathan Bastian.  It seemed as though a course was set for these two close friends and fellow Steelheads to break into the NHL.  Therefore, it seemed as though last season would be Mikey’s final one in a Trout jersey.  He gave the Trout faithful a heck of a ride though, scoring 27 goals and 46 assists through 57 regular season games, then adding an exclamation point of 27 points and a +17 rating through 20 playoff games on their way to the final round loss to the Champion Erie Otters.

In the NHL, the New Jersey Devils struggled through 2016-17.  Over the summer the draft lottery awarded them the first overall pick in the 2917 draft.  They took Swiss phenom, Nico Hischier, a center from the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL.  Further additions to the Devils’ roster created a logjam of forwards.  Where six months before it seemed that Mcleod was a surefire lock to make the Devils opening night roster, instead he found himself locked in an intense competition.  Appearing to struggle a bit, Mcleod’s aspirations were further hampered by an injury sustained against the New York Islanders.  On September 25th, Mcleod went down with a torn meniscus in his left knee.  The injury required surgery to repair, Mcleod was speculated to mix 4-6 weeks.

In those 4-6 weeks, The New Jersey Devils have gotten off to one of the hottest starts in franchise history and are among the top teams in the NHL.  Young rookie forwards Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier have dazzled coaches, fans and scouts alike with their maturity and adaptation to the NHL game.  AHL veteran Brian Gibbons has finally stuck in the NHL after a breakout camp, while other younger fringe players like Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen have asserted themselves in bottom line roles.  The Devils find themselves with nowhere on their roster to place Mcleod.

Conventional logic says that McLeod would be sent to the AHL to join Nathan Bastian and other former OHL standouts like Blake Speers, Josh Jacobs, MacKenzie Blackwood and Colton White.  However, Michael’s birthday is February 3rd, 1998.  This makes him 19 years old, forcing him to fall under the NHL-CHL agreement where a player aged 18-19, not retained by their NHL club, is to be sent back to their CHL club to fulfill their contractual obligation.

And so, the Mississauga faithful will get to see Captain Michael Mcleod suit up in the Blue and White once again.  This boost couldn’t come at a better time for the Steelheads who currently find themselves mired in 7th in the Eastern Conference.  The return of their great Captain could be the spark that the trout need to turn their season around and make a run at an OHL Title.