Being that the Devils are at the half-way point of the season (OK, a couple games past it but cut us some slack), we decided to do some “grades” for this team. Originally, this was supposed to be one full post, but after compiling them, it seems better to break them up into different pieces today. Earlier, we gave you our grades for the forwards. Next up, the defensemen.
(Disclaimer: All “grades” comments are usually entirely too general and tend to omit more detail than normal, so apologies in advance if we left a player out.)
Corey: The defensive unit is much easier to grade than the forwards, mostly because of how woefully insufficient the back end has been this season. It was apparent earlier in the season that this group of defensemen was clearly a step slower, but, thankfully for them, Martin Brodeur was there to clean things up. Once Brodeur went down, things got ugly and we saw how truly deficient this group of defensemen is. First, there’s the captain, Bryce Salvador, whose play has sagged greatly in recent weeks. Perhaps coincidentally, we learned that Salvador’s been playing hurt since the last week of February, which is about the time he started overloading in the defensive zone, missing assignments and losing strength on his passes and shots. Riding shotgun with Salvador in the “sudden degeneration” club is Mark Fayne, whose game has slipped noticeably since he left the team to attend to a death in the family a few weeks ago. I’m not certain whether it’s a mental thing or whether the compact schedule has gotten to Fayne, but he’s become such an untrustworthy figure that Pete DeBoer has now opted for Peter Harrold over Fayne. If that doesn’t say it all, I’m not sure what does.
While Salvador and Fayne started solidly before devolving into poor play, players like Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Marek Zidlicky and Harrold represent a middle ground of sorts. The three of them “are what they are.” Volchenkov and Tallinder are lumbering, slow-footed defenders who each bring their own unique skill to the Devils’ blue line. Volchenkov is basically a shot vacuum in his own zone, willing to use every inch of 6-foot-1 frame to block shots. Tallinder has an offensive side to his game with some nice vision and a solid shot that adds a different dimension to the Devils’ third defensive pairing. Harrold – well, he’s Harrold. His ceiling is average defensive play and hopefully a guy who won’t lose you the game. The guy with the highest ceiling of this group and biggest impact over the first half the season is probably Zidlicky, who mans the point on the Devils’ inconsistent-at-best power play. Zidlicky has shown an aggressiveness in his game recently that was missing for the early part of the season. I think he’s the defensemen that could most affect the Devils’ chances down the stretch run.
That only leaves two players: Adam Larsson and Andy Greene, who I think most Devils fans would agree have been the best of a bad bunch through the first half. Larsson hasn’t been nearly the offensive presence that I hoped he would be this season, but his ability in his own zone has increased to the point where DeBoer is now using him to hide or shore up a lesser partner. When paired with Greene, the two of them make up the Devils’ best pairing. I’d still like to see him get involved in the play in the offensive zone more in the second half, but I’ll take what he’s given over most of the other defensemen on the roster. Greene, meanwhile, I don’t have much to say about – and that’s a good thing. He’s been far and away the Devils’ best defender all season. He’s smart, he’s got solid speed and he’s made some good passes in the neutral zone to set up odd-man rushes. At this point, there’s not much more Devils fans can expect out of him. Unfortunately for those fans, there’s not much else here to write home about. … GRADE: D-
Pat: It is quite impressive that New Jersey has won so many games with its defense playing so atrociously. Henrik Tallinder’s been down-right terrible, Marek Zidlicky is evidently unaware he’s supposed to play defense and maybe both have rubbed off on Bryce Salvador.
The Devils’ goal-differential is minus-10— New Jersey’s allowed 47 goals in 14 games— and their defense must wear that shamefully.
Zidlicky is minus-6, and Salvador is minus-5 this year— he hasn’t been a minus player since 2008-09 and was a plus-18 last year. There’s a possibility that Salvador’s been nursing an injury based on the penalties he’s taken. It’s also a possibility the pressure of wearing the ‘C’ is wearing on him.
If you treat defense like baseball teams treat relief pitching— good in spells, bad in spells, extraordinarily valuable— you realize there isn’t much that can be done without these guys either sitting or simply playing better.
Peter Harrold was bad Saturday but good Sunday. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene have been fine. But that hasn’t been good enough. Don’t expect a trade to alleviate these problems either. ... GRADE: D