While the New Jersey Devils technically call the city of Newark home, their season has been far more reminiscent of another Garden State landmark, Wildwood, since their season resumed just after Valentine’s Day.
It’s been fun, there aren’t quite as many people in attendance as you might recall from the good ‘ole days – though that may soon change due to newly relaxed attendance rules – and, most relevant to this particular metaphor, it’s been a rollercoaster of ups and downs.
The Devils will win a few games off of the exceptional play of players like Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and Mackenzie Blackwood, look like a borderline lock to make the playoffs and get the whole Garden State hyped on the future of New Jersey hockey, only to then lose a string of ugly contests that flips the momentum on its head.
It’s cyclical, predictable, and ultimately emblematic of a team that is overperforming versus their expectations but is still a ways away from having the requisite developed talent needed to really hang with the big dogs of the East.
Needless to say, the New Jersey Devils need to use this season to find out who should stay and who should go moving forward, from fourth-line forwards to veteran wings and even players as seemingly interchangeable as a third-line left defender.
Will Butcher has been more impactful for the New Jersey Devils in three games than Dmitry Kulikov has been in 12.
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When the New Jersey Devils signed Dmitry Kulikov away from the Winnipeg Jets, it wasn’t to score points.
Sure, the 29-year-old left-hander from the USSR had 28 goals and 138 points to his name over an 11-year career stateside, but at his heart, Kulikov was brought in to play stout, Lindy Ruff-approved defense while at least being a serviceable cog in the team’s offensive scheme.
At best, many assumed Kulikov would compete for a second-pairing position with Damon Severson behind P.K. Subban and presumed starter Ryan Murray, and at worst? He’d be relegated to the third-line opposite 2019 trade acquisition Connor Carrick.
What fans didn’t expect, however, when General Manager Tom Fitzgerald signed Kulikov to a one-year, $1.5 million deal was the emergence of Ty Smith as a legitimate number one defenseman.
Though he doesn’t turn 21 until March 24th, Smith has been playing like one of the best players in the NHL regardless of position under the age of 25, currently sitting fourth on the team in points at eight behind Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, and surprise thriver Pavel Zacha. He went from a third-pairing left defenseman averaging the fewest minutes of any defender in Ruff’s rotation to the team’s top option across from a similarly effective Severson.
Smith’s emergence, fortunately, has made Ruff completely reevaluate his defensive pairings, a feat made all the more requisite by the return of formerly-traded right defenseman Sami Vatanen.
Gone were the days of Matt Tennyson, who was always more of a stop-gap than a legitimate top-six defender, and in came Vatanen, but through it all, Will Butcher, a long-time top-four lock under every previous Devils Head Coach since John Hynes still found himself the odd man out.
While Ruff initially justified the decision to bench Butcher and Carrick, who kept Smith paired up with Tennyson on the team’s third-line, that decision became no longer relevant once the seventh-winningest coach in NHL history started to move around his pairing.
With Smith and Severson now firmly entrenched as the Devils’ top defensive pairing, the decision to keep playing Kulikov now on the third-pairing with Vatanen makes a whole lot less sense, especially when you consider just how impactful Butcher has been when he’s actually been afforded an opportunity to showcase his game on the ice.
In the three games Butcher has appeared in this season, all of which came due to Kulikov being on the COVID-exempt list, the 26-year-old Wisconsin native has recorded three points and a +/- of 3 while connecting on 16.7 percent of his shots.
Though the sample size is surely small and he hasn’t recorded a single hit or takeaway in 17:15 ATOI, Butcher was an instrumental part in a pair of Devils wins and really should have earned some stars for his one goal performance against the Rangers in his season debut.
Fun fact, that game fell two days before the one-year anniversary of Butcher’s last game with the Devils, which took place on February 16th, 2020. Even with a year off the ice, Butcher’s offense game remained as fiery as ever, and his shot selection in the next two games proved just how impactful a player he could be facilitating offense from the blueline.
So, considering how ineffective the Devils’ offense has been over the… well all season, why hasn’t Ruff given Butcher more opportunities to play when his team has been at full strength?
Surely it can’t be because Kulikov has been playing lights-out hockey, as the 29-year-old is a rather unremarkable contributor who doesn’t often impact a game one way or another. No, even if Butcher’s defensive shortcomings occasionally put the Devils in a poor position, his offensive pop, especially for this particular iteration of the red and black, is just too good to pass up, especially with two-way players like Severson and Vatanen turning in quality short-handed minutes as of late.
If the Devils’ current losing streak continues to drag on, no options should be off the table.
Is which player Lindy Ruff opts to play as his third-pairing left defenseman really going to make or break the New Jersey Devils’ fortunes moving forward? No, I’d venture to say they will not, but if the Devils really do want to go all-in on a postseason berth, it may be wise to give Will Butcher every opportunity to prove his worth in the second to last year of his current contract, as opposed to a player like Dmitry Kulikov who presents far less upside on a one-year deal. If not, I guess they, too, will be planning an early summer soiree in Wildwood like the rest of us, assuming, of course, that we can do such a thing by the time the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around in mid-May.