Did defensive changes work out for the New Jersey Devils?

NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 02: Luke Hughes #43 of the New Jersey Devils during the preseason game against the New York Islanders on October 2, 2023 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 02: Luke Hughes #43 of the New Jersey Devils during the preseason game against the New York Islanders on October 2, 2023 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images) /

Entering their last game against the Winnipeg Jets, the New Jersey Devils were struggling since losing star forward Jack Hughes to injury. They’ve also been without Captain Nico Hischier since October 27th. The Devils have been outscored 16-10 since Hughes’s injury.

Head coach Lindy Ruff made the usual moves to try to generate more offense in Hughes and Hischier’s absence. For example, he gave slumping third-year player Dawson Mercer an expanded role in the new-look lineup. Team results didn’t follow, aside from last Sunday’s win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Lindy Ruff mixed up his usually consistent defensive pairings before his team took on the Winnipeg Jets. He had hoped to give the team an offensive boost in the absence of Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes.

So Ruff looked to the blue line for a change. All three defensive pairings changed for the Winnipeg game. Most notably the top pairing of Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler was broken up. This was a pair spending nearly every game the two were healthy for together over the past two seasons.

The New Jersey Devils made some big changes to their group this week

Hamilton stayed on the top pairing, joined by Luke Hughes. The team’s best offensive defenseman was joined by perhaps the game’s best offensive defensive work in progress in a move meant to get extra scoring from the blue line.

Siegenthaler dropped to the second pairing with John Marino, serving as the Devils’ top shutdown unit. The huge force to be reckoned with Kevin Bahl moved down to the third pairing with much maligned by Devils fans Brendan Smith by his side.

Colin Miller was activated off the IR for the first time all season but he was interestingly left out of the lineup.

The Hamilton-Siegenthaler pairing served the Devils well last season, although the two defensemen fit different player profiles. Hamilton was the offensive defenseman who scored 73 points on the season.

Meanwhile, Siegenthaler was the underrated defensive threat who had never had more than 21 points in a season. Ruff broke them up for a one-two offensive punch to try to get more pucks to the net.

Fans have expected big things out of Luke Hughes. He has made some rookie mistakes but nothing that wasn’t expected. A top-pairing promotion can give him a chance to show fans what they’ve been waiting to see from the Niedermayer-esque rookie.

Before this, Hughes was paired with Brendan Smith for nearly every game playing shelter minutes in the third period. The elder Smith served as both a security blanket and perhaps a scapegoat for Hughes’ growing pains.

Here’s an interesting side note, the Devils have been one of the teams linked as a potential trade partner for Nikita Zadorov from the Calgary Flames. If the Devils acquire Zadorov, there is no doubt that the defensive lineup will be changing.

Perhaps Ruff used Tuesday’s games as a chance to test out some new pairings in the event New Jersey gives him a new blue liner and pairings are going to be mismatched anyway?

Whether New Jersey gets Zadorov, or any defensemen for that matter, remains to be seen. If they do we’re sure the coaching staff already paid attention to what worked and what didn’t in their new-look defense experiment in Winnipeg.

Immediate returns on the new defensive pairings were not great. The Devils once again lost by the score of 6-3. Hughes and Hamilton each earned an assist, while Marino scored a then equalizing goal to put the score at 2-2.

Dougie Hamilton was held to three shots, his season-high being five, while Luke Hughes was held to one shot on goal in his top-line debut, with his season-high being five as well.

Marino’s goal was his lone shot on goal and he has yet to have a game this season with multiple shots on goal. Despite the loss, Ruff said he was “pleased” with the team’s defensive coverage.

Jack Hughes is rumored to come back as early as this weekend. That should give a boost to this high-flying team temporarily searching for offense.

When he does, we’ll have to see if the team returns to its defensive pairings as we’ve come to know them or if they continue to be in a state of change.

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