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Regardless of your order of preference, I think it's pretty unanimous the top-4 defenders on the New Jersey Devils' roster are Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher, Damon Severson and Andy Greene.
Given that, it's fair to say the team's top two pairings will be some combination of the bunch come October.
While the assumption is Vatanen and Greene will remain together on the shutdown pairing, and Butcher will step into a top-4 role alongside Severson, which could very well be the case, I think there could be a more optimal way of shaping the top-4.
What I'd like to see tested is Severson with Greene and Butcher with Vatanen. Hear me out.
The common line of thought is Vatanen fared very well playing with Greene on the top pairing last season while Severson has struggled immensely when used in the same role. It's all noise.
Over the last two seasons, Severson and Vatanen have spent a similar amount of time with Greene at 5v5. Severson's underlying numbers with Greene are just as good – if not better – than Vatanen's.
It's worth noting Severson and Greene actually started a slightly higher percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone so it's not like Greene and Vatanen were at a disadvantage with tougher deployment.
If their underlyings are similar – particularly in terms of expected goals – why not just stick with Greene and Vatanen?
Well, Vatanen looks to be a better compliment for Butcher than Severson is.
In ~230 minutes, the Devils controlled 51.75% of the shot attempts with Butcher and Severson on the ice. That's still a good number but they gave up a *ton* defensively. They posted a minus-8 goal differential while allowing more than 60 shot attempts and 2.88 expected goals per 60 minutes.
In a little less than 70 minutes, the Devils controlled 58.12% of the shot attempts with Butcher and Vatanen on the ice. That pairing allowed 44.12 shot attempts/60 and 2.66 expected goals against/60.
We're not dealing with large sample sizes – particularly when it comes to Butcher with Vatanen – but I don't think it's surprising two offensively minded guys (Butcher and Severson) who aren't overly aggressive, or assertive, have struggled defensively when together.
Maybe their results would improve with time but, regardless, I think it makes sense to split up the best two offensive defenders at 5v5 and balance things out.
Reuniting Greene with Severson, and giving Vatanen more run with Butcher, could be a good way of doing that.
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