Florida’s Aaron Ekblad may be leading all rookie defensemen in points, but New Jersey’s Damon Severson might be the best rookie defenseman in the league. His 12 points are bad, but it’s what he’s doing on the defensive side of the puck that’s more impressive.
If you haven’t been following the New Jersey Devils, you may not have heard his name, but defenseman Damon Severson is having one of the best campaigns of any rookie this season.
Severson, selected by the Devils in the second round of 2012, wasn’t expected to be the next big thing in New Jersey. On a roster that includes Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, and Adam Larsson, Severson is the blueline’s quiet breakout star. Much of it is due to the tutelage he’s receiving from fellow rearguard Andy Greene.
The pairing of Greene and Severson has been one of the Devils most effective this season, with the 32-year-old veteran helping show the 20-year-old rookie how to handle tough competition. Severson isn’t only learning quickly, he’s excelling. Praise, however, has been hard to come by, especially with Florida Panthers rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad performing at an unheard of level.
But if you remove Ekblad from the conversation, there is no defenseman having a better season than Severson, who has 4 goals and 12 points in 30 games. And even including Ekblad, who leads rookie defensemen with 18 points in 27 games, Severson belongs in talk about best first-year defenseman. When you add to it the amount of minutes – and tough minutes, at that – Severson is taking on, it’s enough to make you think that he could realistically be having the best rookie season of any player in the league. Though an assessment of rookie defensemen and forwards is tough, it’s putting Severson’s play up against that of the early Calder Trophy frontrunner Ekblad that makes the Devils rearguard’s case.
When comparing Ekblad and Severson, one way to look at it is by using the underlying numbers for both players. Severson’s 5-on-5 Corsi For is 51.5 percent overall, 51.7 percent when playing alongside Greene, and 50.8 percent when he’s been split from his veteran partner. Ekblad’s numbers aren’t quite as great, but you can’t tell that until you get to the 2014 first overall pick’s numbers without Brian Campbell.
Ekblad’s overall Corsi For in the same situations is 52.6 percent and a more remarkable 56 when he’s on the ice with one of the game’s most underrated puck movers in Campbell. Without the veteran presence, however, Ekblad has been destroyed to the tune of a 41.8 percent Corsi For. Those are numbers more indicative of a rookie defenseman, and make Severson’s mark all the more impressive. In last season’s crop of rookie defensemen, four notables – Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta, Toronto’s Morgan Rielly, Nashville’s Seth Jones, and Columbus’ Ryan Murray – posted sub-50 percent Corsi For totals when separated from their most common partner. Severson hasn’t suffered the same fate, and that’s even without mentioning his zone starts.
In being paired with Greene, Severson has taken defensive zone starts in nearly 35 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts, and it starting less than 27 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. Ekblad, on the other hand, is starting nearly 36 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is going to help account for his high possession numbers. It’s not the fault of the player, though, as Ekblad’s minutes are simply being optimized by a coach that knows how to use him. It’s obviously paying dividends.
Some may cry small sample or point to Severson, who is 550 days older than Ekblad, having an age advantage. While that may be fair, what these numbers tell us, in big, bold letters, is that Severson is handling the offensive competition he’s facing and the pace of the NHL much better than Ekblad is, with or without Greene. And regardless of age, both are rookies at what is considered the most difficult positions for young players to adjust to.
What may be most outstanding about Severson is that Devils coach Peter DeBoer hasn’t shied away from piling responsibility onto the first-year blueliner, and in return DeBoer has been rewarded. There aren’t many young defenseman that can be said about.
While Ekblad gets the well-deserved admiration for his impressive point total, Severson is becoming the defensive standout of the rookie class. And though the Devils blueliner likely won’t go home with the Calder Trophy, he can take solace in the fact he’s cementing himself a spot in the NHL.