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John Marino Was the New Jersey Devils' Missing Piece

Shipped out of Pittsburgh as a cap dump, John Marino has emerged as the missing piece for a New Jersey Devils team that finds itself atop the NHL standings.
John Marino

"Well, the steal of the off-season is obviously John Marino," exclaimed one observer to another on Thursday morning as the New Jersey Devils shuffled through a full-team skate at Scotiabank Arena ahead of their matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs later that night. 

"How was he even available?" asked the other, in disbelief. 

"I mean, what the hell?"

That exact conversation has been echoed countless times across the hockey world over the first month of the NHL season. And for good reason, too. John Marino has been a revelation in his 16 games in New Jersey, blossoming in his new home from the defensively-focused blueliner who was cloaked in the shadow of the Pittsburgh Penguins' core stars for years into one of the best defensemen in the entire league. 

To say that Marino's play has merely taken a leap forward this season would be an insult to gravity. 

The 25-year-old stepped into a Devils' top four that lacked presence and poise last season and proceeded to never look back, racking up an impressive two goals and six assists for eight points through 16 games thus far to put himself well on track to obliterate his previous offensive career-highs across the board all while logging nearly 22 minutes in nightly ice time. 

And the fact is, Marino's offensive production has been nothing but gravy to this point. That's not what has fueled his ascension to the elite echelon of NHL defenders in 2022-23. No, that would be Marino's all-encompassing influence on the game in each and every area of the ice – an iron-like sense of control illustrated by his 55.89 percent expected goal share and 56.29 percent scoring chance share that both represent some truly astronomical results from a defender routinely facing off against the best his opponents have to offer. 

The Devils are a better team with Marino on the ice. It's that simple, really. As of Thursday, New Jersey has out-scored its opponents by a ratio of two-to-one during Marino's even-strength minutes, allowing just seven goals against on the whole. And considering that Marino has logged more five-on-five ice time than anyone else on the team, that seems like a pretty solid recipe for success. 

Case in point: Marino has pretty much been the most important player on a Devils squad currently riding a 10-game win streak. He's been their missing piece – the Jenga block stopping the tower from falling over as it always seemed to do in the years before. 

The 2021-22 Devils aren't too different from their present-day counterparts when you look at them on paper, really. The team's stars are still there, with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt leading the way up front while Dougie Hamilton patrols the back end. Save for the arrival of Vitek Vanecek in net, not much has changed. Marino's arrival is the most notable difference, and what his presence has done is paper over most of the Devils' flaws, allowing the coaching staff to feed Hamilton with offensive zone starts while also adding another player to the blueline capable of activating the high-flying forward corps in transition. 

Marino is behind most of what has made the Devils the league's most dominant even-strength unit through the first stretch of the season. And for a guy who was shuffled out of town by the Penguins in mid-July as a cap dump to make room for an incoming Jeff Petry, that's not too shabby at all. 

"To be honest, I'm just very impressed," gushed Devils defenseman Brendan Smith, who had faced off against Marino in the Metropolitan Division for years before becoming teammates this summer. 

"I think just what he does defensively, what he does offensively, how he conducts himself, his maturity level – all of that is honestly very shocking to me and a testament to how hard he works." 

Damon Severson, another defender who lined up opposite Marino for years as division rivals and whose life has now been made easier by his arrival, is even more honest in his praise. 

"Honestly, I didn't even know who John was," Severson said with a laugh following morning skate on Thursday. 

"I just knew playing against him. You'd see Marino written on the board and not think much of it. But I didn't know him as a person or know what his game was like. But then he got traded to us and you really start to understand who he is."

"He's just been one of those players that we've needed this whole time," added Devils forward Jesper Bratt.

"When he comes into your own team and you see him every day and every shift, you really understand how great of a player he is. He's been a key factor to our team to all those wins that we have, and he's just an exciting guy to play with." 

Those who had played with Marino in the past will admit to seeing greatness in him that was waiting to break out. The signs were there, they'll say. But what those former teammates will also acknowledge is that Marino's performance this season, and his evolution into a legitimate star, blows away even their own expectations. 

"I still remember that first year when he made it out of training camp, he kind of took everybody by surprise," explained Maple Leafs forward Zach Aston-Reese, who played with Marino in Pittsburgh from 2019 to 2022. 

"He's just really long. The way he is on his edges, I mean, it's not like he's explosive or anything. But when you watch him break pucks out and shield pucks, and the way he makes his first pass, he just does everything so well. He usually makes the play close to 100 percent of the time. It might go unnoticed, but it's those subtle things that just make him really good." 

"We definitely saw it, his potential. But it's just tougher in Pittsburgh because of the core group they have there." 

At this point, the only thing left for Marino to prove is that his newfound success is not a flash in the plan. And if you ask his teammates, they'll tell you exactly how sustainable they think it is. 

"There's no way this is just a breakout year," affirmed Smith to the reporters circling his stall. 

"This is just how he is. He's this good. And we're just getting to see it at a different level." 

To illustrate his point further, Smith followed that answer up by turning to Marino's stall situated right next to his and literally knocking on wood. 

"Just to be safe," he laughed. 

"What I need to worry about now is not pumping his tires too much and making sure John doesn't get a big head from all of this." 

Safe to say that if anyone deserves to have a big head right now, Marino would be it. 

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