Here are some quick thoughts I have on Kevin Bahl's performance in his first two preseason games and on the experiments coach Ruff is running with his D-partners.
I want to preface by saying that I'm super excited to see how everything progresses with the Devils' D-pairings this season. As thrilling as the top-nine forward group could be, there is just as much potential for Ruff to tap into on the back end. Big Bahler is a prime reason for that — he has come into camp and impressed me with his improved skating and pace of play, quick decision-making, and, most importantly, a mindset demonstrating he's poised enough to take on a more prominent role than just the third pairing role we initially thought he'd fill.
It was interesting to see Bahl paired with Hamilton in his first preseason game and then with John Marino in his second. These pairings were clearly Ruff's way of testing if Bahl could handle the pressure and minutes of playing in a top-four role. Everyone knows Bahl can play third pair, but if he can play 'up'? Man, that would help the Devils balance out their pairings tremendously!
For me, the hypothetical of Bahl and Hamilton on the top pair is intriguing and juicy because it leaves the second pairing's LD spot vacant for Jonas Siegenthaler to slide in alongside Marino. I believe that duo, even after posting a dismal 34.02 shot attempts % in their 53:19 5v5 TOI together last year, could emerge into an elite shutdown pairing this season if they play together consistently from the onset 5v5 and PK.
For reference, last year, assistant coach Ryan McGill worked his Graves-Marino pairing for a team-high 112:17 PK TOI on top of the heavy minutes they crunched 5v5. Which pair had the second most PK TOI last year? Well, Siegenthaler-Marino, and they were successful at 5v5 in a trial they were given this preseason. In their 17:45 even-strength ice time against Montreal on the 25th, they posted an eye-opening 91.1% xGF and only conceded one scoring chance. So, "Is McGill wanting to continue this trend?" is certainly a storyline to keep an eye on as we move forward.
Even a stingy, 'frustrate the opposition' pairing of Bahl-Marino would be tremendous, mainly because it allows for Luke Hughes to develop in protected minutes at the start of the season. Don't get me wrong, Luke Hughes is and will be a top-four D for the Devils. But Bahler playing ahead of his development expectations right now would mean the Devils can take their time with Luke.
Yes, this is an extremely small, I repeat, extremely small sample size of time on ice together, and it's only preseason, but this begs the question: "Will head coach Lindy Ruff come in like a wreckin' Bahl on opening night with a completely new-looking top pairing?" For now, let's keep the good vibes rolling into Philly, and I can't wait to be back between the benches for the Devils' preseason home games on Monday and Wednesday!