Devils Should Use Preseason to Test Line Combinations

The New Jersey Devils had a busy offseason that included signing Dougie Hamilton and Tomáš Tatar through free agency and acquiring Ryan Graves in a trade. That’s bound to lead to some different looks in their line combos and defense pairs. And with preseason games set to begin tonight, head coach Lindy Ruff should test different line combinations to see what does and doesn’t work ahead of the regular season. 

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Some of the following lines are combos Ruff put together last season and are worth revisiting. Others are ones that he used during the team’s training camp scrimmages. And some include the Devils’ best prospects who deserve a chance to show what they can do with some of the team’s top players.

Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt

This unit played quite a bit together last season, especially down the stretch. Their results at five-on-five were a bit of a mixed bag. They finished with an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 51.4 percent, though their Corsi for percentage (CF%) was only 48.6 percent. Still, the Devils outscored their opponents when they were on the ice. And most importantly, the three seemed to have chemistry together. 

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Zacha will start the preseason at center but will likely get a look at both center and left wing. If his 2020-21 campaign was any indication, he may be best off on the wing because of his shooting ability. He’s also struggled driving a line in the past. So if that issue appears again early in the preseason, Ruff shouldn’t hesitate to move him back to the wing. Playing on a line with Hischier and Bratt, two players who’ve shown play-driving ability and are responsible defensively, should be the best fit for Zacha if a return to center doesn’t pan out.

Janne Kuokkanen, Jack Hughes, and Yegor Sharangovich

Another line that got a significant run last season and showed quite a bit of promise. After the Devils traded Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline, Ruff moved Hughes up with Kuokkanen and Sharangovich. Like the Zacha, Hischier and Bratt unit, this line’s five-on-five numbers were a mixed bag — they had a CF% of 53.8 percent but an xG% of 46.9 percent. The Devils were also outscored 12-5 with them on the ice, but that’s because the team’s on-ice save percentage was .844 percent. That kind of goaltending will do in any first line.

Related: Devils’ Hughes & Bernier Among Many Scrimmage Standouts

Still, there’s enough to like about what these three did together to revisit it. Kuokkanen was impressive in the team’s first two training camp scrimmages and is a crafty playmaker. Combine that with Hughes’ play-driving and playmaking ability, plus Sharangovich’s shooting talent, and there’s potential here for it to work again. 

Kuokkanen, Zacha, Alex Holtz/Dawson Mercer

Kuokkanen, Zacha and Holtz got a look together at the team’s second camp scrimmage on Sunday, and they looked quite good as a line. Zacha was creating chances and fired a wicked backhanded shot off the crossbar for a good scoring chance. Kuokkanen was his usual self and displayed his playmaking ability. Holtz finished the day with a goal and an assist and was more involved than in the team’s first scrimmage on Saturday. 

Holtz, who was the seventh overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, has a wicked shot and is an underrated playmaker, but he needs players with similar skill levels on his line. Zacha was one of the Devils’ better shot and chance generators in 2020-21. Meanwhile, Kuokkanen’s playmaking is a perfect fit for a shooter like Holtz. This might be an offense-first line, but the Devils’ top two lines should be able to handle more difficult defensive minutes. 

Dawson Mercer Drummondville Voltigeurs
Dawson Mercer with the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the QMJHL (Drummondville Voltigeurs)

If Ruff is looking for more defensive stability, giving Mercer a look alongside Kuokkanen and Zacha makes sense too. Mercer showed impressive two-way ability in camp scrimmages and at the Prospects Challenge. While he’s a center, he can also play right wing, so Ruff could always move him and Zacha around if needed. Plus, if Mercer shows he’s ready for the NHL, his best bet might be on the wing since things are looking quite crowded down the middle. 

Nolan Foote, Hischier and Andreas Johnsson

The Devils acquired Johnsson during the 2020 offseason. But he had a tough first season in New Jersey, finishing with only 11 points in 50 games. With that said, his on-ice results were quite good. His CF% of 53.4 percent ranked fifth on the team, as did his xG% of 52.5 percent. His individual point percentage was well below his career average, making him a prime candidate to rebound in 2021-22. 

Ruff had Johnsson paired with Hischier and Bratt in their first scrimmage, but they never got going. However, Johnsson looked much better yesterday, netting a goal and creating a couple of scoring chances around the net. Since Foote will likely be in the mix for a final roster spot, placing him with one of the Devils’ top players in Hischier gives him a chance to show what he can do offensively. And the same is true for Johnsson, who the Devils will need for depth scoring this season.

Bratt, Hischier and Mercer

Bratt and Hischier have had a lot of success together in their four seasons in the NHL. They had Taylor Hall on their wing for most of their rookie year in 2017-18 and, at times, in 2018-19. In 2019-20, they found some success with Kyle Palmieri after the team fired John Hynes as their head coach in Dec. 2019. And as mentioned above, they looked pretty good with Zacha at the end of last season. 

Jack Hughes Jesper Bratt Nico Hischier Pavel Zacha New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha celebrating a goal with the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Ruff seems to recognize their chemistry, and it’s probably why they were on a line together with Johnsson during the scrimmages. If Johnsson gets an extended look there but it doesn’t work out, I’d immediately look to give Mercer his spot. Long-term, Mercer is the type of player the Devils are going to want in their top six. And that’s probably going to have to happen on the wing with Hischier and Hughes as the team’s top two centers. Mercer would be a great fit alongside both Bratt and Hischier because he can create offense, is a sound two-way forward and excels in transition. It seems like a match made in heaven and could potentially make for a very formidable second line. 

Sharangovich, Hughes and Holtz

Based on the camp scrimmages, it looks like Tatar is the favorite to stick with Hughes and Sharangovich once the preseason wraps up. But it wouldn’t hurt to give Holtz a look alongside Hughes and Sharangovich during the preseason for a couple of reasons. 

Related: Devils New Era of Hockey Led by Hischier & Hughes

One thing Hughes lacked in linemates for most of 2020-21 was shooting talent. Holtz has an A+ shot, and while he struggles in transition, Hughes is a zone-entry machine and can do the hard work to get Holtz the puck. Sharangovich is a pretty good shooter himself, so seeing what these three can do on a line together would give the Devils an idea of what they might have in the not-too-distant future. It may also be the best way to evaluate Holtz and see if he’s ready for the NHL or not. If he can handle playing alongside the Devils’ top players, then he’s going to be in the conversation for the opening night roster too. 

Ty Smith and Hamilton

Hey, a defense pair. The Devils’ defense pairs are going to be pretty straightforward this regular season. Plus, Ruff doesn’t toggle with his defense pairs as much as he does his forward lines. Still, it’s probably worth seeing how Smith and Hamilton look together because you never know when you might need to change things up during the regular season. 

Dougie Hamilton Carolina Hurricanes
Former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Smith had a solid start to his NHL career in 2020-21, finishing with 23 points in 48 games — a 39-point pace over 82 games. His CF% finished at 53.5 percent, while his xG% came in at 49.9 percent. His overall impact was just so-so. But for someone who broke into the league as a 20-year-old, he did not look out of place. Graves will start the regular season as Hamilton’s defense partner. But if Smith gets off to a strong start and sustains it, he could certainly move up the lineup. And if Ruff feels the need to break up Graves and Hamilton, Smith should be the best candidate to fill that spot. 

Options Abound for Devils Preseason Lines

There are plenty more line combinations to be had than the ones mentioned here. The Devils have six preseason games, so Ruff will have chances to experiment, especially before trimming down their roster after the first few games. There are plenty of different ways things could work out, especially if a prospect like Holtz or Mercer makes the team. The same is true of Jimmy Vesey, who’s on a PTO, and could shake up how the bottom six looks. That should make for plenty of storylines over the next two weeks as the team gears up for the regular season. 

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