Devils Hope Bastian Can Spark Struggling Bottom-Six

The New Jersey Devils have been struggling to solidify their forward depth since Jack Hughes dislocated his shoulder during the second game of the season. After claiming Nathan Bastian on waivers from the Seattle Kraken on Thanksgiving, they’re hoping he helps spark their bottom-six a bit until Hughes’ return trickles down the rest of the lineup.

For those unfamiliar with Bastian, he was a Devils’ draft pick at the 2016 draft and played a vital role on the team’s fourth line with Michael McLeod and Miles Wood a season ago. His time with the Kraken didn’t go how he would’ve liked. But there’s reason to believe he can help add what he did to the Devils in 2020-21: a stout defensive presence, something he was still doing well with the Kraken. 

Bastian Is a Reliable Fourth-Liner

No one will mistake Bastian for being a high-end or even middle-six scorer. He finished with 10 points in 41 games for the Devils in 2020-21 — a 20-point pace over 82 games. He had just two points in 12 games with the Kraken, but his defensive game didn’t fall off in Seattle. And that seems to be his bread and butter.

Bastian was one of the Devils’ best shot-suppressing forwards in 2020-21, both in terms of quantity and quality. His even-strength defense was worth an expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of 0.8, ranked seventh on the team and fourth among forwards. His results with the Kraken were not much different, either. In 12 games in Seattle, Bastian’s even-strength defense was worth an xGAR of 0.8. He was also one of the Kraken’s best shot-suppressing forwards, again in quantity and quality. In fact, Bastian’s 1.54 expected goals against per 60 minutes was the best of all players on the Kraken’s roster. 

Because the 2020-21 season only had 56 games scheduled, combining Bastian’s data between now and then makes sense since he’s only played 53 games. Via JFreshHockey, this visual shows Bastian ranks in the 80th percentile in even-strength defense among his peers since the start of last season: 

Nathan Bastian
Nathan Bastian’s performance since the start of the 2020-21 season

With Hughes missing but all four periods of hockey this season, the Devils have felt his absence in their bottom-six as much as their top-six. Though they’ve treaded water and are .500 by NHL standards (6-6-4) without Hughes, there have been nights where their bottom-six has gotten caved in at five-on-five. Bastian isn’t going to make those issues go away entirely, but his defensive game should help their bottom-six not bleed shots and chances as often as they are. 

McLeod Will Benefit From Having Bastian Back

A significant reason head coach Lindy Ruff could count on the Devils’ fourth line during the 2020-21 season was because of the chemistry McLeod and Bastian had together. That chemistry didn’t come out of the blue, either. They played together on the Mississauga Steelheads during their junior days in the OHL, and they were both Devils’ draft picks at the 2016 draft. Other than the start of 2021-22, they’ve more or less been in the same organization for the last five to six years.

Related: 3 Devils That Were One-Hit Wonders 

There’s no way to say this is a factor for sure, but McLeod has not looked like the same player without Bastian to start this season. He’s winning close to 60 percent of his draws, but he has no goals and only two assists through 18 games. He’s been a top penalty killer, but his even-strength play hasn’t been quite up to par. More often than not, his line has gotten outshot and outscored. The Devils don’t need McLeod to lead a scoring line. But they do need him to solidify their depth and be closer to the player who was on pace to score 14 goals in 82 games a season ago. 

The hope is Bastian can help McLeod get to that point, though he’ll have to do it without Wood, who’s out indefinitely after undergoing hip surgery earlier this season (from the looks of it, it’ll be quite a while before he returns). So it doesn’t look like Ruff will be able to recapture the chemistry that trio had a season ago. 

Nathan Bastian New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils right wing Nathan Bastian (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Still, there’s a possibility the Devils find themselves a capable fourth line once Hughes returns. After signing a PTO during the preseason and winning a roster spot, Jimmy Vesey has played well as a bottom-six forward. He’s on pace for 18 goals and has found success as a penalty killer. He’s not the player Wood is, but he skates well and should complement Bastian and McLeod well enough. 

Is Bastian going to move the needle significantly for the Devils? Probably not, but claiming him on waivers was an easy decision. He only played seven minutes in last night’s loss to the Nashville Predators after arriving in Nashville a few hours before puck drop. But he’s not walking into a new system. Ruff was his coach last season, so there isn’t going to be a learning curve. He’s going to provide the steady defensive presence he’s known for, plus some occasional depth scoring. With how the Devils’ bottom-six has performed to start this season, they’ll take it. And once Hughes returns and some players begin to move down the lineup, their bottom-six should feel closer to complete than it has all season. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey

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