Devils Need to Return to Familiar Line Combos

The New Jersey Devils’ 2021-22 season is slipping away quickly. They’re 3-9-3 in their last 15 games and are slowly crawling towards the bottom of the NHL once again. Per Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, the Devils’ playoff odds at the moment sit at one percent (from ‘NHL 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoff chances and projected standings,’ The Athletic – 12/15/2021). That doesn’t mean their playoff hopes are dead. But based on current standings and the point pace they’d need to play to make the postseason, things are looking bleak. 

Yet, despite the poor odds, the Devils can still play meaningful games in March and April, the goal they set for themselves during the preseason. But things will have to change quickly. Assistant coach Mark Recchi should be on the hot seat for a historically terrible power play. And head coach Lindy Ruff’s job could be in jeopardy, too, if things don’t turn around soon.

Ruff has used productive line combos this season but has gotten away from them in recent games. Let’s look at the units he should return to, not only to help the team make up for its awful power play but to possibly save his job and help them play meaningful late-season games. 

What Devils’ Return to Familiar Lines Looks Like

Instead of hammering down the stats then presenting a lineup as I’ve done in previous articles, this time, I’ll throw out the lineup then give some thoughts on how the lines have fared and why Ruff should be putting them back together at five-on-five: 

  • Pavel Zacha – Nico Hischier – Tomáš Tatar
  • Andreas Johnsson – Dawson Mercer – Jesper Bratt
  • Yegor Sharangovich – Jack Hughes – Janne Kuokkanen
  • Jimmy Vesey – Michael McLeod – Marián Studenič

Zacha, Hischier & Tatar

Hischier has been in COVID protocols since Friday. But assuming all is good, he could return by the start of next week after quarantining for 10 days since any possible symptoms first appeared (perhaps sooner if he’s asymptomatic). Once he does, Ruff should re-unite him with Zacha and Tatar, who have had plenty of success together in a sample size of 106 minutes. 

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

As a line, Zacha, Hischier and Tatar have a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 63.33 percent, expected goals percentage (xG%) of 59.17 percent, and high-danger chance percentage (HDCF%) of 63.89 percent. They’ve been one of the Devils’ two best lines this season, so re-uniting them seems like a no-brainer once Hischier gets cleared to return. They’ll carry most of the play at five-on-five, which would help significantly. 

Johnsson, Mercer & Bratt

Not only have Johnsson, Mercer and Bratt been the Devils’ best line in 2021-22, but they were one of the best lines in the NHL at one point. They’ve been Ruff’s most consistently used grouping this season, totaling 157 minutes together. And their numbers are quite stellar, as they have a CF% of 56 percent, xG% of 61.07 percent and HDCF% of 64.47 percent. The Devils have outscored teams 13-7 with them on the ice, good for a goals for percentage of 65 percent, which is about on par with their xG%. 

Related: Devils’ Power Play Negating Legitimate Progress

Both Mercer and Johnsson have slowed down as of late. Johnsson has one point in his last seven games, while Mercer has three points in his previous 11. Johnsson’s had a tremendous rebound season after struggling in 2020-21, his first in New Jersey. Bratt continues to be the Devils’ best player, so moving him back on a line with Johnsson and Mercer could help give those two a jolt. If they produce as they did earlier in the season, the Devils’ five-on-five offense should get a lift. 

Sharangovich, Hughes & Kuokkanen

Sharangovich, Hughes and Kuokkanen have barely played together this season, but they have a good history as a unit. After the Devils traded Travis Zajac at last season’s trade deadline, Hughes moved up to center Sharangovich and Kuokkanen, and it paid dividends. They played just over 241 minutes together and had a CF% of 58.37 percent and xG% of 56.37 percent. Sure, they got outscored 9-17, but Devils goalies had a .826 save percentage when they were out for a shift. They couldn’t stop a beach ball, let alone a puck. 

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Hughes is still working his way back from a dislocated shoulder he suffered during the second game of this season. Sharangovich and especially Kuokkanen have struggled to score through 27 games. We know these three have clicked before, so why not try it again? In a third-line role where they’re playing 14-16 minutes a night and against easier competition, it could spark all of them offensively. That’d give the Devils depth they have not gotten from their third line all season long. And if they perform well, their minutes will increase. 

Vesey, McLeod & Studenič

The fourth line was a bit tricky to assemble. McLeod is a given, but who plays on his wings isn’t as much of one. Right now, it’s hard to argue Studenič isn’t one of the Devils’ 12 best forwards. He’s only played in six games, but he leads the team in xG% at 60.75 percent (min. 5 GP). It sure seems like he belongs in the lineup. Vesey has been a mainstay on the penalty kill and has not played poorly at five-on-five, so it’s hard to see him coming out too. 

Related: All-Decade NHL Draft – 2010 to 2019

Nathan Bastian has scored a couple of goals since the Devils claimed him on waivers, but his CF% and xG% are hovering between 44 and 46 percent. Still, there’s a role for him as a physical fourth-liner who can play on the penalty kill too. He could slot in alongside Studenič and McLeod or Vesey and McLeod, depending on how Ruff is feeling on any given night. But for now, Studenič seems to offer a bit more offensive upside and adds some speed and energy to the Devils’ bottom-six, which they could use. 

Ruff Should Stick To What He Knows Works

So to review, here’s the lineup one last time:

  • Zacha – Hischier – Tatar
  • Johnsson – Mercer – Bratt
  • Sharangovich – Hughes – Kuokkanen
  • Vesey – McLeod – Studenič

With how poor the Devils’ power play has been this season — it’s last in the NHL — they need to find ways to control the game at five-on-five. Obviously, this isn’t possible until Hischier leaves COVID protocols. In the meantime, Jesper Boqvist can slide in his spot between Zacha and Tatar, and they can operate as the third line. That’d leave the Mercer and Hughes lines as the Devils’ top-six. 

Jesper Boqvist New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils forward Jesper Boqvist (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But once Hischier returns, the top-six above has been their best set of first and second lines this season and should get another look. The Mercer trio has created the most offense, and though the Hischier unit hasn’t scored much, they’ve generated chances and controlled play. If Sharangovich, Hughes and Kuokkanen can rekindle some of last season’s chemistry, there’s all of a sudden a forward group with some decent depth. 

There’s not much time left for the Devils to turn their season around. And with only three wins in their last 15 games, returning to what you know works or has worked seems like a good strategy. If it pays off, it could save the Devils’ season, and it could perhaps save Ruff’s job too. And that goal of playing meaningful games can become realistic again. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick

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