It’s almost time for real hockey. Preseason games are a week away, with the New Jersey Devils kicking off their slate of exhibition games next Monday with a tilt against the Montreal Canadiens. Though the results of preseason games don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, it offers teams a chance to experiment with their line combos and defense pairs ahead of the regular season.
For the Devils, that means a chance to find chemistry with new faces and a group of young players competing for opening night roster spots. With seven preseason games to do so, here are nine line combos head coach Lindy Ruff should audition before the regular season begins.
Yegor Sharangovich, Jack Hughes & Dawson Mercer
This trio got a good run together during the second half of last season, and the results warrant another look in exhibition games. In just over 200 minutes together at five-on-five, they put up a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 51.86 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 49.23 percent.
Sharangovich and Hughes have had chemistry dating back to the 2020-21 season. It seems like a good bet Ruff will start them as a pair in preseason games and look to find a winger to round out the unit. With the acquisition of Erik Haula, a move to the wing is in the cards for Mercer. He has all the tools to be a successful winger, as he skates well, has an underrated shot, and can still be a play-driver. Considering there’s a solid track record with Hughes and Sharangovich, this is a no-brainer.
Ondrej Palát, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt
After nearly a decade with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Palát signed a five-year contract with the Devils this summer worth $6 million annually. With plenty of Stanley Cup experience, he’ll bring a winning pedigree to a young Devils team. But that’s not all he’ll provide, as he will improve the team’s scoring. Having averaged 20 goals and 55 points per 82 games over the last three seasons, he’ll play in the top-six. The question is, where?
If Sharangovich, Hughes and Mercer end up as one unit to start the season, the best fit for Palát will be alongside Hischier and Bratt. Those two had breakout seasons a year ago, with Hischier totaling 60 points in 70 games while Bratt had 73 points in 76 games. There wouldn’t be an elite shooting threat on this line, but all three players would be capable of producing at 20-goal paces. Behind the previously mentioned Hughes line, that’d give the Devils a formidable top-six.
Sharangovich, Hischier & Bratt
Another unit that the Devils used a bit last season and had some solid results, though in a small sample size. In just about 74 minutes together, this trio posted a 54.05 CF% and 50.93 xG% at five-on-five. Bratt and Hischier have had plenty of success as a pair since breaking into the league in 2017-18. They’ve had a rotation of wingers over the years, but Sharangovich may be able to change that.
Throughout the first two seasons of his career, Sharangovich had mostly been stapled to Hughes’ hip. With that said, his results with Hischier and Bratt a season ago prove he may not just be a product of Hughes. If that’s the case and Ruff can move him around, it’ll give him more options to assemble his top-six since Sharangovich won’t have to be on Hughes’ line all the time. He’s the team’s best shooter, which would mesh well with two play drivers who can create chances like Bratt and Hischier.
Bratt, Hughes & Mercer
Much like Sharangovich’s rookie season in 2020-21, Mercer’s best minutes on the wing came alongside Hughes last season. In about 259 minutes as one of Hughes’ wingers, the two put up a 51.23 CF% and 50.96 xG%. When Mercer was alongside Hischier, that pair put up a 41.61 CF% and 40.37 xG%. Mercer was a rookie, and just because he didn’t put up great results with Hischier a season ago doesn’t mean he won’t during his second year.
Still, based on last season, seeing if Mercer can mesh with Hughes should be in the cards for exhibition games. He’s going to play top-six minutes to start the season, and the only way to do so will be on the wing unless there are injuries. Based on what Mercer did as a rookie, a noticeable step forward should be on the way, meaning he could be a valuable complementary scorer for Hughes.
Sharangovich, Hughes & Alexander Holtz
The Devils have big plans for Holtz, who they drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft. He had a terrific first full season in North America last year, totaling 26 goals and 51 points with the Utica Comets in the AHL as a 20-year-old. Now, the expectation will be to contribute to the Devils in some shape or form in 2022-23.
If Holtz is to break into the NHL right out of camp, Ruff needs to put him in proper positions to succeed. He’s not the type of winger who’ll be able to carry his own line, so having someone like Hughes centering Holtz will be crucial to his success since he has elite play-driving potential. Add in Sharangovich, and this line has two high-end shooters for Hughes to do damage.
Bratt, Hischier & Holtz
If not on a line with Hughes, then playing alongside Hischier is the best-case scenario for Holtz. Though they did play alongside each other a bit last season when Holtz was in the NHL, their numbers were far from ideal. However, that was more likely on Holtz not being quite NHL-ready yet. But after seeing him on Saturday at the Prospects Challenge, his skating looks improved, something that held him back in the NHL a season ago.
If Holtz can keep pace and score with players like Bratt and Hischier during the preseason, that’d bode well for him making the NHL roster. After Hughes, Hischier and Bratt are the Devils’ two best play drivers. They both create plenty of chances off the rush, which should mesh well with a shooter like Holtz. That’s enough reason to give them a look or two during preseason games.
Jesper Boqvist, Haula & Tomáš Tatar
I wouldn’t go as far as to say Boqvist’s 2021-22 season was a breakout year, but it was the best he looked as a Devil. He finished with 10 goals and 23 points in 56 games — a 34-point pace over 82 games. During the second half of the season, he was one of the Devils’ best forwards in transition when playing as a center. Ideally, Boqvist belongs down the middle, but that may be harder to come by with Haula in the mix.
Aside from being a solid middle-six scorer, it sure seems that part of the appeal of acquiring Haula was his ability to win draws; he has a faceoff percentage of 54.3 over the last three seasons. With that said, there’s plenty more that goes into being a center than taking faceoffs. Haula is quite weak in transition and does not move the puck anywhere as efficiently as Boqvist. The idea here is to have Haula take draws but to use Boqvist as the line’s main facilitator. Haula needs linemates who can drive a line to be his most effective, which is what Boqvist and Tatar can do for him.
Boqvist, Haula & Fabian Zetterlund
The same idea applies here as the previous line combo, except with Zetterlund in place of Tatar. We know what Boqvist and Haula bring, but Zetterlund would provide a different look than Tatar. In 58 games with the Comets last season, he totaled 24 goals and 52 points. In 14 games with the Devils, he finished with three goals and eight points — a 47-point pace over 82 games. He has more goal-scoring upside than Tatar and some play-driving potential as well.
Zetterlund’s counting totals weren’t the only thing that caught people’s attention. He had some of the best underlying metrics on the Devils last season, leading the team in xG% and points per 60 minutes. Having turned 23 at the end of August, he may be the most NHL-ready among some of the Devils’ top prospects. Seeing what he could do in a middle-six role in the preseason should be atop Ruff’s to-do list.
Sharangovich, Hischier & Zetterlund
Since we’re talking about Zetterlund, let’s keep the spotlight on him. Even though he played just under 50 minutes alongside Hischier at five-on-five a season ago, what they did was encouraging. They posted a 50.62 CF% and 60.87 xG% while outscoring opponents 6-1, with much of that coming with Sharangovich as their linemate.
Giving this trio another run isn’t necessarily about seeing if it can work in the regular season, though it wouldn’t hurt to know if it does. Rather, it’s about seeing if Zetterlund is truly NHL-ready. Want to know if that’s the case? Then give him top-six minutes in preseason games with some of the team’s best scorers. If he keeps pace and produces as he did a season ago, he’ll be on the team. And since the Devils did not include him on their roster for the Prospects Challenge this past weekend, they may think it’s his time.
Preseason the Perfect Time to Experiment
There are more line combos worth experimenting with than the ones mentioned here. But that’s what the preseason is about — trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s also an important tool to evaluate which prospects should be on the opening night roster, which is why it’s important to put players like Holtz and Zetterlund in positions to succeed. Combine that with finding chemistry between new acquisitions and the team’s returnees, and that could help the Devils get off to a strong start this season.
*Later this week, we’ll look at defense pairs Ruff and the Devils should experiment with during the preseason.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017