It’s no secret goaltending has sunken the New Jersey Devils’ 2021-22 season, but that’s not the only issue they have. Finishing and finding timely goals has been a problem as well. An overwhelming majority of their offense lately has come from Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes, who are both producing at point-per-game clips this season. They’ve also been linemates for the better part of the last month.
But with the Devils struggling to score consistently, does it make sense to have the team’s two best players on the same line? Bratt and Hughes, along with Yegor Sharangovich, have been dominating teams at five-on-five lately. It’s hard to argue with what they’ve done. With that said, it could be coming at the expense of other lines, specifically whoever Nico Hischier is centering. Let’s look at why head coach Lindy Ruff should at least think about splitting up Bratt and Hughes to balance out the top-six.
Hughes Line Dominating, But Hischier Needs Help
The Devils haven’t gotten much from their other three lines in January. But the trio of Bratt, Hughes and Sharangovich has consistently been controlling play at five-on-five since coming out of the Christmas break. We’re still dealing with a small sample size of 85 minutes (COVID protocols earlier this month played a factor). But in those minutes, the Devils have a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 61.86 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 69.08 percent with them on the ice.
While Sharangovich has played well on that line, Hughes and Bratt are the clear two main drivers. Bratt had been the team’s best play driver while Hughes was out with a dislocated shoulder. But Hughes has hit his stride since the Christmas break and has been a dominant force for the Devils. His CF% of 58.84 percent is third on the team to Bratt and Sharangovich since then, while his xG% of 65.74 percent is second to Sharangovich (68.59 percent).
The only reason the Hughes line has gotten outscored 6-8 is they have an on-ice save percentage (SV%) of 80.49 percent. If Devils goalies stopped what was expected of them, they’d likely be outscoring teams 6-3 when on the ice. Still, it’s clear Bratt, Hughes and Sharangovich clearly have chemistry together. And while Hischier has played quite well since the extended NHL Christmas break, his most common linemates have been Pavel Zacha, Tomáš Tatar, Jimmy Vesey and Jesper Boqvist. He spent Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning with Zacha and Nathan Bastian.
Playing Bastian or Vesey in the top-six alongside Hischier for good portions of January has been less than ideal. That’s not to say Vesey and Bastian are bad players. In fact, they’ve been the Devils’ most consistent and best bottom-six wingers; they just shouldn’t be playing top-six minutes. COVID protocols played a part in that earlier in the month too. But now that most everyone is healthy, it might be time to spread the wealth a bit by splitting Bratt and Hughes.
Possible Line Combos for Splitting Hughes & Bratt
Because Bratt and Hughes are the Devils’ two best play drivers, there’s good reason to believe that they’ll continue having the success they are on separate lines. Bratt, in particular, has been the team’s best play driver all season long:
RAPM (regularized-adjusted plus/minus) strips outside factors like teammates and opponents, so Bratt is having a very strong individual impact offensively. If Ruff were to separate him and Hughes, where could they play in the lineup? Here are some potential line combos, new and old, that are possibilities (note: Boqvist is in place of Michael McLeod, who’s out with an injury):
Bratt & Hischier Reunited; Hughes Sticks With Sharangovich
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Tatar
- Zacha – Hischier – Bratt
- Andreas Johnsson – Dawson Mercer – Janne Kuokkanen
- Vesey – Boqvist – Bastian
Zacha, Hischier and Bratt have only played 89 minutes together this season, but they have good on-ice results. They’ve posted a CF% of 55.42 percent, xG% of 60.79 percent, and have outscored teams 5-4 when on the ice. They had a solid run together in 2020-21, playing 151 minutes while posting an xG% of 51.85 percent.
Bratt is obviously playing at a much higher level than he did a season ago, but so is Hischier, who had an injury-riddled 2020-21. Zacha’s scoring has dried up this season, but he’s still posting strong defensive numbers when paired with Hischier. With Bratt playing at an elite level, there’s reason to hope he and Hischier can help carry a struggling Zacha. Zacha’s best offensive results have come with those two as linemates, so perhaps they can spark him.
As for Hughes, he and Sharangovich have had chemistry dating back to last season — they’ve posted a CF% of 55.31 percent and xG% of 56.49 percent since the start of 2020-21. Tatar’s counting totals are down, but his on-ice results are still among the Devils’ best — his CF% ranks first, while his xG% is eighth. He has a strong track record as a play driver; that’s why the Devils signed him. And with Hughes playing the way he is, both of them should be natural fits with a shooter like Sharangovich.
How About Alexander Holtz?
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Holtz
- Johnsson – Mercer – Bratt
- Zacha – Hischier – Tatar
- Vesey – McLeod – Bastian
The middle two lines in this scenario are among the best Ruff has put together this season. While Hughes was out, the Johnsson, Mercer and Bratt trio was the Devils’ most productive. They outscored teams 13-8 at five-on-five and posted an xG% of 61.65 percent in just over 161 minutes together. Mercer and Johnsson’s production has tailed off since Ruff broke up that unit, and not having Bratt is part of the reason.
Zacha, Hischier and Tatar didn’t score much when they were a unit, but they have controlled possession at five-on-five and in a big way. In just over 123 minutes together, they have a CF% of 62.76 percent and xG% of 60.53 percent. They’ve only scored five goals together, but when your shot quantity and quality are over 60 percent, the opposition isn’t seeing much of the puck. That’s certainly much better than getting caved in and not scoring.
The question mark here is playing Holtz with Hughes and Sharangovich. Holtz’s brief stint in the NHL earlier this season was a mixed bag, but he’s been on a tear with the Utica Comets in the AHL for the last month. He has 14 points in his last 11 games and 22 points in 19 games for the Comets. I’d be surprised if a call-up were imminent, so this is a set of lines that may have to wait a bit.
With that being the case, Ruff could play Kuokkanen with Hughes and Sharangovich. Kuokkanen has struggled quite a bit this season, but his most comfortable days in a Devils uniform came in 2020-21 with Hughes and Sharangovich. They had a CF% of 58.37 percent and xG% of 56.37 percent as a line a season ago. If the Devils value Kuokkanen beyond 2021-22, they need to get him going, so perhaps this is a line combo worth revisiting.
Bratt With Hischier & Johnsson
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Tatar
- Johnsson – Hischier – Bratt
- Zacha – Mercer – Vesey
- Kuokkanen – Boqvist – Bastian
The last set of lines here isn’t too dissimilar from our first set. We already went over Sharangovich, Hughes and Tatar, so there’s no need to rehash that. The difference here lies with Hischier and Bratt. Johnsson and Bratt had success with Mercer, so why not Hischier? They don’t have a history as a trio, but Hischier and Bratt have played well together since their rookie seasons in 2017-18. Johnsson’s played well in 2021-22 after a career-worst campaign in 2020-21, so he should gel with Hischier and Bratt.
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Zacha and Hischier have put up strong defensive numbers, but Zacha hasn’t scored enough to justify being in a top-six role. Moving him down to the third line with Mercer and Vesey seems like a reasonable decision. And Hughes stays with Sharangovich, which will be a key if Ruff splits Hughes and Bratt.
There Are Arguments Both Ways for Splitting Hughes & Bratt
Of course, Ruff could easily keep Bratt, Hughes and Sharangovich together. Honestly, I’d be surprised if he didn’t. With that said, Hischier still needs better linemates. Bastian and Vesey have played well this season and have given the Devils more than they could’ve asked from either player. But they’re best suited in the team’s bottom-six.
If the current Hughes unit stays intact, the simple solution is to reunite Hischier with Zacha and Tatar. Their results are impressive, and it’s safe to assume they can at least control possession at five-on-five unless they show otherwise. Giving Johnsson a look with Hischier and Tatar might also be worth it since he offers more scoring than Zacha.
There are clear arguments both ways for splitting up Hughes and Bratt. If Ruff wants to keep them together, it’d be hard to argue with him. But they are easily the Devils’ two best play drivers. They’re elite skaters who excel in transition, so having them on separate lines has its benefits. Look no further to Mercer and Johnsson when they were on Bratt’s line. It’s at least an option worth considering and one that very much should bring a little more balance to a Devils top-six that hasn’t always been consistent this season. And if it works and they start scoring more consistently, it could take some pressure off their netminders.
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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