It’s been tough sledding for the New Jersey Devils over the last week-plus. They’ve lost three games in a row and six of their previous seven, moving to 7-9-2 on the season, this after starting 6-3-2.
Given the Devils’ makeup, one may have concluded it’s been the defense that’s been letting them down during this slump. But it’s been the opposite; their offense has been missing in action.
Head coach Lindy Ruff has been pretty good about not throwing his lines into a blender every night and letting them try to find chemistry over a few games. But it’s clear a shakeup is needed to give the Devils’ offense a much-needed spark.
Before the Devils had to shut down for two weeks due to a COVID outbreak, the line of Andreas Johnsson, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt was wreaking havoc. They were driving play and hemming in opponents consistently, and with the team’s offense desperate for a jolt, it’s time Ruff considers putting them back together.
Overview of Devils’ Five-on-Five Struggles
Up until the Devils’ COVID pause, their offense looked like one of the better ones in the league. They were averaging 2.49 expected goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60), ranked second in the NHL before they returned to play on Feb. 16. Ruff had them playing a similar fast-paced, high-event style his Dallas Stars’ teams were known for from 2013-17.
But since the Devils have returned, it’s been tough to regain the form they had to start the season. They’ve averaged just 2.00 xGF/60 and are converting on even less, averaging 1.24 goals per 60 minutes (GF/60).
The Devils’ offensive cold spell has really come to a head over their last few games. Between Tuesday night’s loss to the New York Islanders and back-to-back losses against the Washington Capitals over the weekend, the Devils had just 8 high-danger chances combined at 5-on-5 between the three games. There isn’t any way around it, but that’s not going to cut it for a team that wants to play at a fast pace.
There are probably a few contributing factors to the Devils’ struggles. One, almost the entire team tested positive for COVID. It’s been over two weeks since everyone returned to health, but who knows what kind of effect it’s had on them getting their conditioning up to speed.
Second, the Devils are playing four games every six nights for pretty much the rest of the season. They may have the third-youngest roster in the league, but that kind of schedule will take its toll on any team.
None of the Devils’ current lines have played particularly poorly, but none have performed at the level needed for the team to be successful either. That’s why Ruff has already shaken things up. But his best bet may be returning to a Johnsson, Hughes, and Bratt combo that showed they could be dominant. Let’s take a look at their results and how they’d help the rest of the lineup.
Scoring Talent Throughout the Top Nine
The line of Johnsson, Hughes and Bratt put on a show before the COVID pause. They’ve played together sparingly since the team returned to play. But their 5-on-5 results have been among the best of any line Ruff has put out this season.
It’s only a sample size of 48 minutes together, but the Devils have had Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 67.8 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 73.1 percent with them on the ice. The line also averaged 3.02 xGF/60, as well as 72.9 shot attempts per 60 minutes. They were creating offense at a high level, and it’s probably not a coincidence the team hasn’t generated the same kind of attack since Ruff broke them up.
If Ruff reforms this unit, that should lead to a general shakeup that trickles down the lineup. With Nico Hischier out with an injury, which the Devils are calling day-to-day, their lines could look something like this:
- Johnsson – Hughes – Bratt
- Miles Wood – Pavel Zacha – Kyle Palmieri
- Yegor Sharangovich – Travis Zajac – Nikita Gusev/Janne Kuokkanen
- Mikhail Maltsev – Michael McLeod- Nathan Bastian
In reuniting Johnsson, Hughes and Bratt, Zacha moves down to center the second line alongside Wood and Palmieri since Hischier is out. Ruff had that unit together at practice yesterday, and it’s a good fit. Zacha leads the team in points, while Wood is scoring at a 31-goal pace over 82 games. There’s a good mix of size and skill and a net-front presence in Wood. Combine them with the Hughes unit, and that’s a top-six that can provide offense.
It’s also worth noting Johnsson looked his best this season when paired with Hughes and Bratt. He hasn’t played on a line with them since Feb. 18 and has just two points in seven games since then. The Devils need Johnsson as much as any other complementary piece, and it seems they can get the most out of him with Bratt and Hughes.
Once Hischier returns, Zacha would slide back to left wing and play alongside Hischier and Palmieri. That’d move Wood to a line with Zajac and Gusev or Kuokkanen. Finally, Sharangovich would round out the fourth line with McLeod and Bastian.
But either with or without Hischier, reuniting the Johnsson, Hughes and Bratt trio gives the Devils a legit first line while evenly distributing scoring talent throughout the top nine. The Hughes line can carry the load offensively, but they’d also have good depth behind them, even with Zacha playing center until Hischier returns. That’d hopefully get their offense going, and the Devils need to jump-start it soon. Otherwise, their season will slip out of their hands in short order.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick