We did it. We’ve made it to game day. The New Jersey Devils kick-off their 2021-22 NHL season tonight with a tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Prudential Center. By the looks of it, head coach Lindy Ruff will be running back the top-six he used up front to end the 2020-21 season to begin 2021-22. That’s all fine and well, but if things don’t work out, he’s eventually going to have options to mix things up.
Given Ruff’s track record in 2020-21, he won’t hesitate to change his forward lines, even during games. With Tomáš Tatar added to the roster, plus prospect Dawson Mercer, Ruff will have more options to boost the team’s offense when he needs to change things up. A lot will also hinge on how well Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier perform, and that could determine how Ruff constructs his forward lines early this season. Using JFresh Hockey’s WAR Lineup Creator, here are a few different line combinations that we may see.
Running Back 2020-21’s Top-Six
Before getting into the lines, there are a couple of things to note. Don’t focus too much on the Devils’ projected standings points. No line combination will significantly sway them away from 92 points in one direction or the other. Instead, focus on the projected wins above replacement (WAR) next to each line in the graphics below.
Finally, don’t pay much attention to the Devils’ defense pairs. Things there will be pretty straightforward, especially once Ty Smith and Damon Severson return from injuries. Without further ado, here’s the first set of line combinations, which may look familiar to you if you watched the Devils last season.
The first thing to note is the top line of Yegor Sharangovich, Hughes and Janne Kuokkanen has a projected WAR of 3.1, which is 0.5 lower than the second line of Pavel Zacha, Hischier and Jesper Bratt. With that said, I do understand why Ruff wants to give that top unit another look; they had some success towards the end of 2020-21 after the trade deadline.
Once the Devils traded Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders, Hughes moved up to center a line with Kuokkanen and Sharangovich, and their results were quite good. They had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 56.5 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 52.3 percent at five-on-five. Hughes was a big part of their success, as he had 14 points in 19 games after the Zajac trade — a 60-point pace over 82 games. Sharangovich was equally impressive, finishing with 17 points in 19 games — a 73-point pace over 82 games.
Kuokkanen, on the other hand, was not quite as productive. He finished with nine points in his final 18 games — a 41-point pace over 82 games. That’s solid middle-six production, but it’s usually not enough to cut it in a top-six role.
With that said, Kuokkanen had a pretty solid preseason, so there’s no problem giving this unit another look. That’s especially true against a team like the Blackhawks, who were a mess defensively on opening night. But if it’s clear the Devils struggle as constructed here, Ruff shouldn’t be afraid to shake things up quickly.
Sharangovich, Hughes and Tatar Provide Balance in Lineup
This scenario is pretty straightforward; a simple switch between Kuokkanen and Tatar on the first and third lines.
Notice the jump in projected WAR with Tatar on the first line compared to Kuokkanen (3.1 to 4.7). Tatar was one of the league’s best five-on-five forwards in his three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. His CF% of 59.4 percent and xG% of 59.8 percent ranked second and first in the league among forwards, respectively. Overall, he averaged 62 points per 82 games in his time with the Canadiens.
A significant reason for Tatar’s success in Montreal came because of his linemates Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault. But even when Tatar was not paired with Gallagher and Danault, his on-ice results at five-on-five were still quite good. He had a CF% and xG% of 54.6 percent each, so it’s not like his play fell off a cliff. He’s a high-end play-driver and excels on the rush. With a player like Hughes, who can drive offense at a high level, and a shooter like Sharangovich, this line could do some real damage.
With Tatar on the first line, the Devils’ top three lines are more balanced, and it maximizes their talent in the top-six. The Hischier line stays intact, and will provide the team with a formidable second line. That unit didn’t play much together last season, partly because Hischier missed so much time with injuries. But what they did at five-on-five was encouraging — they had an xG% of 51.4 percent in 151:28 together. Their projected WAR of 3.6, combined with Hughes’ line moving to a projected WAR of 4.7, should give the Devils a productive top-six.
As for Kuokkanen, moving to the third line with Mercer and Andreas Johnsson gives the Devils some depth below top-six. Mercer had an impressive preseason and will provide the Devils with a steady two-way presence down the middle. Johnsson struggled in 2020-21, but he should rebound a bit this season. His five-on-five numbers were good last season, and playing with a passer like Kuokkanen could help him find the back of the net more often.
Sharangovich, Hughes and Bratt
This next group involves moving Bratt up to the first line with Hughes and Sharangovich, leaving Tatar with Hischier and Zacha on the second line. The bottom six remains largely unchanged, except for Tyce Thompson possibly slotting into the bottom six when he returns from an injury.
Bratt and Hughes played quite a bit together last season, particularly before the trade deadline. Their results were nothing short of fantastic — they had a CF% of 62.1 percent and xG% of 61.6 percent as linemates. Their most common linemates were Johnsson or Kyle Palmieri, but that didn’t matter much. Hughes and Bratt still put up stellar numbers at five-on-five with either winger.
Hughes and Bratt are both high-end play-drivers and underrated defensive forwards. That’s specifically true of Hughes, whose defensive game took a significant step forward in 2020-21. Adding a shooter like Sharangovich to their line wouldn’t be far off from having Palmieri complement them. They should be able to score goals. And with Hughes and Bratt doing the heavy lifting in terms of facilitating play, they should be able to put some pretty sturdy numbers at five-on-five. Their projected WAR of 4.5 is about as good as a first-line with Sharangovich, Hughes and Tatar.
Speaking of Tatar, he’s a pretty good fit alongside Hischier too. Zacha had a breakout season in 2020-21 and would’ve been on pace for 26 goals and 57 points over 82 games. A lot of that success came on the wing with Hischier and Bratt, two players who can carry a line. Zacha needs those types of players as linemates who can get him the puck and allow him to use his shot to the best of his abilities. And Tatar and Hischier fit that criterion perfectly.
Sharangovich, Hischier and Bratt First Line
This set of lines is similar to the previous one. The only change is flipping Hughes and Hischier’s spots.
Like playing alongside Hischier and Bratt, Zacha gets a chance alongside two offensive facilitators in Hughes and Tatar. The thought here, too, is that Hughes and Tatar’s play-driving ability will help the line generate enough offense to offset any defensive shortcomings Zacha has, even though their projected defensive WAR is still in the red.
Sharangovich, Hischier and Bratt did not play together at all last season, so it’d also be a new unit to experiment with, like the line above them. Their projected WAR of 5 is among the best from these hypothetical lines. So it might be a trio worth considering — along with Zacha, Hughes and Tatar — if the Devils really need to spark their top-six.
Tatar, Hischier and Bratt: Play-Driving Machines
If Ruff really wants to stack his first line, then using Tatar, Hischier and Bratt might be the way to go. That’d leave a second line of Sharangovich, Hughes, and Kuokkanen, with Zacha moving to the third line with Mercer and Johnsson.
Of all the first lines here, Tatar, Hughes and Bratt have the highest projected WAR at 5.8. They’re all standout players at five-on-five, are high-end play-drivers and excel on the rush. There might be some question as to who scores goals from this trio. Tatar did average close to 24 goals per 82 games with the Canadiens, so he’s one candidate. Bratt worked on improving his shot this offseason, so perhaps he’s due for some more goals too.
We already spoke at length about Sharangovich, Hughes and Kuokkanen, so there’s no point in rehashing it. The biggest takeaway here is that they’d probably get softer minutes playing a second-line role, and that should open up more offensive opportunities for them. Moving Zacha to a line with Johnsson might be a concern since Johnsson isn’t great in transition. However, Mercer is quite good in that regard, so he and Zacha may find a bit of chemistry together.
Devils’ Top-Six Should Gel One Way or Another
There are plenty of line combinations Ruff could try once games begin, certainly more than the ones mentioned here. Once everyone gets healthy and Ruff gets a better feeling of who needs a jolt and who’s off to a strong start, he’ll be able to mix and match things to his liking.
The Devils will go as far as Hischier and especially Hughes will take them. But they also need their complementary players to step up and produce. Zacha has to show his 2020-21 was not a one-off. Bratt and Tatar need to be consistent top-six scoring threats, and Kuokkanen and Sharangovich will have to build off their rookie seasons in 2020-21.
Ruff has to make sure his top-six forwards all have chemistry with each other as well. That’s probably part of the reason why he’s beginning 2021-22 running back the top-six that concluded the 2020-21 season. But if that doesn’t work out, he should be able to find some units that mesh. He has more options than last season. And that becomes especially true if a healthy Hischier and a rising Hughes demonstrate early on that they’re ready to carry the team.
* * *
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