Devils Still Seeking Right Lineup

Hype. That’s one word associated with the New Jersey Devils at the beginning of the 2019-20 season. They had one of the most active offseasons of any NHL team, so the excitement was understandable. But that’s quickly vanished after a less than satisfying start to the season. They blew a four-goal lead in the final 20 minutes of their season opener and followed it up by allowing seven goals the next evening. So what’s gone wrong? And what needs to change to get them heading in the right direction?

Hynes’ Questionable Lineup Decisions

The Devils got off to a hot start against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night. They scored the first four goals of the game and took a 4-1 lead into the second intermission. For whatever reason, head coach John Hynes decided to mix up his lines by moving Jesper Bratt to the fourth line and placing John Hayden on a line with Jack Hughes and Nikita Gusev. The results were not pretty as Hughes, Hayden, and Gusev were on the ice for two of the Jets’ three third-period goals.

The Jets wound up winning the game 5-4 in a shootout, a loss the Devils should have avoided. They would return to action against the Sabres just 24 hours later, and with a much different set of lines. Unfortunately, the result was even worse as the Sabres came away with a 7-2 bludgeoning at the expense of the Devils. 

Hynes’ line combinations against Sabres could have been much better, and that’s being generous. He had Hughes paired with Bratt and Miles Wood, and three got hammered at five-on-five — the Devils had a 16.67 Corsi for percentage (CF%) with them on the ice. The line of Gusev, Pavel Zacha, and Jesper Boqvist didn’t fare much better as they had a 37.5 CF%. 

Jesper Bratt New Jersey Devils
Jesper Bratt was demoted to the fourth line the New Jersey Devils’ season opener (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s also worth noting Hynes’ game management in each contest. He wanted to give Hughes’ line stability by switching Bratt out with Hayden against the Jets, specifically for defense. Even though the Devils gave up a goal with 10 seconds remaining in the second period, it’s not like they were getting outplayed thoroughly. Shot attempts at five-on-five were 26-25 in favor of the Jets, so replacing Bratt for defensive help wasn’t necessarily needed. And if it were, swapping him out for someone like Blake Coleman would’ve been wiser.  

Unlike the Jets game, things were the exact opposite against the Sabres. The Devils were slow out of the gate and were out-attempted 14-4 in the first period at five-on-five. Rather than making any line changes, Hynes kept his combinations the same through the game’s entirety. And given how things started, it didn’t leave the team much of a chance to come back. 

Devils’ Lines Thrown Into a Blender 

While Hynes deserves criticism for how things went in the Devils’ first two games, he continues to tweak his lineup to get things going. And what he’s come up with during their most recent practices looks to be pretty promising. Here’s how the lines are set up:

  • Taylor Hall – Nico Hischier – Nikita Gusev
  • Jesper Bratt – Travis Zajac – Kyle Palmieri
  • Blake Coleman – Jack Hughes – Wayne Simmonds
  • Miles Wood – Kevin Rooney – John Hayden

The Devils have run a top line of Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri for quite some time, and you can’t blame them, either. They’ve put up dominant five-on-five numbers over the last two seasons, but it’s the right time to break them up as the team needs more balance. Gusev is a natural left-wing but has expressed being open to playing the right side since he’s a right-handed shot. He showed chemistry with Hischier during the preseason, and playing with a forward of Hall’s caliber can only help. 

Nikita Gusev New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils are still trying to find the right fit for Nikita Gusev (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The next combo Hynes came up with is pairing Palmieri and Bratt with Zajac. Bratt will set up as a left-winger rather than his usual right-wing spot. Palmieri and Zajac are two of the team’s best defensive forwards, while Palmieri is the team’s best shooter. Combine that with Bratt’s passing ability, and this is a well-rounded, two-way line with plenty of offensive upside. 

Devils’ fans may cringe at the sight of Hughes playing on the third line. But the truth is he’s struggled mightily in his first two NHL games — he has a 23.26 CF% and 23.32 expected goals for percentage (xGF%). It’s only two games, so no one should be hitting the panic button. With that said, they need to find the right linemates to help him out. Simmonds plays with an edge and will scrap some goals for Hughes, while Coleman’s strong, two-way game should be a significant boost, too.

Related: Devils 2019-20 Roster: What Are the Lines Going to Look Like

If there’s a bone to pick with Hynes’ new lines, it’s the fourth line. Pavel Zacha has played well in his first two games, but the downgrade to Rooney isn’t enough to cause any significant problems. While Hayden adds some physicality, he provides almost no offense. Jesper Boqvist is a solid all-around player who has much more offensive upside than Hayden, so the Devils would most likely be better served to play him.

Wait, There Are Also New Defense Pairs

The Devils’ defense looked pretty decent for the first 40 minutes against the Jets. But that changed in a heartbeat, and it carried over into the next night against the Sabres. So that was enough for Hynes to shake things up along the blue line, too. Here’s a look at the new pairs:

  • Sami Vatanen – P.K. Subban
  • Andy Greene – Damon Severson
  • Will Butcher – Connor Carrick

After playing the first two games with Subban, Greene moves down a pair alongside Severson, while Vatanen moves up into Greene’s spot. Butcher moves down a pair with Carrick, who has yet to a play in a game this season, as he replaces a struggling Mueller.

P.K. Subban New Jersey Devils
P.K. Subban will have a new defense partner moving forward (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Who would play as Subban’s partner was one of the question marks heading into the regular season. Greene didn’t seem like the best choice, but he fared quite well in the first two games. However, just like the forwards, Hynes needs to find more balance among his defense pairs.

Vatanen has played on his off-hand in the past and seems like the best choice to play with Subban, given the roster’s current construction. Greene and Severson have logged over 1700 minutes together at five-on-five over the previous three seasons. But their numbers aren’t too encouraging — they have a 47.52 xGF% together. Butcher would be the better fit with Severson, but it’s also hard to argue with Greene on the second pair, considering his strong start to the season.

The most notable change is Mueller coming out of the lineup for Carrick. Mueller, who the team acquired in a trade in 2017, has had his fair share of problems in the Devils’ first two games. He has a 33.33 CF% and 40.44 xGF%, and the team has been out-chanced 14-5 with him on the ice. Carrick can’t be much worse, and he should benefit from playing with a steady, puck-moving defenseman like Butcher. 

Getting the Devils Back on Track

It might seem like an overreaction to call for change just two games into the season, but the Devils needed it. They lost a game they shouldn’t have against the Jets and got run out of the building by the Sabres. The team isn’t going to fire Hynes any time soon, so shaking up the lines and defense pairs is the best option.

Related: NHL Trophy Talk: 31 Calder Candidates

Hynes also needs to do a better job with his in-game management. If he has to make line changes, he has to do better than what he did against the Jets. Moving Hayden into Bratt’s spot was not the right choice, and they paid for it on the scoreboard. It may not seem like a big deal for one game, but it will be if similar moves become the norm. And that’ll ultimately cost the Devils points in the standings.

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