Devils’ Top Line Has Elite-Level Potential

The New Jersey Devils’ top line has consisted of Ondrej Palat, Jack Hughes and Alexander Holtz throughout training camp and in the team’s second preseason game Tuesday against the New York Islanders. The recently-configured line looked to be in mid-season form when Hughes scored a second-period goal after Palat and Holtz dug the puck out of the corner and eventually found him all alone in front. If this is a preview of what this line is capable of, then New Jersey may have its first elite-level top line since the trio of Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott.

Jack Hughes’ Dynamic Playmaking Ability

Let’s start with Hughes. The former first-overall draft pick took the league by storm last season when he recorded 56 points in 49 games before a knee injury ended his season prematurely. When he was healthy, it didn’t matter if any combination of Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Bratt, Andreas Johnsson, Dawson Mercer or Janne Kuokkanen were on his wings, Hughes found a way to consistently create offense and elevate the play of his linemates.

The 21-year-old had the second-largest points-per-game improvement in the entire NHL from 2020-21 to 2021-22, only behind Nazem Kadri, and led the Devils in time on ice per game amongst forwards, power play goals and shooting percentage and was second in even-strength goals and takeaways per 60 minutes, even though he only played 49 games.

Related: New Jersey Devils’ Jack Hughes’ Improvement Has Been More Than Just Numbers

Hughes was ranked the 17th best center and the best under-23 player (From ‘Ranking the best NHL players and prospects under 23: Jack Hughes tops the list,’ The Athletic, 8/29/22) in the league and he is expected to further continue his upward trajectory this season after spending the summer bulking up and improving his speed and shot.

Ondrej Palat’s Stability, Consistency & Responsibility

Palat had spent his entire career with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which included two Stanley Cup-winning campaigns in 2018-19 and 2019-20, before signing with the Devils as an unrestricted free agent in July. He will provide a comforting and steady veteran presence alongside Hughes that the team has been missing on their top unit.

Ondrej Palat New Jersey Devils
Ondrej Palat, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Palat finished last season with a plus-15 rating with the Lightning, which is better than any skater from the Devils from last season. I know he played on one of the best teams in the league and in front of one of the best goaltenders in Andrei Vasilevskiy, but he has a career Corsi-for percentage of 53.7 percent, which means his team generates more scoring chances when he’s on the ice than they give up.

Related: Devils’ Ondrej Palat Signing Will Improve Top-6

“He’s probably the closest thing to a player-coach there is out there because of how he thinks the game, his beliefs in how to practice, the habits and the details you need to create that winning culture,” Devils’ general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “Championship pedigree was something that was important to me because I know how this is going to pay forward.”

Palat may not be as explosive as Hughes and Holtz, but his willingness to do the dirty work away from the puck so the duo can focus on applying their strongest assets is the perfect complementary skillset to balance out the Devils’ top line.

Alexander Holtz’s Game-Breaking Upside

Although Holtz’s shot is certainly NHL-ready, he’s struggled to make an impact at the NHL level so far in his career. In nine NHL games, he only has two assists, but his production with the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League (AHL) should give the Devils cautious optimism that he can eventually become the top-six winger that they thought he’d be when they drafted him.

Holtz was tasked with bulking up so he doesn’t get bumped off pucks as easily and increasing his pace of play so he can keep up with the speed of the NHL game and his potential centerman in Hughes. If he can improve his foot speed and think the game faster to create space for himself to the point where he is able to use his shot more often and effectively, then his NHL upside will be through the roof.

“He (Holtz) knows the parts of his game he needs to improve and work on inside a game that’ll make a difference,” Ruff said. “He’s pushing for a spot on the team.”

The 20-year-old Swede compares his game to Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak due to his knack for putting pucks in the net. There is no question Holtz is a pure goal scorer, but having a strong and accurate shot is not enough to make it in the NHL. A player needs to be outstanding in all facets of the game, including skating, hockey IQ and defensive awareness, all of which are works in progress for Holtz but ones that already seem to have improved from last year.

Holtz scored two goals in the Devils’ first game of the Prospects Challenge Tournament against the Montreal Canadiens and he recorded an assist on Hughes’ goal in New Jersey’s preseason game against the Islanders. The former seventh-overall pick was noticeably quicker, stronger and more comfortable playing with and against NHL-caliber players than he was at any point last season. As such, he could find himself skating on the top line for the entire season if he continues to prove that he can effectively apply his strongest assets.

Hughes’ ability to create offense, Palat’s responsible and hard-working game and Holtz’s goal-scoring prowess could be the recipe for an extremely balanced but high-powered line combination. The three have very different skill sets, but ones that can help each other best display their strongest qualities to potentially give the Devils their first elite-level top line during the rebuild era.

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