What is a second line? Typically, it's referred to the second unit of three forwards in the lineup. They are to provide "secondary" scoring and be used fairly consistently to attack. A more appropriate definition is that they are the line of forwards that takes on significant competition but not always the toughest. They play a lot but not as much as the first unit. They can still be rather talented and in today's NHL, they should be. It's not necessarily about scoring points, it's about how they're used. Most, if not all, of the good teams in this league have at least two lines of quality forwards to deploy. When the first line - the unit that faces the toughest defenders, usually plays the most minutes, etc. - struggles, a good second line can step in to lessen the blow. When a team is on the road, the second unit may have to face tougher competition and, if they're good, they can survive. That is how I am defining a second line and it explains why having a functional second line is important.
The New Jersey Devils do not currently have a functional second line. And it's one of their biggest problems. Atypical to the other three seasons under Peter DeBoer, the Devils are below the league median in possession. Typical to the entire length of DeBoer's time in New Jersey, there's a constant complaint about which players he uses and who he sticks them with. Yet, there is very little outcry about the state of the second line - and I think it's a big reason why the team's possession is poorer than it has been in recent seasons.
Here's a chart from War on Ice that compares the offensive zone starts with quality of competition based on ice time for the Devils forwards. It shows who's taking on the toughs, who's getting protected, and how they're relative Corsi percentage has been this season at even strength. A minimum of 50 minutes was used to filter out lesser filled players. (Note: This chart and the following stats are taken as of November 29, before the Isles game.)
In the top right, you see the three men who have been the team's first line for most of the season: Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, and Jaromir Jagr. They have faced the toughest competition at even strength and all three of them are on the right side of possession. Cammalleri is now below 50%, but with Zajac and Jagr, he's above it per Hockey Analysis. Zajac and Jagr, unsurprising to those who saw them last season, have been generating more than conceding in terms of shooting attempt. Clearly, the Devils have a line that can face the other team's best and not get beat by them on a regular basis. So they have a first line. They may not produce as much as we'd like, but they have a functional first line.
Beyond them, it's not at all a pretty picture. We see Dainius Zubrus, Martin Havlat, and Patrik Elias next in terms of competition. They have not fared as well, and that suggests a real problem. It shows that when the Zajac line doesn't have a good game or they don't get the toughest match up, they are getting beaten more often. However, it's not fully correct to just point to 8-26-9 and say that's been the issue. As we know from injuries to competition reasons, there have been many changes to that second line. The only real constant has been that Patrik Elias has centered the second line. The results of his linemates have been mixed at best.
HockeyAnalysis has a With or Without You page for every player. Here's Zajac's as an example. I made the following chart based on Elias and his common linemates. It's still fairly early in the season, so I used thirty minutes of even strength ice time as the cut off. While it is a small sample size, how they've done in terms of possession (Corsi%) reveals how they've generally performed together on the ice. If it's gone well, there is a reason to continue it. If not, then it begs the question: why go back to it unless there's no other choice? Elias has had seven different forwards who played at least thirty minutes with him. I also included the Corsi% for the linemates with each other assuming they played thirty minutes with each other.
Patrik Elias has been a positive possession player since 2005 with the exception of right now. It's more than just a scoring slump, it's a sign that he's actually declining as a player. And DeBoer has mixed his line for various reasons and has not found much success. Marty Havlat has been Elias' most common linemate. He's basically Mattias Tedenby at this point. He'll do one or two nice things and that will somehow stick out more than the very little he contributes all game long. He has been awful with Elias. Michael Ryder has been better than Havlat by far but he's not succeeding well either. Adam Henrique was recently bumped up and the immediate reaction has been a lot of play in their own end of the rink. Ditto for Mike Cammalleri.
The only linemates who've done well with Elias has been Dainius Zubrus and Damien Brunner. This isn't to say Zubrus and Brunner are perfect and should be thrown into the second line right away. Zubrus' speed is as much of an issue as anyone else and Brunner is similar to Ryder in his own end of the rink. However, they've not only done well with Elias but they have done well with other players from a possession standpoint.
I'm harping on Corsi% because that's the best measure of how the line is performing. How many points they get is great for the score, but it doesn't tell us anything about their general play on the ice. Small sample size issues are in effect, but at the same time, it doesn't take long to recognize whether players will do well with each other. If a player with another player are below 50%, it means they're playing more defense than offense. That's more than just spending time in their own end of the rink. That's time spent not moving the puck forward. That's opportunities conceded for the other team to score. That means they're not helping the play go in the right direction. It's a sign that maybe they shouldn't play together. The variations of Elias line so far this season has more signs against the decision to who should play with Elias than those for those diecisions. And it shows on the ice.
The on-ice effects have been obvious, especially over this past last month. A unit that's on the wrong end of possession have been more likely to dump pucks away to get a needed line change or just throw pucks out of their own end, which usually leads the other team attacking because they'll get the puck. That leads to digging a bigger hold in possession. Add to the fact that the second line plays 12-14 minutes on average at even strength, and it's a good portion of the game where they're not helping the cause at a minimum. When the second line is able to win their match ups, connect on passes, and generate offense; the Devils are a better team or at least they're not just the Zajac line plus whatever the bottom six scrounge up. That hasn't happened nearly enough as the team needs and it shows overall. Therefore, they really don't have a functional second line and it's really holding the team back.
Can they put one together? That's a really difficult proposition. I believe Elias is clearly declining as a player; he's not leading the way on the second line. Again, he's below 50% in Corsi for the first time in his career since the NHL counted misses and blocks in 2005. Could he get back to positive play with different linemates? The numbers suggest Zubrus and Brunner with Elias would at least be a place to start, their issues aside. Given that Havlat has had possession values of McDonaldian/Johnsonian proportions, I have zero issue with Brunner filling in for Havlat at the moment. As for the left side, I'd rather stick Cammalleri back with Jagr and Zajac (when available) so Zubrus would be someone to try. Hopefully, with them, Elias meshes better and does more going forward.
Another possibility would be to try something completely different. Elias hasn't played much with Jagr. Given that Jagr has been the team's best possession player, surely he can help #26 out. As for the other winger, it could be Cammalleri, it could be Zubrus or even someone different like Tuomo Ruutu. If we're open to changing things up and moving Zajac away from Jagr, then it's not the worst idea in the world to try it out. Though doing something like that may mean Elias faces tougher competition and plays more, and I'm not so certain that's a smart idea.
Of course, that presumes that Elias should even be a center, never mind for the second line. Unfortunately, that may be the best case scenario. Adam Henrique has been poor against lesser competition when centering the third line, giving him more minutes without superior linemates (read: Jagr) doesn't seem to me like it's a sensible idea. Furthermore, he's been much more poor with Elias (who is facing tougher competition); so the two switching positions on the second line doesn't make sense to me either. The other two centers on the team are Jacob Josefson and Stephen Gionta. Gionta's been pulling his weight a bit better recently (Steve Bernier has been very helpful for him) and Josefson has been good in his role. I don't think either could handle bigger minutes from the get-go. There's always the option of using Zubrus as a spot center, but I don't know if he can handle the middle against a deeper team. Maybe if the Devils had a weaker opponent coming up on the schedule, but I'd only want him in there if there's no other choice.
In a perfect world, the Devils would try to strike up a trade for a center or someone who can play center in a second line role. Again, that's someone who can take on the competition and minutes a second line player would take, not necessarily a scorer - though that would help. With better possession, the line will have more opportunities for offense and therefore have more chances to score and make us all happy. Who can be dealt for that and who is available, I cannot tell you. And who knows who's willing to deal a significant player at this time of the season.
Regardless, as it stands after 23-24 games, the second line simply isn't succeeding on the ice. Hence, the changes with the bizarre exception of DeBoer insisting on keeping Havlat and Elias together so much. Hence, some of the frustration that comes from watching this team this season. Especially when the Zajac line has had a poor night. I think Lou and the team bet on Elias continuing to be the legendary player that he once was and, well, he hasn't been that player so far this season. The Devils desperately need a functional unit that can drive the play or even create offense by stringing passes together. What would you do with the team's second line? Who would you want on it and why? Because so far, it just hasn't been working and that has undercut the team to a non-insignificant degree.