Since last season, the presumed top line has always had both Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri on it. When healthy, both have worked really well together to take the game to the opposition, especially in many advanced metrics. This was especially true last season when Travis Zajac was centering them.
This season, Zajac missed most of the first quarter of the season, meaning the two needed a new center. Most of the time it has been Nico Hischier, who has done well for himself as an 18-year old rookie playing top line minutes. He could easily end up with 60 points this season, which would be a great pace, on par with many of the previous first overall picks since the 04-05 lockout. Ignoring Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid for obvious reasons, Nathan MacKinnon had 63 back in 2013-14, Nail Yakupov had 31 in the lockout-shortened 48 game season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had 52 in 2011-12, Taylor Hall had 42 back in 2010-11, John Tavares had 54 as a rookie, and Steven Stamkos had 46. Given that production from those players, you can’t be mad about where Nico is now.
However, with Zajac getting healthy sooner than expected, everyone figured that he would assume the top line center positon again with Hall and Palmieri, and we would hopefully see a nice boost in production from all three of them. This would especially be true in possession, as the Devils have really fallen apart on that front. But then, not long after Zajac comes back, boom, Palmieri goes down with a broken foot and will be out 4-6 weeks. Just as last year’s dominant top line could finally start to regain chemistry, things have to be shifted around again to make up for Palmieri’s absence.
During the Boston game on Wednesday, John Hynes decided to put Jesper Bratt on the top line with Hall to replace Palmieri. They spent much of the game together, with the center between them changing between Zajac and Hischier. While Bratt had been struggling somewhat, with only three points in November before entering the Boston game, it turned out to be a great connection. Bratt scored his first goal since November 3rd, and when the two were out on the ice together, they both had a Corsi For of 75% which is incredible. And this was over 12:24 of shared ice time, which was the most amount of time that either spent with any other forward on the team for that game.
This game goes along with what the data over the full season shows us to this point. When these two skaters have been on the ice together this season, which had been for 61:43 before last night’s game, their relative Corsi For was at 10.01%. That is a monster number. For Hall specifically, that is the best possession numbers he has with any forward he has played at least 10 minutes with. So while you might think that this Hall-Bratt connection would only be working to help improve Bratt’s game, think again. Their shared relative Corsi when on the ice together shows that they can really drive possession forward more so than most any other wing pairing on this hockey team.
There was no doubt that after a scorching hot start that forced the Devils brass to burn a year of his ELC to keep him with the big club, Bratt had been slowing down. All rookies tend to fall into rough patches during their initial season, it is a part of learning how to play consistently at the NHL level. However, because of the focus the Devils have on youth this season, they really need him to figure out a way to get past this as soon as possible and get back to his old ways of generating many chances and producing points at a regular clip. The best way that I can see this happening is for him to remain on the top line with Hall for a good while as Palmieri recovers from his injury.
There can be absolutely no denying that Hall is the person to play with on this team. He is truly a transcendent player. CJ noted on his twitter feed how Hall is the only player on this entire team when it comes to consistently generating controlled zone entries. Over a seven game span, he had 39 zone entries where he carried the puck in and did not dump it. Over that same time span, the next best player on that front was in fact Hischier, with 22 controlled entries. No one else had over 15. What does that tell us? Well potentially two things. One, it means that Hall and his line are going to generate more offensive zone chances than anyone else because he is controlling the puck entering the zone, making it much more likely that the Devils can do something with it at that time. Or two, I guess it could also tell us that most everyone else needs to start figuring out how to carry the puck into the zone more instead of just dumping it in deep and seeing what happens.
What this means for Bratt, however, is that if he continues to play on the top line with Hall, he will be seeing many more offensive zone opportunities to break out of this lull he has been in and get back onto the scoring sheet on a regular basis. In that same chart from CJ, Bratt was actually also one of the few players who had more controlled zone entries than dump-ins, with 12 carry-ins to only 8 dump-ins. So between Hall and Bratt, you have two talented forwards who look to generate offense by controlling possession as they enter the offensive zone. Those are two players you want playing together.
Of course, there is sadly a long time before we will be seeing Palms back on the ice. A broken foot is no joke, and it will take some serious rehabbing to get him back on the ice and skating. Over the course of his absence, there is no doubt that Bratt and Hall will not remain on the same line together for the entire time. John Hynes does enough shifting around of the lines that something will change. However, for at least the next several games, if not more, I hope that he keeps Jesper Bratt playing on the top line with Taylor Hall. The connection between these two has gone pretty well for both skaters so far, and especially on a team that is really struggling to possess the puck, playing these two together could help to reverse that trend at least when they are on the ice. Who should center them is perhaps a topic for a different article, as arguments could be made for both Zajac and Hischier, but for now, I hope Hynes allows these two wingers to continue to play together. I can’t wait to see what they do on the ice together for the New Jersey Devils.
What do you think about the Hall-Bratt connection? Do you think it is a good idea to keep them together on the top line for longer? If not, who do you think should be playing on the top line in Palmieri’s absence? Who should be the top line center, Hischier or Zajac? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.