No matter what happens for the remainder of 2016-17, there’s one thing the New Jersey Devils should be certain to do in 2017-18: keep Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall together. Since becoming a regular trio, they have been used as the Devils’ top line and they’ve had success, even in games where the team as a whole has floundered.
Individually, each of the three has been pretty good all season, as they are currently the team’s 3 leaders in points; they’re not exactly posting mind-blowing numbers, but since being joined together, they’re also responsible for handling an opposing team’s top line on most nights. Hockey Buzz’s Todd Cordell posts the Devils possession stats after most games, and the top line’s possession numbers, even when beaten (and sometimes badly outplayed) support my claim about their recent play.
The one factor that really stands out to me about this trio is that on a nightly basis, they come out and they play hard even if they’re being outplayed. Zajac is definitely not the most skilled offensive player on the team, but his effort level and defensive contributions can never be brought into question. Hall always seems to be playing on a different level from majority of this team. Palms, I’ve noticed, has some snarl to him when the team is losing or when the opposition is bringing the physicality. For instance, I can’t find a good clip of it, but he drilled (I believe) Curtis Lazar on Tuesday night with a hard, legal check in attempt to inspire his teammates.
Let’s face it, the Devils right now have some floaters that aren’t giving 100% every time they hit the ice; I’d rather have these 3, or even someone like Joseph Blandisi on the ice who is going to go out and fight for this team every shift than some other players who have seen top 6 time this season. Now perhaps part of the problem is ensuring we have enough bodies to meet the expansion draft requirements, but it shouldn’t take 50+ games to scratch somebody who isn’t giving their all, as it had up until this point. The Devils can have their “fast, supportive, attacking” mantra under Hynes, but this isn’t a top to bottom stacked team; keeping Hall/Palms/Zajac together should be a way of showing other players that you need to work hard and earn your ice time to help ensure the team’s success.
I think the team should be looking into deployment options (especially at home) both for the remainder of this season and going forward for this trio; Zajac is the team’s best defensive center, but could someone else not be found for that role so that his line can be used against teams’ bottom 6 forwards? Again, Travis isn’t an offensive superstar, but he’s competent and centering two of the team’s best scoring weapons. That alone should lead to second thoughts from the coaching staff as to which players the top line is matching against.
There will obviously be some turnover coming with the trade deadline, Expansion Draft, and free agency all looming between now and June. I do think that New Jersey should look to either move players up and down the lineup (depending again on who’s still here) as well as finding some complimentary pieces to fill in the gaps. One thing for sure right now though is that Zajac, Palms and Hall should all be looking forward to stepping on the ice as a unit again next season. With how well they’ve played together, it’d be idiotic for them not to be kept together.
Now I’d like to hear your take on New Jersey’s top line; would a full season of all 3 playing together see better results? Do you think they should be deployed differently to face perceived weaker lines on other teams? Should the Devils be rewarding players with ice time based off of effort or skill? Leave any and all comments below and thank you, as always, for reading.