When training camp starts and the New Jersey Devils get together and start prepping on the ice for the regular season, one thing that John Hynes is going to have to determine is how to set up the top 6. Who will play with who, and who will go where. Of course, what he goes with for game one of the regular season will not be what he sticks with for the entire season. Last year, with the exception of the Hall-Zajac-Palmieri line which was together all the time, Hynes constantly changed things up in hopes of generating more offense. I personally think he changed things up too much, and especially Adam Henrique needed more consistent line mates (which I have discussed more than once before), so the hope here is that this season he allows players more time to gel together. Of course, if they are not working well at all, change it up, but give them a chance to develop some chemistry first before mixing it all up.
With that in mind, Hynes will need to figure out how to deploy the top 6 on night one to give his players the best opportunities to succeed. To this end, in my mind there are arguably 7 players at this point who could really begin game one seeing top 6 action. They would be Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Marcus Johansson and Kyle Palmieri on the wings, and Travis Zajac, Pavel Zacha, and Nico Hischier down the center. One of those centers is going to have to center the third line, and I think you could probably make a case for any one of them.
On the one hand, it makes sense for either Zacha or Hischier to center the third line because they are younger and much less experienced than Zajac is. Zajac has been centering a top 6 line for what seems like forever now, and while many have bemoaned his lack of offensive prowess, you cannot deny that he is a solid, balanced, defensively-minded center who is also the team’s faceoff ace. After being locked into the top line with Hall and Palmieri last year, that line thrived, and you have to give some of that credit to Zajac. There is no reason that line couldn’t succeed again this year if they remained together, or that Zajac couldn’t succeed with any combination of those four wingers listed above.
However, you could also make the argument for Zajac to center the third line while giving both of the kids top 6 roles. At this point in his career, Zajac is what he is. We know if given top line minutes with the best forwards this team has to offer, Zajac will be good for around a half point per game and a decent-to-good Corsi. While the possession is beneficial and certainly helps his line mates, if Hynes really wants to generate more offense, then Zajac is not the guy to bank on. Instead, you could throw him on the third line with guys like Miles Wood and Joseph Blandisi or Stefan Noesen to help improve their lack of defense and possession. His numbers would certainly take a hit, just like Henrique’s numbers took a hit last year with poor talent around him, but in the end he would undoubtedly improve the games of Wood, Blandisi, and others like them. His balanced style does that.
That would then free up the kids to be in the top 6. Zacha and Hischier would be given better talent around them, and thus would be given a better chance to really thrive. Yes they would be playing against tougher competition, but especially at home where Hynes would have the last change, he could work that to really put Zacha and Hischier in positions to up their games to the next level. For Zacha, it would be a chance to break out offensively and showcase why he was taken 6th overall, and for Hischier, it would be a chance to show to everyone that even as an 18 year old, he could handle the NHL already.
I’m not 100% sure how Hynes will go, but my guess is he ends up choosing option 1 and puts Zajac on the top 6 somewhere. He felt Zajac was the guy for the top line last year, and considering that they were really the only positive production line the entire season, it makes sense that he continues to trust him in a similar role. Zajac is also a team leader, an assistant captain, so it all fits. However, if Hynes does go the other way, that would be interesting as well, and I think it could work.
If Zajac does get a top 6 center role, which of the kids gets the other? My guess is that it could easily change throughout the season, but my first guess would be Zacha. Zacha has a full season of experience underneath him, and while his production was not huge, he did learn a lot and was not terrible. Look at his draft class, and other than the top 2 forwards taken, he has played as much and produced as much as almost any other forward. Given that, I would bet for game one that he gets the other top 6 center position. That would leave Hischier on the third line with considerably worse line mates. That is not ideal for him to start his NHL career, but the way you have to look at it is that as a third liner, he would be playing against easier competition on most nights. If he can get a competent winger alongside him, it could work out in his favor and allow him to adapt to the NHL game by playing against worse competition more often. And again, my guess is he does end up playing in the top 6 with better line mates at some point in the season, simply because of how often Hynes changes his lines up (and also because of injury, which you never know there).
Interestingly enough, according to GAR and xGF, Sean Tierney believes that Zacha would be best on the top line with Hall and Johansson. He calls those three the only playmakers on this offense, and considers that line the strongest that the Devils could produce this year, raising the forward group’s overall xGF%. An xGF of 58.9% from that line would be amazing, and certainly would give Zacha the huge step forward this year that everyone would love to see from him. The line of Zajac, Henrique and Palmieri would suffer, perhaps especially so for Palms who would be away from Hall, the best player the Devils have. However, it would give Henrique much better line mates than he had last year, and would give him a chance to showcase that he belongs in the top 6, so that would be interesting too.
In the end, I think Hischier probably starts on the third line, and you see a top 6 of Zajac, Zacha, Hall, Henrique, Johansson and Palmieri. I just hope that however Hynes deploys them at the start of the year, that he gives them a chance to gel together. It worked really well for Hall, Zajac, and Palmieri last year, and I think it could work this year too, especially for a hypothetical Hall-Zacha-Johansson line. That would be a fun line to watch.
Anyway, how do you think Hynes should deploy the top 6? Do you think he should have Zajac as one of the top 2 centers, or do you think he should have Zacha and Hischier in the top 6, with Zajac relegated to a third line role? What about how the wingers break up? Should Johansson, perhaps the new 2nd best winger behind Hall, play alongside Taylor, or should Hynes break them up? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.