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I’m Not OK With Either Zacha or Hischier on 3rd Line

Given how the current crop of forwards looks, there will be someone at the start of the season who could probably play on the top 6 but will be relegated to third line duties. For October 7th, I don’t want that person to be either Pavel Zacha or Nico Hischier.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This preseason, John Hynes has split up the forwards and moved them all around, trying different combinations and lines to see what clicks. So far, some of those players and lines have done extremely well together. A couple players who have done very well, and also have killed it while together, have been Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha. John wrote on Sunday about Bratt most likely receiving a nine-game tryout with the big club, which would be huge for him. He has certainly earned that this preseason, and to not at least give him a few games for New Jersey would be a shame.

While Bratt has received a lot of attention for his successes this month, and rightly so, Pavel Zacha has also really shined. He has played a decent amount of time with several different players, and has done quite well with all of them. He has played over 5 minutes with five forwards: Drew Stafford, Jesper Bratt, Brian Gibbons, Jimmy Hayes and Miles Wood. All 5 of them have better Corsi percentages with Zacha than without him. That is a great sign that he is pressing play forward regardless of who he is with.

Nico Hischier has not been given the same amount of praise and attention that Zacha has, but he has been solid himself, especially given that he is an 18 year old rookie. He has made a couple real nice plays, like this strip and goal against Washington:

There is no doubt that he has earned a spot on the opening night roster, and CJ has made his stand on the conversation, saying he believes Nico should be the one centering Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri on the first line come opening night (or afternoon I guess).

I do not disagree at all with his logic, although I would be equally as happy seeing Zacha center that line. Either of those young guys would have a golden opportunity to play alongside one of the league’s best in Hall, and they would learn an exceptional amount centering those guys. With that in mind, I want to take what CJ said and sort of go a step further. I don’t want to see either Zacha or Hischier be relegated to the third line come the regular season. Both would benefit significantly by playing alongside better talent on the Devils’ top 6.

First, I think there is no doubt that Zacha has earned that opportunity based on his play this preseason. I know he has been playing exceptional with basically anyone, as Bratt is probably not an NHL player yet and Miles Wood was a possession black hole last year. But still, that does not mean that playing with lesser talent and being successful will translate into the regular season. It is no small task to carry other players and make them better. Last year, Zacha played most of his time with Beau Bennett (208 5v5 minutes) and Jacob Josefson (183 5v5 minutes). While he was not awful last season, he was a poor possession player when not playing with Bennett, and only posted limited points, 24 in 70 games played. Granted, last season there was not much talent to go around on offense, so not playing with great talent was understandable, but this year there is more talent on that top 6, and Zacha should be given the chance to reap the benefits of that. This year could be a breakout year for him, as I think most people have noticed from watching him in the preseason, and that breakout mainly happens when playing top 6 minutes with top 6 linemates, not being buried on the depth chart.

On the same token, Hischier should also be given the chance to reap those same benefits. At 5v5 this preseason, amongst all the forwards, Nico has spent the most time with Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson. His Corsi with both of those players so far has been over 70%. The drop-off in his Corsi when playing without Henrique is exceptional, as it drops to 33.3%. When playing with quality linemates already so far, Nico has proven that he can be fairly successful. If Hynes wants to put him in the best position to succeed, then he should be out there with similar quality guys.

The real debate has been who will have to go play on the third line to start the year, especially among the centers. Henrique could play center, Zacha and Hischier are centers, and Johansson could play center. However, what is also possible is that two of those guys end up playing on the wing. Johansson can play in any of the three forward positions, and Henrique has proven that he can play a quality left wing. You could theoretically end up with Hall, Palmieri, Henrique, Johansson, Zacha and Hischier as your top 6, with Palmieri and Johansson as right wingers, Hall and Henrique as left wingers, and Zacha and Nico as centers. The one person it relegates out of the top 6 is Drew Stafford, someone brought in to fill a hole at right wing. However, what would you prefer: to relegate a veteran right winger brought to Jersey on a one year, $800k deal, or relegate one of your young and hopefully future stars? I know my answer.

In my opinion, it does not hurt to give both Zacha and Hischier the chance to play in the top 6 come October 7th. I would understand after a dozen games or so if one of them is struggling to move them down and move someone like Stafford up, but why do that from the beginning? Stafford is a stop gap measure; the other two are long term core players.

What do you think? Do you agree with me that Zacha and Hischier deserve to both start the season on the top 6? Or, do you think that would be a bad idea? Would the Devils have a better chance to win right now with one of them on the third line, or do you think the development of these two players is more important than maybe an extra win or two? How would you set up the top 6 so that both of them could play on it come October 7th? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.