Twelve years ago, I became a hockey blogger. While the site was called In Lou We Trust, you can see the seed of what my blogging style would be about. I was so All About the Jersey then, my first post started with an introduction and went right into dealing with an immediate Devils issue: who would center the second line in light of an injury to Scott Gomez. Marvel at the names in that post; there’s even an Alex Brooks reference. As Mike wrote about the lack of secondary scoring yesterday, I am not totally surprised that is still a legitimate question to ask twelve years, seven coaches, two GMs, two owners, one arena, and so many changes later. However, this part of the post stuck out:
As a team to this point, the Devils have 67 individual points to go around; 27 of those, or 40%, belong to the top line. Of the Devils’ 25 goals scored on the season, one of Palmieri, Hall, and Nico has been in on 15 of them. So 60% of the Devils goals thus far have included a point from one of their top three. The ratio has gotten more stark since a fairly balanced attack in the first couple games of the season. In the last five games, there have only been three goals scored without one of the big three pulling the trigger or assisting, so almost 80% of the Devils goals over this uneven five-game stretch have involved a point from one of Hall, Palmieri, and Hischier.
Mike is right and he uses this to go into the issue of secondary scoring, or the lackthereof. However, as impressive as these totals are, I do not think this does enough justice to how good the line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri has been so far this season.
Please do not misunderstand me. Production matters and this trio has brought it. Palmieri is entering today’s game still with a goals-per-game average of one; both Palmieri and Hall have cracked double-digits in points; and Hischier is in third behind them only tied by Damon Severson, who has played quite a bit with this line in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. I can understand those who look at what Mike pointed out and the overall point totals and say, “That’s it. That’s all I need to know. They’re great.” Likewise, one could take the Nashville game (for example) and say, “I saw this line do good things as opposed to almost everyone else. My eye test is undeniable. They’re great.” So who needs However, if I learned anything in blogging about hockey for 12 years, it’s that producing and playing well are not always the same; the eye test is always deniable thanks, in part, to concepts like confirmation bias and groupthink; and it is almost always worth it to dig deeper to see if something is real.
Let me tell you up front: Hall-Hischier-Palmieri is very real so far in 2018-19 and they are spectacular. The best way I can show this is through the line tool feature at Natural Stat Trick. You can plug in a line, a defensive pairing, or a full five-man unit and see how the team has done with them, with part of them, and/or without them in various situations. Hall-Hischier-Palmieri, or 9-13-21, has been together all season in 5-on-5 play, the most common situation in hockey. They also make up three-fifths of the team’s top power play unit, which has been quite successful so far this season. With the Line Tool, here is how the Devils perform in various stats with that line and without them in the first seven games of this season:
In nearly every category in 5-on-5 play, the Devils have been far better with the Hall-Hischier-Palmieri on the ice than otherwise. In terms of attempts (Corsi), the Devils have been ahead in attempts with that line. Without them, they’re just under 50%. In terms of shots, the Devils have really out-shot their competition with the Hischier line than without. In terms of scoring chances, the Devils with th eline have a better differential than their breakeven total without them. In terms of the high danger (HD) chances - the chances in the slot and at the crease - while both with and without you have the same differential; the Hischier line has the superior proportion. Of course, goals matter and this is the only stat where the Devils without this line has put up more goals than the line. Even then, the rate of goals is in the Hischier line’s favor and that line has seen just one against and it was not a high-danger goal either. PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) is also in their favor and head coach John Hynes has appropriately given his top offensive line plenty of offensive zone starts since they keep generating so much.
I must note that the Devils outside of this line have not been so awful. They are only below 50% in Corsi For% and even there the rest of the team has been out attempted by just five in this whole season. While I empathize and share the concern of secondary scoring, it is not as if the Devils are this scrubby squad when Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri have to sit. This is proof that when this line is on the ice, the Devils are performing much better than when they are not. It is why they are able to generate as much production as they have been. It is also why when they are not able to produce for a shift or a period or even a game, they can still contribute to the team’s overall performance just by keeping up the pressure and helping the ice tilt in their favor, so to speak.
The difference is even starker on the power play. Again, Hischier has joined the PP1 unit with Hall and Palmieri and this unit has been effective. The second unit has not been. Granted, most teams have a similar situation. If the players on the secondary PP unit were doing that well, they would likely be put on the first unit. Plus, the first unit usually takes the faceoff and has the opportunity to attack and maintain possession first. If they succeed, then that will be less time for the other unit to do anything - and ideally they should have no time because there would be a goal. So it is not usually a big deal that the Devils’ PP1 has been than their PP2. What is a big deal is how wide this gap is and this is in large part to 9-13-21 keeping their good things going. That unit has way more attempts, shots, scoring chances, and (still important) goals. Hall has an assist on all but one of his unit’s goals. Palmieri has four of those eight PPGs plus two assists, and Hischier has two of those too. They have been a big reason why the unit has done as much as it has been. Maybe the second unit will get a little more done with more time, but right now, PP1 should be given the prime minutes.
This leads me to my larger point: the Hall-Hischier-Palmieri has been a great line with and without scoring goals. Yes, it has only been seven games with most of them at home, but Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri have provided plenty of proof of what they have brought to the table so far. (Plus, Hynes and any other coach does not have the luxury of waiting 40, 20, or even 10 games to make decisions. If something is working right away, it’ll stay together until it is not.) The Devils have performed better in 5-on-5 play and on the power play with them than without them. Throw in the points and it’s a dynamite trio that has been capable of carrying the Devils’ offense - which they have done in several games. Because they have been so good, they should be kept together as long as possible. It may not be as productive over time - it is highly unlikely the team will keep shooting at 11% with that line on the ice in 5-on-5 play - but it will do a very good job overall at pushing the play forward and creating opportunities on top of finding finishes for them.
Could this line be in danger of being split up? Not at the moment, but that can change quickly. Let’s take a step back for a moment. Right now, the Devils are entering an early home game against Florida on a three game winless streak. They will begin a seven-game road trip next Tuesday. Even if the Devils beat Florida, if the lines behind the Hischier line do not perform well, the temptation is there for John Hynes and his staff to make some changes. After all, if something is not working, then should you not try to make changes? And why keep putting all of the proverbial eggs into the 9-13-21 basket when others may benefit with a shooter like Palmieri or a skilled player like Hischier or the 2017-18 NHL MVP? And if that change does work, then why change it back because it is working? Before you know it, you may talk yourself into breaking up a line that has been helping the team out-perform their competition in 5-on-5 play, only to reunite for a power play that may make one wonder why they do not keep them together all the time. I almost did it while writing this paragraph.
I recognize the possibility that the others on the line may thrive with other teammates. I also recognize that nothing has happened yet. Still, this requires the change to also yield great hockey performances. Otherwise, Hynes is effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul, the forwards still suffer, and it may contribute to a loss or two that the team should try to avoid. The ideal scenario is that the Devils hammers Florida from top to bottom, the road trip does not go awry, and 9-13-21 continue to stay together to continue making beautiful sounds like opposing crowds booing when they create and/or score a goal. Then this risk is not presen and we can continue to heap appropriate amounts of praise on the team’s top forward line.
I agree that secondary scoring is a significant problem on the Devils. I do not think Hynes should risk sacrificing his primary scoring to improve it at this juncture. The coach has done well to resist temptation so far. Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri are amazing together and they should be kept together as long as possible. Who knows? They may end up being one of the better top lines I’ve seen in the last 12 years of blogging about the Devils.
What do you think of the Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri line so far? What has impressed you the most by them? Will Hynes keep them together for as long as possible? Most importantly, a line this good should have a nickname - what should it be? Please leave your answers and suggestions in the comments. Thank you for reading this post and for reading me today or at any point over the last 12 years. I don’t know when to stop and I don’t want to either.