*disclaimer: This was written before the Ottawa game and so many of the stats will be one game off
When you look at the Devils point totals for 2018 so far, nothing really sticks out that bad. Palmieri leads Hall by one point with Hischier following shortly after. After leading the Devils by 41 points it may me little weird to see Palmieri in the lead, but remember he missed 20 games last year so per game he was 2nd on the team so seeing them virtually tied isn’t that unusual.
But look a little closer...
First of all, Taylor Hall has just 2 goals in 40 shots. That’s a shooting percentage of 5! His career low is 8.4 so there is every expectation that that number will increase. But, perhaps more worrisome, is how 10 of his 12 assists came on the powerplay. And in fact, if you look at Taylor Hall’s 5v5 numbers this year, through 12 games, he has 1 goal, 1 primary assists, and 1 secondary assist.
With the reigning MVP averaging over a point per game and being 2nd on the team in scoring, it feels as though the narrative has pivoted to exclusively blaming the lack of forward depth. In fact, recently, this very site ran article on back-to-back days about how depth scoring was an issue, and then how the top line is amazing and should stay together. However, I think that is missing a fairly important piece of the puzzle. That piece is that this “line” refers to the 5v5 unit with the 3 of them as forwards, when, in reality, the majority of their production is coming from either the PP1 unit that they all happen to be a part of, or from Kyle Palmieri being amazing. Hall and Hischier had only 2 primary points (1G, 1A) each at 5v5, whereas Palmieri has tallied 4 goals and 2 primary assists for team-leading 6 5v5 points.
Taylor Hall’s struggles at 5v5 are conspicuous, but how unusual are they? Last year, Hall had 23 goals and 16 primary assists at even strength. That’s 0.30 goals per game and 0.21 primary assists for 0.51 primary points per game. In 12 games so far, his rate is 0.08 goals and 0.08 primary assists for 0.16 primary points per game. Extrapolated, that would be about 13 primary points in 82 games. At no point in his career has he managed less than 20 even strength primary points — that includes the lockout-shortened 2013 season where he had 28.
So what am I saying? Is Hall washed up? Was last year a fluke? No, of course not — though I’m sure, given sufficient time, that’s what the comments section will say I said. What I am saying is that up until this point of the season, Hall’s (and Hischier’s) production has been almost entirely dependent on the man-advantage. And for a team that has the 3 best players all on the same line, the MVP coming up empty is just as problematic as any depth scoring issues we’ve had. In the 3 game losing streak that opened the road trip, Hall registered 0 even-strength points.
And it’s not just production individual point production, but also his overall on-ice impact. There is a very specific reason that Hall is struggling in some of these situations. As an example, let’s look at Home/Away splits.
All numbers above (except goals) are 5v5 and score/venue adjusted. The Devils have yet to score at 5v5 with Hall on the ice in any building other than the Rock. That’s a problem. Also, their high-danger shot share goes down by a staggering 25% when playing away. There’s no metric that Hall’s impacts don’t drastically decrease in when playing in other cities. Why?
My working theory is that it all comes down to last change. When we play away from home, teams get to play the matchup, and throw their best guys against our top line and get a wash. Then they can pick on the scrubs that fill out our lineup in the other half of the game and ultimately win the 5v5 battle as a result. I pointed this out in January of last year when Dave Hakstol, head coach of the Flyers, man-handled the Devils by taking advantage of that matchup right after losing to us at Prudential. It was a clear-as-day juxtaposition of the difference between how easy it is to deal with this top line when you do and do not have last change. This was a strategy, by the way, that he employed again this year — again to great effect.
What is the impact of this difference? Well, I probably don’t need to tell you that it’s not good. Look what Hall’s numbers look like in losses vs in wins (again, 5v5 SVA except goals).
That’s stark. I mean, look at those goal totals. And the possession stats for that matter. And basically everything to be honest. The impact is clear — you take out the top line, you take out the Devils. And when the Devils are playing in another building, that’s much easier to do. And, to me, it’s the biggest systematic reason for Hall’s 5v5 struggles.
Outside of that, his crazy low shooting percentage will improve, when the forwards get healthy (mostly Bratt) it’ll take some pressure off him, and as the year goes on they may just adapt.
Hall will be fine, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t use help. I think one way of doing that would be to split up the top line in away games to make us harder to match up with. Then when they come to back home, the fans can still see the all-star line play — hopefully for a team with a slightly better record.
What do you guys think? Should we keep the line together no matter what? Should we split it up everywhere? Should we keep them together at home when we control the matchups? Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below!