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This Offense, and Team, Still Need the Top Line

Last year, the New Jersey Devils were able to make the playoffs on the shoulders of a dominant top line. This year, the team is in the basement of the Eastern Conference, and has not truly addressed its need for secondary scoring, at least not at the level needed to remain competitive.

Ottawa Senators v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Last season, the New Jersey Devils relied heavily on the top line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri to produce offense. It was a very top-heavy group of forwards. Without that top line, nothing would have happened for the red and black that would have remotely resembled offensive success, and a playoff berth would never have occurred.

This season, it has been clear that attempts have been made to generate more points from the bottom 9. Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt have been paired together on what could be considered either the second or third line, and generally with Marcus Johansson, and John Quenneville more recently. That has been a fairly solid line. Even if Zacha is not producing points at a desired pace, Bratt has been quite good, especially at 5 on 5, with 2.46 5v5 points per 60, the most on the team heading into last night’s game. Johansson was getting hotter before going to the IR as well, with 5 points in his previous 6 games.

Beyond them, as you know, Travis Zajac has been scoring more points than we are usually accustomed to, with the fourth most on the team heading into last night with 19 points in 32 games played. Blake Coleman, his linemate, is not too far behind with 17 in 33 games as well. Down on the fourth line, Brian Boyle has been a solid producer despite the checking line he plays on, with 12 points in 28 games.

Overall, as compared to last season, it is clear that there have been at least some attempts at improvement in generating some more secondary scoring. With the development of the youngsters in Zacha and Bratt especially, and perhaps you could throw in the addition of Brett Seney despite his lack of scoring as well, it seems like there has been some desire to make those improvements more permanent. If Quenneville can break through, given the way he has been playing, that would be a nice addition to the secondary scoring as well, as would the return of Johansson to the lineup.

Even when you consider all of that, however, it all comes to naught when this team’s top line is not humming. Last night alone is good proof of that, at least from the eye test. Palmieri and Hall were in lockstep against Ottawa, with some dazzling plays together, especially on the Devils’ fourth goal which made Ken Daneyko especially excited (and rightly so I would say). But between the pair, they were directly responsible for three of the team’s five goals the potted on Craig Anderson. Palmieri scored in the first, and Hall had the primary assist. Hall scored twice in the second, once on a power play, but both had Palmieri as the only assist getter. Then, since I am talking about the first line at large, you can throw in the fifth goal as well, which was a nice snapper by Nico Hischier, on a play that was set up by Hall, who got the primary assist. Without those three last night, the Devils only had one goal, the opening shorthanded tally by Pavel Zacha, a really nice looking play and goal.

Beyond last night’s game though, if you just look at basic point production from the offense, it becomes clear that the Devils have not been able to move beyond being utterly reliant on top line offense to score and win games. Hall leads the team with 37 points in 32 games played. Palmieri is not far behind with 33 points, and Hischier trails the three with 23, but still ranks third on the team in point production. No one else has reached 20 points yet. Zajac, as mentioned above, has 19, Coleman 17, and Johansson 15. Those are your next best point getters. Comparatively, it does not even come close. It is not like someone on the bottom 9 can also keep up. They really cannot.

Another strong visualization to show this divide comes from Sean Tierney’s charts. Check out this chart that compares a player’s point rates at 5 on 5 and their playing time:

The player at the far top right is of course Hall, you don’t even need his name there to know who that is. Then you have Palms and Hischier far in the top right, where it is clear they are being strong, productive players. Almost everyone else on the team drastically falls off after those three. Zajac and Coleman just barely make it into the productive quadrant of the chart, but are not nearly as productive as those three, and their point production so far is good proof of that. They have been solid role players. Then you have Jesper Bratt who most would agree is being underused at 5 on 5, where he has been a strong player. Everyone else on offense for this team? Either overused or unproductive. Quenneville is stuck down there at the bottom since he has yet to produce a point, but I still think he has been playing fairly well despite that.

In the end, I really wanted to bring this up to complement what Gerard discussed the other day. The New Jersey Devils are repeating old mistakes from last year, and/or not finding any solutions for the same problems that plagued the team a year ago. Last season, lack of secondary scoring was a major issue. When the top line struggled to score, this team struggled to win. This year, it is not terribly different. I can see attempts at improvement being made, and I think some attempts could be lasting, especially if the youngsters can improve, but overall, the offense lives and dies by 9-13-21. Last year, it was good enough given the team’s defense and goaltending capabilities. This year, with both of those having seemingly regressed, it has not been nearly enough. That top line will need many more nights like last night if the Devils want to even think about becoming competitive in the division.