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If the Devils Get Fully Healthy, John Hynes Faces Some Tough Decisions

With the return of Brian Gibbons coming soon and with Marcus Johansson still a possibility to come back, what will the Devils do with a suddenly crowded and deep lineup of forwards?

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

With Ray Shero and the Devils being unexpectedly active on the trade market this February, the team has added two solid NHL forwards in Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon to their lineup. This has bolstered the Devils’ depth at forward significantly and increased the number of potential quality line combinations available to John Hynes and the rest of the coaching staff. These pickups have decreased the likelihood that we see lineups heavy in AHL callups like Nick Lappin and Blake Pietila if a few injuries happen to bite and will allow the team to pretty much always be icing four lines of legitimate NHL forwards. This benefit could also lead to some difficult lineup decisions having to be made soon for Coach Hynes, though, as Brian Gibbons is likely to return soon and Marcus Johansson still has not been ruled out by the team for a return.

So far, we’ve seen Grabner line up on Travis Zajac’s wing and get big minutes on the penalty kill, while in his first game Maroon was effectively skating on the fourth line with Boyle but also getting time on the power play. This has helped push some of the Devils’ struggling players like Jimmy Hayes (no points in last nine appearances and no goals since November 1st) and Drew Stafford (four points in his last 37 games) out of the lineup and allowed other players to relinquish roles they are not particularly accustomed to (like Kyle Palmieri on the PK). These lineup decisions were relatively easy ones for Hynes and company though. There were easily identifiable players to bump from the lineup with the arrival of these new forwards, but if they Devils have players return from injury, those decisions will become a bit more difficult to make.

The two Devils who remain on IR for now are Gibbons and Johansson. Gibbons was one of the early season’s best stories led team in goals for most of first half and Johansson, while dealing with some truly terrible injury luck this year, is a bona fide top-six NHL player. If one or both of these players return in the coming weeks, either one of them or a player currently in the lineup will have to be a healthy scratch. The question is which player should sit in such a scenario where one or both of Gibbons/Johansson get back on the ice?

The status quo lineup among the forwards, as currently constructed, features some combination of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Travis Zajac, Michael Grabner, Stefan Noesen, Brian Boyle, Blake Coleman, and Patrick Maroon. There is a group of players in there who are pretty much guaranteed not to be healthy scratches right now that I’d say includes Hall, Hischier, Palmieri, Zacha, Wood, and Zajac, plus the new arrivals Grabner and Maroon. That leaves the list of candidates for who might drop out of the lineup as Bratt, Noesen, Coleman, and Boyle. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m just assuming that if Gibbons and/or Johansson are activated, Hayes and Stafford will be the ones to hit waivers.

Of the four players listed as potentially slotting out of the lineup, Coleman and Noesen, as the more unexpected roster fixture, might be most likely to be on the outs if other players move in. This is not a knock on the two Texans (and particularly Noesen), who have played very well this season and definitely have had a hand in the Devils’ success to this point. Rather, it’s a testament to how deep the lineup is starting to look after Shero’s deadline moves. Both are on the lower end, production-wise, among current Devils wingers (though Noesen has out-produced the Devils’ three non-Hischier centers to this point, for better or worse). Since Johansson’s return is less imminent than Gibbons, if only one of Coleman and Noesen gets crowded out, it would probably be Coleman.

I think there are other possibilities for who flips out of the lineup though if the team gets fully healthy. One option that I’ve seen floated is Brian Boyle being given some rest nights upon the return of Gibbons and/or Johansson. I think this makes some sense for a guy who has been through a lot this season and who, if we’re being honest, isn’t setting the world on fire at the moment (two points in his last 26 games). If Hynes chooses to go this route, maybe the Devils go in the direction of a platoon-type scenario for the fourth line, Particularly, if only Gibbons returns I could see him, Boyle, and potentially Coleman cycling through to keep Boyle fresh and keep the other two engaged. On nights where Boyle is out, you could potentially see Coleman shift over to the center position.

Another guy who you could argue could maybe see a bit of time in the scratch suite on a healthy roster is Jesper Bratt, who got his first goal since mid-January last night, but he has looked better in his past two appearances and remains (again for better or worse) third on the team in scoring. Bratt is also a guy who I would think is unlikely to spend a really extended stretch off the ice even if the coaches chose to sit him down for a bit.

Ultimately, this is a good luxury for a coach to have. A healthy Devils roster has enough legitimate contributors that sitting any of them down feels almost a bit unfair. For a roster that doesn’t have a ton of superstar talent behind Hall and perhaps Hischier, they do a decent job of making up for it right now with a ton of guys who are able to meaningfully contribute. If they hope to finish strong in the stretch run and potentially make noise if they get into the playoffs, they will be reliant on that depth to try to cause matchup problems for other teams and bolster the output of the top line. Taking a step back, I think going to a platoon-type system and maybe rotating Coleman and Boyle in and out of the lineup with Gibbons potentially a part of the rotation might make the most sense. Ultimately, John Hynes and crew will be the ones who have to make the decision though. What do you think they will do? What do you think they should do? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.