This week, the Devils settled with two of their more prominent RFAs of the offseason, Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen. This was good news for Devils fans, who were treated to surprise seasons from each in 2017-18, with Coleman being a menace on the forecheck and the PK and Noesen proving to be a possession machine and an effective 5v5 scorer on the right wing. As CJ got into in his post on Wednesday, each of the forwards saw their roles grow as the season progressed, with each starting to get top-six 5v5 minutes by the end of the season. The point that they really started to fire on all cylinders at even strength meshes well with them being united with the sometimes-maligned veteran center and longest-tenured Devil, Travis Zajac. This line of Zajac, Coleman, and Noesen was one of the most — if not the most — effective unit for New Jersey last season, outside of the Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier-led top line.
In my post last week about how the 2018-19 lineup is likely to look, assuming that no big moves are coming at this point, I purposely put this line back together. Why? Well, for a team that is far from what you’d call stacked on paper like the Devils, a lot of the time you’re looking for the units you put out on the ice to be greater than the sum of their parts. If ever there was a line that seemed to fit that description, it might be the 2017-18 Coleman-Zajac-Noesen unit. Individually, the three had seasons of varying success, at least compared to expectations, with Noesen and Coleman starting as depth players but asserting themselves and having breakthrough campaigns, and Zajac having an injury-shortened campaign that started poorly but finished very strong.
Using Natural Stat Trick’s line tool, I identified the January 30th game against Buffalo as the first night that the line saw significant time together. Prior to that date, the three were only on the ice together for about two minutes, total. Afterward, they would get 158 minutes together as a line. That may not seem like a ton of minutes together, but it’s a substantial amount over a 30ish-game stretch, covering over 20% of the minutes any single one of them was on the ice in that stretch from January 30 to the end of the season (for comparison’s sake, it’s roughly equivalent to the percentage of time that the Hall-Hischier-Bratt line spent together over the minutes any one of them was on the ice for the full season). Using Left Wing Lock’s line combo tool, the trio makes up the third most common forward line combination for the Devils over the entire season, behind only Hall-Hischier-Bratt and Hall-Hischier-Palmieri. The point here being that, despite this line only being put together later in the season and the raw number of minutes not seeming that high, this was the Devils’ most significant non-Hall/Hischier line in 2017-18 by a reasonably large margin.
The 25, 26, and 27 points for Coleman, Zajac, and Noesen, respectively, aren’t going to fly off the stat sheet for anyone, even when considering Zajac missed a quarter of the season. But after starting to get put together, all three saw their outputs rise considerably. From the point that this line — which I will call the TNT Line, short for Travis N’ the Texans, from this point forward (credit to user FrankG929 for the establishment of this moniker last week) — got put together, Coleman, Zajac, and Noesen put up 14, 19, and 14 points, respectively. Those totals work out to 0.41, 0.59, and 0.42 points per game for each over that stretch, compared to 0.24, 0.23, and 0.33 points per game prior to that, a major uptick for each.
The TNT Line’s allure went far beyond the production of its component parts, though. This line was one of the Devils’ very best in the run of play, capturing significantly larger shares of the attempts, chances, and goals during their time together than the team did as a whole. To wit, the Devils’ overall share of high danger scoring chances (HDCF%), goals (GF%), and shot attempts (CF%) were 52.97%, 48.93%, and 48.59%, respectively, while the TNT Line put up a HDCF% of 70.00, GF% of 66.67, and CF% of 53.38. Those are substantial improvements in each category, and while I’m not about to say this is a line that is going to get two-thirds of the goals and chances over the long run, it is indicative of a unit that was very effective, even bordering on flat-out dominant in their time together.
The particularly encouraging thing about those numbers are that they more-or-less came in a shutdown role. Their percentage of offensive zone starts versus defensive zone starts (OZS%) was just 27.73 together and the three of them are 1-2-3 in the highest percentage of shifts started in the defensive zone among Devils forwards. And while Noesen and Coleman are not at the very top of the list (Zajac is) in terms of quality of competition (QoC), per Corsica, and the Natural Stat Trick line tool doesn’t have QoC numbers, we know anecdotally that the line was trusted to try and neutralize other teams’ top units. Essentially, this line was being deployed in a situation that you might expect to depress results and they came out way ahead across the board.
There’s no guarantee of continued success based on past results in the NHL, whether for a team, a player, or a specific line, but there is something to be said for sticking with something that works. The TNT Line largely demolished its competition for the time it was assembled last season, with each player upping their level of play while together versus while they were apart. With Noesen and Coleman now signed and back in the fold, as well as being paid like everyday NHLers now, the Devils are signalling that they want to give them significant minutes, and their minutes were most successful when being spent as a part of this line. At the same time, Travis Zajac is a player who the Devils need shouldering some of the toughest matchups in order for the team to succeed right now. After returning from injury last season, Zajac struggled to find his game for quite a while, but once he was united with the scrappy Coleman and Noesen, he looked like a player completely rejuvenated.
So with all that in mind, I’m saying that John Hynes would be wise to reunite this line in 2018-19 if he is looking for ways to squeeze as much success as possible out of a lineup that saw no big time acquisitions this summer. Particularly if the Devils are hoping to integrate some more youth into this lineup, a true checking line that can take on the tough assignments and succeed will be hugely beneficial to free up easier minutes for lines featuring rookies elsewhere. With a top line led by Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier and a shutdown unit in the form of Coleman-Zajac-Noesen, the chances of a second scoring line being able to succeed could be greatly bolstered, and the fourth line (in whatever form it takes) can be appropriately sheltered. How the lineup ultimately shakes out in training camp, we will have to wait and see, but I, for one, will be rooting for a reunification of the TNT Line this season.