With little happening on the acquisition front this offseason in New Jersey, here at All About the Jersey have dug a lot into what next year’s lineup might look like with the Devils largely only plugging holes from within the organization. We’ve looked at the state of the defense, the state of the forwards, and the goaltending situation from various angles. Today, we return to the forwards group once more to look at one specific lineup question that has significant ramifications for the lineup as a whole.
The designation of the two best forwards for the Devils last year, particularly at even strength, would be pretty easily applied to Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. Hall, now the reigning league MVP, and Hischier, the first overall pick who put up 20 goals and 52 points as an 18-year-old, were the players one would most readily attribute the 2017-18 team’s success to and they played a vast majority of their seasons at even strength with one another. Putting their two best talents on one line gave the Devils a top line that was capable of stacking up against some of the best lines in the league and it undeniably helped power both players to the heights they reached last season.
First with Jesper Bratt and later with Kyle Palmieri, the top line was the most dynamic and dangerous line the Devils have had in years, but with both of their best 5v5 forwards confined to the same line, the Devils were forced to mix and match for much of the year trying to find combos that consistently worked behind them. With the rise of the TNT Line in the second half, they perhaps found a quality checking/shutdown line, but the team still never really assembled a second dynamic scoring line to really cause matchup problems for opposing teams. And with both of their best even strength forwards confined to the same line, that would continue to present something of a challenge, particularly when injuries start to take their toll in the middle of the season.
So how do the Devils create that second scoring line? In previous posts, attempts at a second scoring line have typically contained some combination of Pavel Zacha, Marcus Johansson, Kyle Palmieri, Jesper Bratt, and Miles Wood. When taking my early look at the lineup for next year, I put together a combination of Johansson-Zacha-Palmieri to line up behind Hall and Hischier. As CJ got into on Wednesday, Zacha has yet to necessarily prove that he is a 2C but, well, the Devils aren’t really overflowing with options at center. I think this Johansson-Zacha-Palmieri line could potentially be successful, but it is certainly fair to ask whether this line can really be one that creates consistent mismatches. Johansson and Palmieri are good players, and Zacha did take a step forward last season, but they would probably need this line to congeal into something greater than the sum of its parts to really become a problem for opponents.
The second scoring line (and I keep calling it that to avoid the argument of “who is actually the true second line”), assuming Hall and Hischier are together, kind of has to be some combination of the above mentioned players. The alternative to a Zacha-centered second scoring line would likely have to include the splitting up of Hall and Hischier. There are pros and cons to such a move, but it might be a move worth considering for New Jersey if they find themselves continuing to unsuccessfully search for scoring depth.
By splitting up the two top Devils, you essentially create a Hall line and a Hischier line. The pros of such a move are fairly clear, and one has to look no further than Pittsburgh (Crosby and Malkin) or Chicago (Kane and Toews) for past models of teams putting their two best forwards on separate lines to make it more difficult for teams to neutralize them. With Hall theoretically powering one line and Hischier powering another, you would theoretically be able to more readily create mismatches with other teams. Coupled with the checking line centered by Travis Zajac, you would potentially have three very effective lines that could be rolled in a way to give other teams fits.
This setup is not without its drawbacks, though. As I see it there are two primary questions such a setup would raise: 1) can Pavel Zacha handle top line-level minutes next to Hall over a long stretch without significantly hampering that line’s effectiveness and 2) can Hischier be the real engine for a line without Hall yet? A hypothetical line of Hall-Zacha-X could certainly work on some level. The limited slice of the season that Hall and Zacha were together generated quite solid numbers, after all. I do have at least some concerns that Hall’s production would be muted in this situation though, particularly if the “X” next to him and Zacha is someone other than Kyle Palmieri. Then, for the second line, can Hischier power a second group to the extent that it becomes a problem for other teams? Given how successful he was as an 18-year-old, it’s fair to expect a lot from Hischier going forward, but it’s still a lot to ask of a 19-year-old to carry a line. Hischier’s numbers slip a bit away from Hall, but they don’t carry huge red flags and with him having a full NHL season under his belt I think it’s possible that he could do a lot of the heavy lifting for a line on his own, but I think it carries some risk as well.
Ultimately, the Devils are going to be feeling things out one way or another heading into next season, whether it is trying to assemble another scoring line behind the Hall-Hischier tandem that they know for sure works, or seeing how well the two can each carry a line after splitting them up. Personally, my preference for now is for the Devils to head into next season with a dominant Hall-Hischier line and see if they can get a second scoring line centered by Zacha going, assuming that the TNT Line is also helping clear the way for some softer matchups. I do think that the option to split up Hall and Hischier is a viable option for John Hynes to keep in his back pocket, though. Whether it would work is hard to say, but following the model of some other recently successful teams, splitting up your best players can have definite benefits. But there is also absolutely no doubting that Hall-and Hischier greatly enjoyed playing together last season and you do risk upsetting the apple cart a bit by splitting them up. Which direction Hynes and co. decide to go? We will have to wait for the open of the season to see.