When a team does not play to the level that it should, usually line changes occur in order to generate a spark and create something that was not happening previously. With the way the New Jersey Devils started this season, that makes clear sense. Much has changed along the bottom 9 forwards, and even some movement on the top line as well, to try and generate offense that has just not been present for long stretches so far.
One person who has seen significant changes on his line has been Jack Hughes, who for the first four games, has had different linemates each time. In the season opener, he played mostly with Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt, a young line overall. In the Buffalo game, he was with Bratt again, but with Miles Wood instead of Gusev. Then in the Philadelphia debacle, he had completely different linemates, playing in between Blake Coleman and Wayne Simmonds, a more experienced pairing. Against Edmonton the other night, it was slightly different, playing with Simmonds again, but also Pavel Zacha.
Among those first four games, his lines’ production was a tale of opposites. In the first two games, his lines were essentially anchors. In that opener, both Gusev and Hughes had relative Corsi percentages worse than -20% in the opener, and against Buffalo, this was again true with Hughes and Bratt. Those lines were particularly poor and did not aid positively in either game.
What he and his line were able to do in the Philadelphia game, however, was drastically different and significantly improved. On the pregame for NBCSN, Bob Mackenzie discussed how playing with experienced, consistent players like Coleman and Simmonds should bode well for Hughes, and boy was he right. In the first two games, Hughes had relative Corsi numbers hovering around -30%. In the Philly game, he actually instead had the third best relative Corsi on the team, sitting at over +22%. And Coleman, who he played over 9 minutes with, was at +23%, and Simmonds was at over +15%. They were the best line for the Devils that night, hands down. They mostly played against the line of James van Riemsdyk, Scott Laughton, and Carsen Twarynski, Philly’s third line, but even still, being that positive against that line is nothing to joke about.
With that positive production, Hynes did not completely overhaul that line, but instead swapped out Coleman with Zacha. The change, however, did not do much to dampen the production of the line. Simmonds had the best relative Corsi on the team that game, sitting at +18.86%, and Zacha was second on the team at +16.44%. Hughes himself was fifth, at just over 11%. They were playing against the 3rd and 4th lines of Edmonton, seeing both about equally, but were able to dominate against both pretty equally, a good sign. If the Devils’ third line can continually beat the third or fourth lines of the opposition, good things will happen.
Given that Hughes is just starting his NHL career, it is hard to say whether or not the line changes or his acclimation to the speed of the game is the main reason for the drastic improvement in Hughes’ third line from the first two games to the second two games. You have to think, however, that the line changes had some effect. There was continuity in the line from the first two games, with Hughes playing most of his time with Bratt no matter what, and also playing with young/new guys in Gusev and Wood. Heading into game 3, Hynes decided Hughes needed more age and experience to guide him, and Simmonds and Coleman coming in really did help him out. Swapping out Zacha for Coleman injected more youth back into his line, but while Zacha is only 22, he already has over 200 games of NHL experience, and that had to be a benefit to Hughes and his line against Edmonton.
In an ideal scenario, it cannot be a good thing that a rookie has had such differing linemates each of his first four games in the NHL. There has been much talk among the announcers and fans, even Wayne Gretzky mentioned it when he came on the MSG broadcast, that with so many new faces on this team, they need time to gel before they can fire on all cylinders. That may or may not be true, but if it is, then constantly changing lines also cannot be good for creating team cohesion. You would want consistency in this to give players a chance to get in concert with each others’ games.
However, what has happened to start the season is not an ideal scenario, far from it. Given that, I actually think that what John Hynes has done with trying to find a better third line has been pretty good. I know he is starting to take a lot of heat, and I don’t disagree that his seat needs to be warming up and results need to start coming, but it is clear to me from looking at how he is trying to deploy Jack Hughes, he is indeed working hard to generate those results. He noticed a problem with that third line in the first two games, completely switched it up, and now that they have seen more success, you would think that at least the combo of Hughes and Simmonds will remain together at least for a little while moving forward. Whether Zacha or Coleman stays on that line is a matter of debate, but both have shown success there, and if it were up to me, I would probably want Zacha to stay there as Coleman has proved more versatile and better at 5v5 in recent history.
In the end, it will be interesting to see who Hughes is lined up with tonight in Boston. Will Hynes bank on the success of the 3rd line from Thursday and keep them together, or switch it up for the 5th time in as many games? I personally would keep that same line together, Hughes, Simmonds and Zacha, but we will see what Hynes does and how it plays out. They need a win, and soon, and how Hughes’ line plays could play a role in determining that tonight.