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Lineups With Style— Analyzing the Devils Current Roster by Playing Style

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Using a model that turns playing stats into playing styles, we’ll look at which Devils skaters excel in what areas, who should be paired with who, and how their lines might look this coming season.

NHL: JUL 14 Devils Development Camp Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jack Hughes

P.K. Subban

Wayne Simmonds

Jesper Boqvist

Taylor Hall (remember him?)

The 2019-2020 Devils lineup will consist of quite a few new faces from last season, even if GM Ray Shero is done making moves this off-season. Rumor has it he’s still ‘in the hunt’ for some more talent, but he’s had a pretty successful off-season so far and made some very dramatic changes to the lineup. With many new faces and some that didn’t get a lot of time in the lines last season, its anybody’s guess what this lineup might look like, and what each player’s style might be. Using a stat model designed by Hockey Graph’s (and AAtJ alumni) Ryan Stimson, I took a look at the current Devils roster to determine each skater’s playing style, and how that might look in a statistically ideal lineup.

The Nitty Gritty Numbers Section

In the model, the playing style of each skater is broken down into stats like individual shots, shot assists, controlled entry assists, and shot contributions, which are calculated into a percentile score relative to the rest of the team. The model output sketches a rough image of what each type of players’ stats would look like:

The data for each player comes from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Wild, Corsica Hockey, Icy Data, Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine), and Ryan Stimson and CJ Turtoro’s Player Comparison Vizzes (no Pokemon in this version, sorry guys!).

Your 2019-20 NJ Devils by Style

Of the Devils expected to be on the roster this season, three of them are lacking in advanced stats data: Hughes, Boqvist, and Smith. To make up for this, we’ll use the data from the player expected to be their closest comparison. For Hughes, we’ll use Hischier. For Boqvist, we’ll use Bratt. For Smith, we’ll use Severson (for passing %s sake).

The Forwards:

The Playmakers— Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes

The Shooter—Kyle Palmieri**

The Balanced Players— Jesper Bratt, Jesper Boqvist, Wayne Simmonds, Miles Wood, Blake Coleman*, Travis Zajac*

The Dependent Players— Pavel Zacha*, Drew Stafford, Joey Anderson, Kevin Rooney, (etc for your rookie possible fourthliners)

Please note that every tested player’s stats fell into multiple categories (with the exception of Taylor Hall who was a playmaker across the board) and the results here are consistent with the category each player fell into the most or were adjusted one way or another by particular aspects as explained below:

*Zajac, Coleman, and Zacha all fell on the border of balanced and dependent. Transitional plays brought Coleman up and Zacha down, while his passing and shot contributions boosted Zajac.

**Palmieri was borderline between balanced and shooter—his individual shots/60 pushed him up to shooter.

The Defensemen:

The defensemen were trickier the forwards, as most of the blueliners fell into multiple categories and were tough to adjust one way or another, so a few of them are given 2 descriptors:

The Puck Movers: Will Butcher, Damon Severson, Ty Smith

The Mover and Shooter: PK Subban

The Defensive Shooter: Connor Carrick

The Defensive Mover: Sami Vatanen

The Defenders: Andy Greene and Mirco Mueller

No real surprises here either. Severson scored in the all-around category more than anyone else but his transitional plays and shot build-up are a bit on the low side, so he landed in the middle as a good puck mover but not quite the high volume shooter or star puck carrier an all-around should be. PK Subban had solid numbers across the board and the best transitional percentile of any defenseman, but still not enough to tip him into that all-around d-man category. [for reference, players like Hedman, Giorgano, Karlsson, Burns, Doughty, and mostly Torey Krug would all fall into the all-around d-man category based on this model]. Vatanen and Carrick don’t leave the zone with the puck much, but once in the zone they’re powerhouses in their own right—Vatanen rocks some high numbers in passing and shot assists, and Carrick boasts a whopping 87th percentile on individual shot percentile, which nearly doubles Severson at the next highest.

How Does This Affect the Lineup?

Playmakers, being the style with the highest xGF60 as well as passing and shooting rates, are obviously going to be among the more valuable players. A lineup of all Playmakers gives you the best odds of scoring, but you want to balance that throughout your lineup to give your entire roster the best chance of scoring rather than just hoping your first line can get it done. With three Playmaker style forwards on the current roster, the lineup will need a bit of a balancing act to optimize its scoring chances based on this model.

Right now, the Devils have 4 centers—Hischier, Hughes, Zajac, and Zacha— and 7 wingers—Hall, Palmieri, Bratt, Simmonds, Coleman, Boqvist, and Wood— we can safely assume will be a part of the starting lineup. The 8th wing spot can be filled by either a future trade, Drew Stafford, or Anderson or Bastian depending on who makes the team out of camp, or some have suggested playing Zacha at wing and bringing another center up from camp. The extra player will be assumed to be a Dependant style as most of the potential fits who have the data to test fit this description.

Based solely on style, the ‘optimum’ lineup would fit something like this:

Hall — Hischer/Hughes — Balanced wing

Balanced wing — Hischier/Hughes — Palmieri

Zacha— Zajac— Balanced wing

Balanced wing — Dependent — Balanced wing

This setup gives an estimated average xG% of 50.75. In this setup your Balanced wingers are essentially interchangeable. Switching Palmieri to the first line in exchange for another balanced player on the second drops it to 50.65. Moving Zacha back to center moves your xG% down to 50.475.

Now For the Defense

Defensively, we have a lot of room to play with a number of puck movers and a vastly improved defense over last season with the addition of P.K. Subban. The issue here will be where to put rookie blueliner Ty Smith, and how best to balance our extremely stay-at-home-defenseman-Captain Andy Greene. Pairing a defense-oriented skater with a puck mover or shooter doesn’t change the percentages much, so it seems to make the most sense to go with what works and pair Greene with Severson again as we did last season. Lacking multiple volume shooters or an all-around defenseman, we settle into the middle of the options here and pair puck moving defenseman Will Butcher with our mover/shooter P.K. Subban, and add Ty Smith to our more defensive RHDs, either Sami Vatanen or Connor Carrick. With Ty Smith as the leader in WHL assists, not goals, I’d prefer to pair him with more of a shooter a la Carrick than Vatanen, or even swap him and Greene if he can handle moving up a pairing to play with Severson, although Greene-Vatanen is not a pairing I’m a fan of at all. Mueller would fit in as needed on the third pairing, potentially giving Greene (best fit) or the rookie Smith a rest now and then.

A “Stylish” Lineup

I’m not one to fuss over a quarter of a percent, and I like what Zacha brings as a center far more than what our other center experiments have done, so I’d rather keep him as the fourth line C and either add another wing or give a rookie player like Anderson or Bastian a chance to develop more. I also prefer Palmieri with Hall, so I’d take that slight drop as well. The other wingers will likely be shifted around as the season progresses, because it will take a bit before we can determine if Simmonds and Wood will rebound from their slump seasons, as well as if and where Boqvist can handle being in the NHL lineup. Based on all that drivel, here’s how I’d set up the lines for the current roster:

Hall — Hischier — Palmieri

Wood/Boqvist — Hughes — Bratt

Coleman — Zajac — Simmonds

Wood/Boqvist — Zacha — Stafford/Anderson/Bastian

Butcher-Subban

Greene-Severson

Smith-Vatanen/Carrick

The Hall-Hischier-Palmieri combo worked incredibly well for its few moments of togetherness last season, and I like it all the more this season now that Hischier has had more of a chance to come into his own playing style and will go into it with more confidence and skill than he had to start last season. Wood potentially on the second line with Hughes is making some eyes roll I’m sure, but that’s an incredibly fast line with a little extra size and muscle for Hughes that’s way faster than Simmonds—plus Wood is second on the team only to Hall in controlled zone entries and productive neutral and defensive zone passing (for forwards—Subban has him in non-O-zone passing as well) which could be a huge benefit to Hughes and Bratt. If Boqvist can handle himself on that line and Wood doesn’t pick up the type of play we’d hoped to see from him after his 16-17 season, a Boqvist-Hughes-Bratt line will do plenty of damage as well and Wood will benefit from the speed and two-way play of Zacha at his center down on the fourth line. Simmonds has much better defensive numbers than Wood as well, which is why I like the idea of him taking Wood’s place on the Coleman-Zajac line and enforcing a strong shutdown presence.

Unrelated note... Could a Wood—Coleman—Simmonds line be called the punchline?

What We Can Take From This

Obviously there’s more to building a lineup than just playing styles and stats models, but this gives us insight into the makeup of the Devils roster. In particular, it tells us what we might be missing. On offense, the presence of only one Shooter-type player (and that one being somewhat borderline as it is) suggests the Devils have a lot of passers and not a lot of triggermen. With the room on the roster for an additional wing, it might be advantageous to make a move for a high-shooting winger over the offseason—possibly in exchange for a defenseman or two?

On defense, the lack of a solid all-around blueliner is less than great, but not as troubling as the four defensive or borderline defensive players hanging around in the Devils eight rostered defensemen. I’m the first person to sing praises of stay at home defensemen (I may be a bit biased here but fight me) but a good defensemen of any style doesn’t stop working once the puck crosses the blue line. A ‘defensive defenseman’ can and should still act as a backup forward, fielding passes (Vatanen) or lining up for big shots (Carrick). A strong lineup consists of players of all types, but strong players need to be able to play the entire game, and this model shows us that right now the Devils have a bottom heavy defensive lineup with far too many defenders who don’t contribute to the other half of the game.

Your Take

What do you think of this model? Do you think its useful or does it tell us more of what we already know? Is there anyone you think it has mis-categorized? What would you set the lines at and why? Be sure to check out Gerard’s take on the upcoming lineup for another option too. Finally, who do you see making the team for that last forward spot? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading!