Everyone predicting the opening night lineup for the New Jersey Devils has Blake Coleman as a staple in there. Some might have him as a 3rd liner, alongside either Jack Hughes or Travis Zajac, while you might see others who are a little higher on him as a 2nd liner, or not quite as high, and more of a checking line guy. He also is an obvious choice for heavy penalty kill minutes, logging the third most on the team last season.
No matter where anyone thinks he will play, however, what has been very clear this preseason is that he has been doing everything he can to push for more ice time and a more expanded role in this offense. He has had a great preseason. Just check out his relative Corsi numbers over three games he has played in, thanks to Natural Stat Trick:
In all three of these games, he was very much a plus player, and the Devils were driving the puck forward when he was on the ice. In each game, his Corsi has actually improved, and considering it was already at 55% in that first game in Montreal, that is saying something. Of course, the more important stat is relative Corsi, and that is not a straight incline, but the game against New York was not a bad one at all. Having a plus four and a half relative Corsi is nothing to scoff at on most nights.
But his biggest gem by far was in that Wednesday night loss to Boston. He was hands down the best player on the ice that night, with an incredible 70+% Corsi and a 27.68% relative Corsi. Those numbers are nuts. When he was out there, at 5 on 5 action, the Devils had 10 attempts for versus only 4 against. In a game, a loss, where the Devils had only four skaters overall who had over 50% Corsi, he was playing head and shoulders above the others, and it showed.
Given his play so far this preseason, it is appropriate to wonder if he has earned himself some more ice time to start the season, or perhaps play on a better line. Last season already, Coleman was 5th on the team in 5v5 ice time, and 2nd among forwards, behind only Zajac. He had more even strength ice time than both Hischier and Palmieri, top line staples last year. So perhaps expecting him to gain more ice time this season is a bit unreasonable.
However, it might not be entirely unreasonable to expect him to gain better linemates this season, perhaps play more of those heavy minutes on a better line. Last year, he spent the large majority of his 5v5 ice time with Zajac and Miles Wood, playing 646 minutes with the former and 333 minutes with the latter. He also had 140 minutes with Stefan Noesen, not a trivial amount of time. That line of Coleman, Zajac and Wood was not the worst 3rd line in history, Zajac is a quality teammate to have, but Wood has not played well this preseason, doing much the opposite of Coleman in many ways. You could potentially see Coleman keeping Zajac as his center if Hynes likes their chemistry, or perhaps gaining Jack Hughes if the coaching staff wants to move away from last year’s workings. Honestly, either way Coleman could see strong success, both centers are playmakers who help those around them. Hughes has the infinitely higher upside of course, but for this season, Hughes’ first, it might not make a huge difference for Coleman between which of the two is his center.
Who plays as the other winger, however, could matter, and could be upgraded a lot. If the line of Coleman and center 2 (Zajac or Hughes) is deemed the second line, you’re looking at a stronger right winger to play there. With Palms on the top line, that could leave Jesper Bratt, Wayne Simmonds, or even Jesper Boqvist if he breaks out. If Bratt continues to improve, he could make for an excellent third player on that line. A line of Coleman, Zajac/Hughes and Bratt could be very productive this season. Or, swap in Simmonds if he has a bounce back season and is able to produce more at even strength and not just at his staple position in front of the goalie on the power play.
And in all honesty, in the end it probably doesn’t matter much if that line is determined to be the second or third line. One of those lines is going to have Coleman on the left wing, the other Nikita Gusev. One center will be Hughes, the other Zajac. And your right wings could fluctuate between the three I just mentioned in the last paragraph. That could really be a strong middle 6 for the Devils this season if all falls in the right way, especially if Coleman’s strong production in the preseason continues into October and beyond. Last year and even the year before, so much production from this offense relied on the top line and the top line only. This season, in no small part thanks to a potentially improved Coleman, depth in the forward corps could play a strong role.