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New Jersey Devils 2019-20 Season Preview Part I: Forwards

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With some shiny new toys, what will the Devils forward lines look like, and how much better are they?

NHL: DEC 21 Senators at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2020 season preview is officially here!

Every year, at AAtJ, we like to preview the upcoming season (see last year’s here), and this season will be more exciting than most. There’s been a fairly high degree of turnover this year and the fans are going to be looking forward (eh?) to the Devils challenging for a playoff spot again. We start off the preview with the largest group of Devils players, the forwards. I’ll begin be reminding you of where we were at last year, talking about whats new, and then briefly, give my two cents on how that will pan out in the upcoming season.

What Happened Last Year?

In the chart above, basic stats were retrieved from Hockey-Reference, on-ice “rel” stats were retrieved from Natural Stat Trick, and GAR stats were retrieved from Evolving-Hokey.

We always try to start off the unit previews with a “what happened” section like I am right now. But, if you really want to know what happened to the Devils forwards last year, just look at the length of the chart above. If you’re viewing on mobile, you probably can’t even see the header anymore by the time you get to the bottom of the chart. According to NHL Injury Viz, the Devils lost 257 man-games due to injuries last season among the forwards alone — a total that was 2nd highest in the NHL behind only the Ducks. This impact the Devils not only in the players they missed, but (due to the stack of concurrent injuries), the quality of their replacements. Losing Jesper Bratt is already a big deal, but it’s an even bigger deal when his replacement is Eric Tangradi. I wrote an article about the value gained/lost since last year, and one category was due to health and replacements. This impact was evident in no place more than in the ~50 games lost from our first featured player.

Any forward conversation needs to start with 2018 MVP, Taylor Hall. Hall managed to finish 4th on this team in points, despite playing only 33 games. That tells you a little about how top-heavy the team is, and a little about how injured we were. Hall is genuinely an elite forward in the NHL and it’s not just beause of his elite scoring — the team sees a measurable benefit when he’s on the ice as evidence by his team-leading expected goals impact. When he’s on the ice, the Devils are getting more shots and more dangerous shots than their opponents. Losing him was monumental. In my article counting up the value from the offseason transactions (cited above), Hall’s health was its own category — deservedly so. His absence made our next player need to carry a disproportionate weight of the load.

Nico Hischier had a very strong follow-up to an already-excellent rookie campagin. His impact numbers were, again, stellar across the board. His point-per-game rate went up despite playing without Hall for most of the season. Many people seem to believe Nico is poised for a “breakout” this season where we will finally see his point totals go up. I don’t necessarily agree because 1) I think he’s already arrived, and 2) I don’t think his scoring ceiling is that mucher higher than where he’s at. With regards to #1, he is 25th among forwards in the NHL in GAR over the last two seasons, just behind William Karlsson and Auston Matthews and just ahead of Patrice Bergeron and John Tavares. If that’s the company he’s keeping, how much higher can he go? On the 2nd point, he will benefit from Hall’s presence definitely at 5v5 and also on the PP (if he can win a spot in a competitive race for PP1 roles) which may be good for another 10-15 points. Lets give him another 5 just for aging well. He may still not clear a point-per-game pace at that rate and that’s fine. He affects the game in different ways than Hall does — he wants to be Pavel Datsyuk, not Wayne Gretzky. And we should all be thrilled if he manages to get anywhere close to that.

Next, let’s talk about the rest of last years “top 6” — Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Jesper Bratt, and Marcus Johansson. Palmieri was his usual high-scoring self, leading the team in goals with 27. He also demonstrated an underappreciated two-way game, as evidenced by his excellent impact numbers. He demonstrated this even more than noted 200-ft man, Travis Zajac. Zajac’s scoring punch is largely gone at this stage, but he’s still very effective on the penalty kill, as a “bump” spot on the powerplay, and in the faceoff circle where his 58.2% guided him to be the 3rd highest elo-rated faceoff man in the league. Jesper Bratt has had poor impact numbers in each of his first two — he’s slightly positive in these metrics and basically break-even in RAPMs. This is actually a measurable improvement from last season where he really collapsed down the stretch and never had a particularly strong on-ice impact. This year he’ll look round out his already-proficient scoring ability with a more comprehensive positive influence on the pace of play. Lastly, Marcus Johansson could not stay healthy as a Devil. It hurt his totals due to time missed, but even when he was playing it obviously impacted his game. He went on to have just 3 points in 10 games with the Bruins in the regular season before having a mini-renaissance with 11 points in 22 playoff games. The Mojo trade was largely a swing and miss, but we were able to salvage almost all of the value back anyway (he cost a 2nd and 3rd, we got back a 2nd and 4th).

In the potpourri of other forwards, Blake Coleman was the clear revelation. I was close to making an argument for Coleman in the top 6, but Alex beat me to it. Before the offseason additions, I could’ve made the case Coleman was the best forward on the team outside the top line — in fact, I have made that case. Coleman impacts the game everywhere on the ice. He’s physical, he’s fast, he gets his body and the puck to the net, and he is tenacious on the kill. No one in the NHL surpassed Coleman in both hits and shots (or hits and goals). He’s not just a goon or gimmick player, he is an topflight power forward, and genuinely one of the most valuable forwards on this team. His 22 goals and 213 shots were both second on the team only to Palmieri. If one of our shiny new acquisitions don’t pan out, he will gladly step up into the top 6 role and fill in absolutely fine.

Those were the really important forwards last year, but I’ll give some quick hits on the rest. Zacha was a penalty killing phenom, but still can’t figure out his 5v5 game (-2.2 EV_GAR). Miles Wood had a disappointing encore to his surprising 2018 campaign production-wise (10 goals down from 19), but was still a positive impact player. Among vets, Brian Boyle gave us a surprising 13 goals before helping us pad our trade deadline haul, but I genuinely forgot Drew Stafford played last year — he evidently he amassed 57 largely-anonymous games. Analytics darling Stefan Noesen couldn’t put it together this season, but waiver-acquisition Kenny Agostino gave us some admirable top-6 minutes. Of the call-ups, Rooney made a case for more minutes due to his Coleman-esque game, and Bastian made a case due to his physicality and nose for the net — no one else made a particularly strong case.

What’s Changed?

The first few changes happened at the deadline where we traded Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle for Connor Carrick, as well as a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rounder. I won’t say much more about them since we’d already covered the deals here and here. Health has also changed since no one’s been in game action over the Summer. This means that one of the bigger changes will hopefully be a much shorter chart in next year’s forward preview. But with regards to the actual changes, there are 3 big ones: Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds. I actually talked about each of them in the article I linked above in which I calculate the added/subtracted value from offseason changes, but I’ll give some important tidbits here.

Jack Hughes has potential to be a generational talent. Byron Bader, who’s been sharing some prospect viz on Twitter, spoke about how Jack Hughes was far and away the best prospect in this class, his closest comparable was Patrick Kane, and he’s one of only 3 players (Crosby, Tavares) to register an NHLe (NHL-equivalent points) of 40+ at 17 years or younger. Mitch Brown tracks prospect games and wrote a video analysis of what makes Jack Hughes so special over at The Athletic (paywall). He put up 112 points in just 50 games with the USDP which is the highest per-game performance in the programs history — over the likes of Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Phil Kessel, and several other names you’ve heard of. He’s a transformative player, and anyone who watched this pre-season knows how immediately he can impact the game. For this particular team, he’s uniquely helpful in that he finally gives us an impactful 2C. There was only so long we could pretend that Travis Zajac was still a top 6 player, or that Pavel Zacha would ever get there. We now have a player with the speed, vision, and creativity to get the most out of the other players we could fill in that line with, including our next big addition: Nikita Gusev

The Goose was a highly-sought after player this offseason. The Vegas Golden Knights owned his rights, but were really pressed for cap space — a commodity Ray Shero has weaponized in the past, and did so again here. To read more about the acquisition and immediate reaction, check John’s post here. Long story short, Gusev is also an extremely encouraging player. Gusev led the KHL in scoring in 2019, was 2nd to teammate Ilya Kovalchuk in 2018, was 4th in 2017, and won the MVP award in 2018. There is obviously a lot of talent there. According to Bader’s model, there’s a more than 50% chance he becomes a star in the NHL. If you want a small counterargument to the rampant excitement over the guy, it’s how he got the points in the KHL. He played for SKA St. Petersburg — the team that has run over the rest of the KHL since 2016, with an 80% regular season win percentage and an average goal differential of +130 over their ~60-game season. The circumstances under which they’ve arrived at this dominance are also questioned by some. This much is clear: on the stat sheet, Gusev was a pretty good player, that became spectacular after joining the best team in the KHL. His point-per-game rates from age 19-23 were 0.17, 0.50, 0.32, 0.67, 0.61 and then, in the middle of his age-23 season, he joined SKA and his ppg shot up from 0.61 to 1.06 in that very season. The next 3 seasons, were the era of Gusev, and hopefully, that era will continue in the Devils’ top 6 this season.

The final big acquisition is Wayne Simmonds. Simmonds is an interesting player to me because I think the acquisition of him was just as much about attitude as it was skill. The best phrase to describe that attitude is “something to prove” — perhaps the same attitude that led him to accept a $5M contract which acknowledges his past, on a 1-year term that questions his future. Simmonds averaged 30 goals a year from 2014-2017 (his age-25 to 28 seasons), but has seen his goal totals shrink by 7 each of the past two years, and his on-ice impact has largely evaporated with it. Heatmaps over at Micah McCurdy’s Hockeyviz show that he was essentially a neutral-impact player last season whose effectiveness was limited to the powerplay. And with a -3.2 PP_GAR last season, his effectiveness even there is somewhat questionable. An objective observer could conclude that Simmonds is either already, or on his way to being washed up. But, if he buys into what the team is doing and is able to contribute by being a strong net-mouth presence to clean up all the loose trash thrown his way from Hughes, Hall, etc. — his numbers may pop right back up. I do think it’s important the staff not overextend his 5v5 responsibilities.

The honorable mention to this list is Jesper Boqvist, who is currently pushing for (and Mike would say, has already earned) a roster spot. Boqvist is coming off a nice 0.69-ppg season in the SHL (35 points in 51 games) and has mad a really strong case for a roster spot with a +18.27 relative xGF ratio — 2nd only to Zajac among forwards — this preseason. He’s been in the top 15 of our top 25 under 25 for 3 straight years, and cracked the top 10 this time. If he makes the squad, that’s another electric skater and playmaker on an already deep team.

Also we added John Hayden, who is, I’m told, a hockey player.

What to Expect This Season?

For the first time in a long time, the Devils will have a competent, if not threatening top 6. I think it’s relatively likely that the Devils have multiple point-per-game players on this team, though I’m not sure who they will be. Part of this is because I don’t know what the powerplay units will look like, and that will artificially inflate the point totals of those who win the roles. My original guess was going to be Simmonds (net-front), Zajac (bump) Hall (half-board), Palmieri (trigger), and Subban (point) —which would be a dominant group — but I’ve left out Nico, Hughes, Gusev, Boqvist, Severson, Butcher, and a few other guys. We will likely have one of the better PP2s in the league, but whoever wins the PP1 spots will reap the rewards in the stat sheet. (Edit: Corey Masisak has the PP1 lines today looking like I had them)

The PK is a little less uncertain, especially among forwards. It’s most likely going to be Coleman and Zajac on PK1. Zacha will be with someone on the PK2 — Rooney if he’s active, or perhaps Nico (who spent time there last season) if Rooney can’t crack the lineup. Either way, we’d probably expecet the PK unit to continue excellence even after the departure of Lovejoy and decline of Greene. How that second defender does is the only potential downfall.

Which brings us to the favorite time of the offseason: Armchair GM/coach time. They’ve played around with the lines quite a bit here in the preseason, but I’m going to take a whack at the top 12 forwards we’ll see on opening night here at 5v5:

Hall-Hischier-Palmieri

Gusev-Hughes-Bratt

Coleman-Zajac-Simmonds

Wood-Zacha-Boqvist

Extra: Rooney or Hayden

The top line of Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri has already been one of the best in the league the last two years, and that’s with them drawing all of the attention of the opposing coaching staff. According to Moneypuck’s line data, of the forward lines that played at least 200 minutes together, that line was 12th in xGF%, tied with Benn-Seguin-Radulov with whom they shared both a xGF% and CF%. They’re as good as there is in the league, and now, a maturing Bratt, the phenom Hughes, and the KHL MVP Gusev, will be able to finally draw attention off of them. In home games, where Hynes will have last change, he may even want to sick Coleman and Zajac on the opposing top line, and let the top 6 have their way with the dregs. It’ll be a fun top 6 to watch, and I’m reasonably confident that it will look something like that. Where I’m not sure about things is the bottom 6.

Coleman/Zajac seem likely to stick together, but I don’t actually think Simmonds is a natural fit on that wing. Coleman is already a shooter that goes at the high-danger zones and both Zajac and Coleman are better defensively than Simmonds. I actually think Boqvist would be a better fit. But, I’m already stretching it a little even with the 4th line as it is. The way Hynes has been shuffling, it seems like Wood and Boqvist may be in competition for that last LW spot. Hayden is pretty clearly not one of the 12 best forwards available to us, but we have basically no other righties and the staff likes what he brings so he’s stuck around. Boqvist is the lynchpin here as it doesn’t feel as though putting him in the bottom line really utilizes his abilities. Which is perhaps why they’re shuffling him in on the top 6 in practice. I think it’s possible you see Wood sit opening night (they’ve done it to him before). It’s also possible Hayden sits and someone’s on their off-hand (like I have above). It’s still possible that Boqvist doesn’t play, though I find that increasingly unlikely. It’s also possible I have no idea what I’m talking about because I’m a blogger typing this from his couch. So, at long last, that’s where you guys come in.

What do you think this team’s forward lines will look like? How well do you think this forward group is? What are your concerns, if any, headed into the season? Who is poised for a breakout? Who do you expect to regress?

Answer these and any other questions you think I should have asked in the comments section below, and as always, thanks for reading!