If there's a 2020-21 season, the Devils have a lot to figure out. They fired Head Coach John Hynes last year, and hired Lindy Ruff as his replacement during the COVID Pause. That's one change. They promoted Tom Fitzgerald to Devils GM after firing Ray Shero during the 2019-20 NHL season. So that's change number two. They traded away several players such as Sami Vatanen, Blake Coleman, Wayne Simmonds, Taylor Hall, and Captain Andy Greene. Change number three (more like 3a, 3b, 3c, 3d, and 3e). They had the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and then signed and traded for some players during the off-season in Ryan Murray, Corey Crawford, Dmitri Kulikov, and Andreas Johnsson. And that's change number four. That's a lot to re-adjust to, particularly with a very underwhelming 2019-20 season hanging over the organization's head. Management, the coaching staff, and the players are all now looking for a fresh start and hopefully a better season In 2020-21. One small part that has to be sorted is who will be the team's center on the 2nd line. Nico Hischier likely has the 1C spot covered for now, but there will be some competition for the 2C spot. Pavel Zacha and Jack Hughes will probably face off for the position first and foremost, and Travis Zajac could even be placed there if things go horribly wrong.
So the question is, who deserves the 2C spot more, Zacha or Hughes? Who would benefit more from the ice time and skilled linemates most? Jack Hughes is still very young. He needs time and experience to continue to adjust to the league, but could absolutely use better linemates than the Wood and Simmonds' of the world. He also has the potential to be one of the most skilled playmakers and passers in the league. Then there's Pavel Zacha, who had his best season yet and is a balanced scorer and defender. He is reaching his peak years and could possibly build on his recent good run with Gusev and Bratt. From a flat out production and experience standpoint, Pavel Zacha should probably get it. Yet looking at it from a potential and dynamic skill perspective, maybe Jack Hughes should get the opportunity to work on his abilities in a situation that requires more responsibility? He is considered the future of the organization on offense, so maybe the ice time, linemates, and opportunity pushes him where he needs to be headed? In all honesty, either player could be given the chance and be deserving.
Another question is if Zacha or Hughes are chosen, who should their wingers be? There's always an argument that young players could use better linemates to improve, while some say that if they are skilled enough they should still perform acceptably without them, if not possibly improve over time. There are legitimate arguments for both opinions. Zacha and Hughes have both had some good linemates in there respective careers. Altogether they have played with various top talents over their years such as Hall, Hischier, Elias, Palmieri, Bratt, and Gusev. They have also played with guys on the weaker end of the spectrum or in their waning years; players like Miles Wood, PA Parenteau, Drew Stafford, Wayne Simmonds, DSP, and Beau Bennett come to mind depending upon which center you are talking about. In my humble opinion, playing with very bad teammates definitely doesn't help develop players quickly, if at all, and could actually stunt a player's growth. The truth is that while both players have had some successes, both have also struggled with some of those better linemates as well. I think success not only has a lot to do with individual talent, but chemistry, drive, and finding the right linemates to compliment one's talents. In the end I think we all want what's best for Zacha, Hughes, and all the young players coming up through the system. We want them all to play at their absolute best. Unfortunately our Devils roster lost some serious superstar talent at forward in Taylor Hall, and some very solid production from Blake Coleman. If we're lucky, maybe Andreas Johnsson mirrors or betters Coleman's numbers, but sadly, we have no one who can replace what Taylor Hall brought at this time. Whether you liked him or not, Hall was without a doubt the best forward on the team. It's vital for our young players to take a step up in production to collectively cover the loss of Hall and Coleman. If that can happen, things might be just about decent when it comes to team offense.
I kinda got sidetracked on history, so I'll get back to the names that could play with Zacha or Hughes right now. Andreas Johnsson is a two-way player who will likely get around 20 goals when game-adjusted. He plays with grit, good speed, and can both pass and shoot to good effect. Jesper Bratt is a surprising two way player and can be a dual threat at shooting and passing. Kyle Palmieri is the premier shooter and RW on the team and will probably get top line duty. Then there's Nikita Gusev, a very skilled player and dangerous whenever he has the puck. He made big leaps between the beginning of the year and the end, and has a fantastic shot. All of these players could be put with numerous centers, so some of it may come down to chemistry, or what Ruff sees. Maybe Ruff goes with some of what worked last year. Maybe Bratt plays next to Hughes, Gusev next to Pavel, and Palms next to Nico to spread out the talent. Maybe the talent shouldn't be spread out, and maybe a strong top-6 is more important. Balance is key, but so is a strong top-6. Then there is the x-factor of youngsters who might earn spots in camp. Guys like Kuokkanen, Merkley, Foote, Boqvist, and Sharangovich come to mind. The thing is, unless Fitzy makes another trade or signs another talented 2nd line caliber winger, some of those youngsters will be considered for playing time in the Top-9 as we do not have enough experienced bodies to go around on the wings. The possibilities for combinations are endless, but we should get a clearer picture as Ruff works the team through camp and any possible pre-season.
I personally think Pavel Zacha should get the 2C spot to start the season. He has plenty of experience, just had his best scoring season, and is reliable in his own end. However, if Jack Hughes shows a vast improvement within the first few weeks, he could possibly be move up as the season progresses. That would allow Zacha to fill a vital two-way role with his superior defense, and be used more on the Penalty Kill. A lot will depend upon how both do individually, how they play with their respective linemates, whether they succeed with any Power Play opportunities, and what's best for the team. All centers need at least one good winger to feed pucks to, and Hughes is no different. Throwing Miles Wood or an unproven rookie Jack's way could be a disaster. We've seen unprepared rookies get walked over before, or inconsistent linemates lead to inconsistent results. For that reason, with his balance of defensive play and shooting ability, as well as experience, I think Andreas Johnsson is the best candidate to support Jack Hughes. They might even turn into a nice little scoring duo. Zacha meanwhile should continue to play great with Nikita Gusev. Goose can both shoot the puck and create offense, and may have a lot of untapped potential to unlock still. As for playing with rookies/youngsters, Zacha is good defensively and has enough experience to cover for a youngster on his line if it comes to that. Hughes does not have the same experience to play with or support a rookie... but he may still have to do so depending upon what Ruff decides. It might be best to balance the top three lines and put one of our two best possible rookie wings next to Hughes and Johnsson in the shape of Merkley or Boqvist (keep in mind I said rookie, not prospect, so too soon for Holtz).
So looking back at some of my points, here is one possible forward line combination geared toward balancing talent:
Extras: Kuokkanen, Boqvist (AHL), Foote (AHL)
On the forward line combos: I'd prefer Bratt next to Hughes on the right side, but that means a youngster gets the top line, and I don't think any of them have deserved that opportunity. Boqvist and Foote need some time in Binghamton. Boqvist looked overwhelmed and Foote has no pro experience. Best to be patient with those two. Merkley on the other hand is one of our top pro rookie wings. He is a good enough two-way player to support Jack defensively, and can make the most of opportunities offensively, so it's the best of an imperfect situation.
So what do you think? Who should be the 2C, Jack Hughes or Pavel Zacha? Do you think my choice in Zacha is correct, or do you feel Hughes can handle 2C duty right off the bat? And what do you think the forward line combos should be? Comment below and let me know. Oh, and don't forget to take the poll and have your voice heard.
Let's GO Devils!!!