Our New Jersey Devils have been a pleasant surprise to start the 2021 NHL season; through the first three games (with a fourth on deck tonight) the team has gone 2-0-1, taking 5 of a possible 6 points. Not bad for a group expected to be competing for a high draft pick, rather than a playoff spot. The most incredible part of the start of this season is that the Devils have accomplished this without some key players.
We all know as fans that Nico Hischier (injury), and Jesper Bratt (contract/visa)were expected to be big parts of the roster this season, while Sami Vatanan (visa) was brought back after being traded to Carolina last season to bolster the defense. Hischier and Bratt are part of the Devils Top 6 forwards; Vatanen spent most of his time on one of the top two defense pairings last season. These are guys that are expected to play when they are healthy and/or here.
So that means that a few guys who are currently in the lineup will sit when these players are all available, but who should it be? Well outside of the defense, the answer may not be as obvious as one might think.
Sitting on Defense: Matt Tennyson
Tennyson was a name that I don’t think many Devils fans, myself included, expected to see on the opening roster, but with the Devils keeping eight defensemen to start the season, he made it. Rather than be insurance for injury or illness however, Tennyson has been a regular. The results, well, are what we expected: he has the lowest 5 V 5 CF% of not just any Devils defender, but any Devils player. I think this winds up being the obvious choice, although I think Lindy Ruff will move Tennyson to the scratches and waive one of the defenders currently in the press box.
Sitting Up Front
I think this discussion is a bit harder; most fans at the start of the season probably would have chosen two of the fourth line guys, particularly Michael McLeod, as prior to this season (and even during training camp) he did not look NHL ready. While he has not found the score sheet yet, he and Nathan Bastian have looked effective at bringing a physical element, which is what you usually hope for from a bottom line.
If I had to choose two forwards right now to take out, it would be Janne Kuokkanen and Andreas Johnsson. I know there are some other guys that have underperformed so far (looking at you Pavel Zacha and Nikita Gusev), however I think right now there’s a couple of reasons why the aforementioned pair should be the ones to come out.
I think Kuokkanen has been fine; he has not looked bad alongside McLeod and Bastian. The factor working against him is really just that he’s the lowest left handed shot on the pecking order so to speak. If anyone in the Bottom 6 is injured or playing poorly, Janne should be right back in the lineup. His play has been solid, but he hasn’t jumped out as overperforming either.
Johnsson may be a surprise to some, but for anyone who has watched the games, I don’t think this choice is a actually a shock. He has looked even more out of sorts than Zacha and Gusev, and right now he’s just not bringing much positive to the table. Gusev in particular always looked good with Bratt on the same line as him, so reuniting those two (possibly centered by Nico) would help to strengthen the Top 6.
If the Devils sat that pair, I would also think moving Zacha down to aid the more defense focused lines would be the best use of his skills as well. I could see the Devils run something like:
Sharangovich - Hughes - Palmieri
Bratt - Hischier - Gusev
Zacha/Wood - Zajac - Boqvist
Wood/Zacha - McLeod - Bastian
There could be adjustments made from there of course, but I think based on play so far this makes the most sense as a base. If players struggle from there, adjust accordingly.
What are your thoughts on who should sit when the Devils are back to 100%? Do you agree with the choices I’ve made? Who would be your choices to shift out once the missing players are ready to go? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!