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The Developing Two Line Problem for the New Jersey Devils

Among their obvious special teams problems, the New Jersey Devils may have a new one coming out of the California road trip. They have not received much offense or production from a line without Nico Hischier or Dawson Mercer. This post explains the recently developing issue.

NHL: OCT 30 Devils at Penguins
When Hischier or Mercer is on the ice, the Devils have attacked (sometimes) in recent games. When they are not: Oof.
Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils managed to do something for the first time in a long while on Saturday night in San Jose. Yes, they won a shootout. That is huge for a team that has been absolutely awful at them since 2013. This one is not as significant as that but it has become a problem as of late. In the game against San Jose, Janne Kuokkanen shoveled in a loose puck to tie up the game at 2-2 in the third period. Not only was this Kuokkanen’s first goal since October 21 (a power play goal), but it was the first goal at even strength not scored by a forward line that included Nico Hischier or Dawson Mercer since October 19 when Jimmy Vesey finished a lovely set of passes in the second period of that 4-2 win. Seriously, here is the list of even strength goals scored by the Devils since October 19:

  • October 26 - 3-5 loss to Calgary - Even Strength Goals: Pavel Zacha (on Hischier’s line that night), Dawson Mercer
  • October 30 - 4-2 win in Pittsburgh - Even Strength Goals: Andreas Johnsson x 2 (on Mercer’s line for both his first period and his ENG), Jesper Bratt (penalty shot called whilst on Mercer’s line)
  • October 31 - 3-4 shootout loss to Columbus - Even Strength Goals: Johnsson (on Mercer’s line), Mercer, Dougie Hamilton (with Hischier’s line)
  • November 5 - 2-3 overtime loss in Los Angeles - Even Strength Goals: Bratt (on Hischier’s line), Zacha (6-on-5 with Hischier’s line)
  • November 6 - 3-2 shootout win in San Jose - Even Strength Goals: Ryan Graves (with Hischier’s line), Kuokkanen (with a line of Michael McLeod and Vesey)

Kuokkanen’s equalizer was important in San Jose. It was also important for the fact that it is the first actual piece of production outside of a line featuring the team’s best two centers without Jack Hughes in eight games. This has been an issue with the team as they have struggled to produce goals in this season. As noted in the October month in review, the Devils have been quite a good team in 5-on-5 - the most common situation in hockey - when it comes to creating offense and opportunities to score. But the team’s low shooting percentage means there have not been as many goals as their could have been.

The low shooting percentage has persisted through the first week of November as the Devils have the sixth lowest Sh% in 5-on-5 at 6.36% per Natural Stat Trick. However, this first week of November has seen the team get exposed on the road when it comes to the run of play. After pasting Columbus 31-20 in shots last Sunday, the Devils have put up 22, 18, and 22 shots on net in Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose respectively in 5-on-5 situations. While Natural Stat Trick’s expected goals model is, well, a model, it is telling that the Devils have posted their lowest expected goals for (xGF) in the San Jose game (1.25) and did not fare better in Anaheim (1.76) or Los Angeles (1.67). These are not good. And knowing that the Devils’ power play has yielded no power play goals since October 26 (which was five games ago, the PP is 0-for-18 since with one shorthanded goal allowed) and the penalty kill has (only two games out of 10 where they did not give up a PPGA this season), special teams have only hindered the Devils further.

In a sense, the Devils being 5-3-2 right now is fortunate. But if they want to build on that, they need to do better. I think anyone with even a passing awareness of this Devils season so far knows that special teams have to be fixed. I get it. I agree with it. If general manager Tom Fitzgerald wants to fire Mark Recchi and/or Alain Nasreddine right now, then I would not only understand it but I would welcome it. However, I want to focus on a larger issue in 5-on-5 as it is the most common situation in hockey. What this past trip through California revealed is that the Devils have become a two line team at best.

Seriously. While xGF is not the end-all, be-all stat, it does point out which units are creating the attempts and shots that may yield the goals we want to see. Yes, I would like to see more of those expected goals turn into actual goals. However, it is much harder for a player to score on a line not creating much than a line that is. You would have to go back to the Columbus game - a home game - where a line not centered by Hischier or Mercer created a decent xGF per Natural Stat Trick. That was a line of Michael McLeod, Vesey, and Yegor Sharangovich putting up a 0.3 xGF. The Hischier and Mercer lines put up 0.39 and 0.36 xGF, respectively. Since then, the xGFs of the best non-Hischier and non-Mercer line were 0.17 in Anaheim (Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, Vesey), 0.1 in Los Angeles (Tomas Tatar, McLeod, Vesey), and 0.06 in San Jose (Tatar, Zacha, Vesey). Kuokkanen’s goal was definitely against the run of play. I am happy he scored but it does not fill me with confidence we will see more from him than others.

This may be a result of being on the road. After all, the Devils did not have the last change and so head coach Lindy Ruff was at the mercy of dealing with what the matchups are instead of setting most of them. That the Devils will play their next three games at home may ease this pain. Still, the last three games really showed that the Devils’ offense was primarily coming from a line centered by Hischier or a line centered by Mercer. Anything else was few and far between. To Ruff’s credit, he did mix up the lines quite a bit. We got to see Pavel Zacha and Yegor Sharangovich make cameos at center. Marian Studenic got a chance and Alexander Holtz has received two. We got to see shifts in wingers in-game. He is trying to find something because he knows that any team is easy to play against if only one or two lines is going to threaten to do something like score a goal more than once in a while.

This is also concerning considering the personnel. I can agree that few would expect Frederik Gauthier or Jimmy Vesey to carry a load on offense. But look at the names involved. Tomas Tatar, one of the major signings of the Summer, is not making the impact as originally thought and has found his way to the bottom six. Janne Kuokkanen has two goals and has not done or generated a lot (11 shots in 10 games, really?) in between. Yegor Sharangovich looked like a breakout candidate in preseason and has fallen off big time since the actual games started with 0 goals out of just 14 shots. Michael McLeod is 0-for-15 on shots. These players have played in all ten games this season and they are not even averaging two shots per game. Even Holtz managed to take four shots in two games and Studenic took nine in five games given their limited minutes. Look at the individual 5-on-5 counts for Devils forwards at Natural Stat Trick again. You will see that Jimmy Vesey is fifth on the team in both individual xGF (1.95) and shots on net (22). Why is Vesey able to do what he is doing without help from Hischier and his line or Mercer and his line? What is he doing that the others are not? It may not be fair to write this, but I wonder if they can take a page from Vesey’s effort. I do not think these other forwards are not really providing as much as they could.

It also really does not help that the Devils’ coaching staff is still sticking with their low-to-high philosophy. This even happens with Hischier’s or Mercer’s line. The general idea is to get the puck in deep - either carried down the wing or dumped-in, work to win the puck in the corners or behind the net, and then pass the puck to an open man at the point. What this has led to are a lot of shots for P.K. Subban, Hamilton, Damon Severson, and Ryan Graves. The problem is that these shots are often really poor ones to take. They are from a long distance; the goaltender has a little more time to prepare for it; and any traffic in front of the goaltender is just as (or more) likely to prevent the shot from getting through to the net than getting it in the net. These shots generate really low xGF values for a reason; they are generally not good shots to take. Fittingly, the only goals scored by defensemen this season where when the defensemen were not at the points but deeper in the zone such as in the high slot (Hamilton), in the circle (Hamilton, Graves), or in front of the net (Severson). This tactic results in the forwards working hard and yet not creating a lot of offense that would lead to goals. Outside of changing up the lines, this is something that Ruff and his staff should seriously consider addressing. If only to make the Devils a more challenging team to deal with.

I will point out, again, that there is some real bad puck luck involved that is holding the squad back. The team’s low shooting percentage has come from some really unfortunate starts to the season. Hischier leads the team in individual xGF but only has one goal out of 25 shots. But he is at least creating offense and has generated assists (and taking a lot of pain in recent games too). Jesper Bratt has emerged in recent games, which is good. He is still on 2 goals out of 24 shots. Mercer is 3 for 26. Again, his line is usually generating some kind of threat in most games. However among the guys not on #13’s or #18’s line, Tatar, Sharangovich, and McLeod are still sitting on 0% shooting for the season. That also hurts the offensive production overall and further establishes that the Devils currently have two lines for other teams to worry about.

As a quick aside, this is also why I am not worried about Hischier. As poor as his shooting luck has been (and he has had two goals taken away),

The long-term answer to this problem is simple: a return of Jack Hughes. He is talented. He can elevate two of these wingers that have struggled to produce in the run of play and on the scoresheet (e.g. Kuokkanen and Sharangovich). His skill alone will force oppositions to respect his unit. However, the Devils cannot afford to wait for The Big Deal to return, get in form, and remind the People Who Matter and the hockey world why he is The Big Deal. They will have to keep playing games until then. This week starts a difficult run of seven games in twelve days wherein they will play Florida twice, Tampa Bay at the end of it, the Islanders, Boston, and Our Hated Rivals. The Devils will be on the road four more times this month and may play more in December by the time Hughes is re-evaluated and, hopefully, cleared to play soon after. The Devils need to do something different in the meantime because the California road trip showed that the status quo is not a way to go.

I really do think the issue may need to be addressed with a tweak to some of the tactics. I am not sure there is anyone in Utica that be called up to fix this. Can Jesper Boqvist or Tyce Thompson be an upgrade over Frederik Gauthier, who is not doing much of anything on offense this season? Sure. Can they be a significant enough upgrade to get the team’s offense going beyond Hischier’s and Mercer’s line? I am not so sure. I like Alexander Holtz’ potential, but is it fair to put the pressure on the 19-year old rookie to generate shots and procedure ahead of NHL players that should really play more like they are NHL players? I do not think so. Similarly, while he was not a call-up, I liked some of the performances from Studenic this season, but I do not think he was on the cusp of breaking through and providing that extra punch to get the more experienced wingers going. I don’t think a Comet will come to make this better, so I think it is on the coaches to set things up differently to get more Devils forwards in a position to succeed or even motivate and prepare them better for games coming up.

Do I think they will do that? I am not so confident. The coaches and management seem to be fine with placing Studenic on waivers rather than Gauthier or Mason Geertsen, who has provided nothing tangible on the ice especially on offense. (Aside: Keep this decision in mind when a fan claims that a professional in hockey knows more than a fan like you and so you shall not question their decisions.) My fear is that they see a 1-1-1 record on the California road trip or a 5-3-2 record in their first ten games and conclude that things are Fine. If so, the next seven games could prove a rude awakening even with home games coming up, a healthy Dougie Hamilton, and two NHL quality goaltenders in the crease. Because opposing teams know that if they can keep Hischier’s line and Mercer’s line quiet, then they will seriously improve their chances at beating the Devils. Either those two lines play out of their minds or the Devils get some actual offense - not just production, offense - more often from the forwards not playing with either young center.

Of course, even partially fixing the power play and penalty kill would go a long way to help them compete too. But, again, you already knew that.

Now I turn the questions over to you. What would you do to get more out of the forwards who are not playing with Hischier and Mercer? Who do you think will break through first among Tatar, Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, and McLeod? Maybe you disagree and a Comet (or Holtz) can help fix this issue. If so, who would you like the Devils to call up and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this developing two line issue for the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.