This season has been something of a rollercoaster already for Devils fans with signs both encouraging and discouraging for the roster and team at different times. One of the early positive stories this season has been the reemergence of Miles Wood as a substantial contributor for the team after two disappointing seasons that followed his breakout 2017-18. Wood, who had mostly fallen out of favor with the fanbase prior to this season, has opened the 2021 season with a bang. leading the Devils in goal-scoring, sitting amongst the team leaders in GAR/xGAR and xGF%, and looking overall like a much more complete player than past seasons.
Even his typically lackluster penalty discipline has seemingly improved after a very Miles Woodian opening game where he took two goalie interference calls. Since that game, Wood has taken just two minor penalties in 14 games, which is a stretch of low-penalty hockey that has rarely come along in his time in the league. If he can continue to improve his discipline while solidifying gains in other areas of his gain, he will quickly go from frequent comment section/message board trade fodder to an important role player and building block on this team.
With a litany of injury, contractual, and visa issues hamstringing the Devils early in the season, Wood saw a lot of minutes high up the lineup. This was something that many, including myself, saw as a potential liability for the Devils. Wood had built a reputation as something of a one-tool player (a chaotic speedster who could stretch the ice, crash into stuff, and not much else) in the preceding years so it was fair to think that he’d be a bit out of his depth. Instead, Wood played really well, helping Jack Hughes carry the Devils through the opening couple weeks. As players returned, though, Lindy Ruff needed to figure out the best way to fit everything together. In response, he put Wood with a couple of young players doing a solid job throwing their weight around and chipping in in their own right, Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian.
Generally speaking, people have liked what this line has brought, and to an extent, I agree with that assessment. I also think putting Miles Wood on this line may not be the best allocation of resources for the Devils, though. Since the Devils returned from their extended COVID hiatus last week, the trio has not notched a single point at 5v5. In terms of on-ice goals they’ve only allowed one goal in that stretch, so they are not dragging the team down, but given the Devils’ current struggles to establish a working third line, it seems that Wood may be better used in a role that isn’t essentially just treading water and spelling the other lines, like the McLeod line is right now.
Given that putting Wood on the fourth line probably felt like the ideal place for him not too long ago, why might he be better suited to the top-nine now? Let’s dig into his game for some explanation. We’ll start with where his xG impacts are trending in 2021. A look at his impacts show a player that is trending toward a much more effective all-around player and major offensive generator. Looking at his isolated impacts from HockeyViz, you’ll see that he is a big positive on offense, but also rates as a big(ger) negative on defense right now. That is obviously problematic, but an important thing to consider about these heat maps from HockeyViz is that the previous season is taken as a prior condition until sufficient data has been built for the new season. If you move down to the career year-by-year impacts you can see that Wood has both greatly improved his impacts in the offensive and (believe it or not) defensive ends of the ice over his 2019-20 numbers.
This substantial improvement really shows out in his RAPM data from Evolving Hockey, where Wood has a truly great set of impacts at even strength. Wood has gone from “comically terrible” in defensive impacts from last year, to an actual above average player in terms of defensive performance so far this year. A Miles Wood that is not a defensive liability is a hugely effective and valuable player, and while it’s far from a guarantee that he’ll keep this up long term, its a very encouraging sign and an indication that he may truly be maturing as a player.
Wood is dynamic enough and brings enough of a unique element to the ice that he could be better utilized stretching the ice on a higher-ceiling line that can cause matchup problems for opponents. He and McLeod/Bastian are doing a capable job keeping other teams at bay on the ice, but I think it’s possible that the Devils have other depth pieces who can be a part of that “bring energy and battle to a draw” role on a fourth line. McLeod and Bastian have shown that they can clearly hang in the NHL, but they also have definite offensive limitations.
So where does Wood fit into the top nine? Well if you consider the Zacha/Hischier/Bratt and Johnsson/Hughes/Palmieri units as your top six for the moment, the third line is the logical place for Wood. As it stands, the litany of units involving Zajac, Kuokkanen, Sharangovich, Gusev, and others of late have had a tough time getting going. Bumping Miles Wood up a line and creating a facsimile of the hugely effective Coleman-Zajac-Gusev line from last season could be a way to establish another line with some potential to impact the game offensively. Now, Miles Wood is not necessarily Blake Coleman, but his play thus far this season has been somewhat reminiscent of Coleman’s game at 5v5. Wood’s game is a bit more chaotic and he has a lot to prove as a defensive player, but he can put teams on their back foot and he creates tons of shots (only Bratt is really in his stratosphere there at 5v5 among regular Devils players at the moment).
The bottom line is that while the fourth line as currently constructed is performing well enough in its role, it’s fair to wonder if that role can still be filled with a player like Yegor Sharangovich or Janne Kuokkanen on the left wing and release Wood to contribute more offense on a line further up the lineup. The improved decision-making and ability to slow plays down when necessary that he has shown this year give Miles Wood the potential to take his game to the next level, but it will be difficult to him to continue to advance with somewhat limited linemates and the very defensively-focused deployment as he’s been getting. If he truly has taken his game to the next level, he can be a bigger part of what the Devils are doing at 5v5.