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Armchair Coaching: An Early Look at the New Jersey Devils Potential Forward Combinations

It’s time to get out those pens and bar napkins, as we take a look at what the Devils lineup could look like at forward.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils
The Combination of Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Pavel Zacha was one of the most productive units for Lindy Ruff, but will we see this combination to start the year?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Something I spend way too much of my free time doing during the offseason, particularly around the free agency period, is writing out line combinations. Sometimes I use the armchair GM feature on CapFriendly, but pen and paper is just easier and faster. A version I wrote up prior to the draft included the return of Blake Coleman, a Sam Reinhart trade, and Dougie Hamilton. Hey, one-for-three beats my usual success rate when trying to will into existence a competent roster predict the line-up pre-free agency. While it may seem too early for this exercise (although probably not compared to doing it in June) given the team hasn’t even played a pre-season game, it is also more interesting to me because of the wealth of possibilities before cuts are made. In a couple weeks time we will likely know what the Devils lineup will look like, or at least have a better idea of it. But as I am writing this I do not even know what the lineup for tonight’s preseason game looks like, let alone the final roster. That doesn’t mean we have to completely guess, we have a few practices and scrimmages to go off of, so we know what the coaches are thinking, to some extent at least. And we have information from last season as well.

I should note that my goal with this exercise isn’t to predict the Devils line-up. What I am trying to do here, is put together a lineup that I feel maximizes the potential of the roster, both now and in the future. Meaning that I may feel like Mercer is one of the 12 best Devils forwards, but if the only spot left is at fourth line RW I’m sending him to Utica because that would likely be best for his development. I was originally going to do the entire roster, not just the forwards, but most fans and even the coaching staff seem to be on the same page with the defense pairings (for the first time ever in the history of professional hockey), and there’s no point to doing the goaltending. My only rule for this exercise is that I have to stay realistic, at least to a point. I can’t just ignore that a certain player exists and is making too much money to send to Utica, even if I would rather ship him out. I can stick him on the bench, but I can’t leave him off of the roster entirely. I also don’t have to sign any PTOs to contracts, even if I think that’s what will actually happen. Ok, so let’s get started with a reminder of who is actually on the training camp roster.

The locks

These players will be on the opening night roster barring any major surprises, trades, or injuries.

  • Jesper Bratt
  • Nico Hischier
  • Jack Hughes
  • Andreas Johnsson
  • Janne Kuokkanen
  • Michael McLeod
  • Yegor Sharangovich
  • Tomas Tatar
  • Miles Wood
  • Pavel Zacha

By my count, that’s 10 of the 13-14 forward spots already accounted for, so who’s is fighting for those final 3-4 spots?

On the Bubble

These are forwards who I think have a realistic shot at making the camp roster. I am being generous in some cases because we don’t know what’s gone on in practice and there hasn’t been any preseason games, so I am not writing anyone off based on a bad scrimmage or two.

  • Jesper Boqvist
  • Graeme Clarke
  • Nolan Foote
  • Freddy Gauthier (PTO)
  • Alex Holtz
  • Mark Jankowski (PTO)
  • Dawson Mercer
  • Marian Studenic
  • Tyce Thompson
  • Jimmy Vesey (PTO)
  • Fabian Zetterlund

From what I’ve observed and read/heard regarding training camp so far, 3 of these names seem to have garnered most of the attention. Those being Jankowski, Mercer, and Vesey. There are 7 other forwards in camp, 6 of whom are destined for Utica, and the other (Stillman) for the OHL.

Who Makes the Cut?

Reading between the lines, I definitely have an opinion of what I think will happen, although again, it’s really early and a lot could change in the next couple weeks. But this isn’t about what I think will happen, it’s what I think will optimize the roster. That being said, of those final eleven forwards, the following players make my final roster:

  • Mark Jankowski
  • Dawson Mercer
  • Marian Studenic
  • Jimmy Vesey

Jankowski has looked good in training camp so far, so that definitely plays into the decision to sign him to a contract off of his PTO, but he also has a history of being a strong defensive center. To be clear, that’s pretty much all he’s good for. I wouldn’t call him a 2-way player because that implies that he is capable of regularly producing offense, which he won’t. He was steamrolled in the run of play last year, with a 44.22% CF% at 5 on 5, but both Evolving Hockey and TopDownHockey (see below) rate his defensive game well. Basically, I think he could be a solid 4th line/pk option for the Devils and would add some solid depth to the roster.

Mercer was probably the best player at the rookie tournament and has reportedly looked good in camp. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of quotes such as this:

and this:

that seem to indicate he has a good shot to make the roster. For now, I am drinking the Kool-Aid and penciling him in.

Marian Studenic makes the roster almost by default. I really haven’t seen much from Boqvist, Thompson, Zetterlund, Clarke, or Foote to make me think any of them really deserve a spot. I haven’t seen much from Studenic either, but unlike those other players, Studenic is waiver eligible and while it seems unlikely that anyone is clamoring to claim him off of waivers, it’s not impossible. So the tie goes to asset management.

The final spot goes to Vesey. Frankly, I wan’t originally going to sign Vesey. I know he has played well in camp, but his play the last two seasons has left a lot to be desired. Like Jankowski, Vesey got crushed in the run of play. Unlike Jankowski, Vesey hasn’t had the defensive results to indicate he can excel in a specific role.

So why sign a player known for his offensive game that isn’t effective offensively and hasn’t shown the ability to excel defensively? It’s not because I think he’s suddenly figured it out at 28. But, I decided I wanted 14 forwards and I don’t want a prospect sitting in the press box. So Vesey is signed to be the 13th/14th forward who Ruff can plug and play as needed. Who knows, but his early play in camp is good enough for me to trust him as a healthy scratch.

The Final Roster

Now all that’s left is to figure out who plays where in the lineup. Let’s get the easy part out of the way. Hischier and Bratt are going to stay together and I am keeping Sharangovich and Hughes together as well. No reason to mess with those pairings. So far Ruff has stuck with Tatar on the Hughes line and Johnsson has played LW to Hischier and Bratt. I don’t mind those lines, honestly. I think Johnsson will show more offense this year than last and if Ruff decides to stick with that group, at least to start the year, I won’t complain. But, the reason we see Johnsson with Hischier and Bratt is because Pavel Zacha has been slotted back in at center. And that’s just not something I have any interest in trying out again. We’ve been down that road enough times and at some point you need to stop banging your head against the wall. So I am moving Zacha back to LW with Hischier and Bratt. This trio showed some good chemistry together last season and although they were slightly in the red in terms of shot attempt differential, with a 48.87 CF%, they had an expected goals percentage over 53% and were just shy of 59% GF% (stats via Evolving Hockey), so for those of you who only care about results... they got results. Another idea would be to try out Zacha and Hughes, who spent less than 50 minutes together last season, but got very good results in that sample size. Ultimately I decided to trust the chemistry and larger sample from the Zacha - Hischier - Bratt line. This means that I’m sticking with Tatar on Hughes’s line. That sounds good to me. Tatar is a great offensive player and can hold his own defensively. Fitzgerald may have preferred the flashier Tarasenko before settling for Tatar later in free agency, but Tatar is the better 5 on 5 player and didn’t cost anything besides cap space to add. I think we’ll be happy with this signing, wherever he ends up playing in the lineup.

The Top-6

Yegor Sharangovich - Jack Hughes - Tomas Tatar

Pavel Zacha - Nico Hischier - Jesper Bratt

After the top-6, things get a little more interesting. The first question I asked is where am I slotting McLeod. Does he play on the 3rd line or does he end up on the bottom line? I ultimately decided to put him on the 4th line because I don’t have very much confidence in his offensive ability and as John has previously pointed out, McLeod wasn’t very good away from Bastian, so even though the McLeod line was really the 3rd line for much of last year, I’m not ready to formally place him in that spot. Similarly, I think Wood’s skillset is best suited for a 4th line role, so he will join McLeod on that line. The final spot on this line comes down to what skillset I want for this line, and I’m going with speed. McLeod and Wood are burners and I want someone that can keep up with them. That means Studenic is the lucky winner, and he arguably brings more skill than either of the other two as well. My worry with this group is they will end up spending too much time chasing the play around in their own zone to actually make much use of their speed. On the other hand, this group could wreak havoc on the forecheck and anytime an opposing defender bobbles the puck on the blue-line, look out, because there’s a good chance we’re going to see an odd man rush.

Now all that’s left to figure out is the 3rd line. You can probably guess what it’ll look like. I didn’t keep Mercer around to sit in the press box after all. In fact, I’m handing him some serious responsibility right off the bat, as he gets to center the line. Since he was drafted I’ve gone back and forth as to whether I’d rather have him as a top-6 RW with Hischier or Hughes, or center the 3rd line (this assuming he does, in fact, reach his full potential). I generally leaned towards top-6 RW because I thought he’d be more valuable in that position. But having seen him in camp so far, I think he’ll be a very capable 3rd line center and potentially a luxury in that position. Maybe he ends up needing another year to get there, but it’s hard not to be very excited about his potential. Flanking Mercer we have Andreas Johnsson, who I strongly believe will bounce back from last year, and Janne Kuokkanen, who will serve as the playmaker on this line.

The Bottom - 6

Andreas Johnsson - Dawson Mercer - Janne Kuokkanen

Miles Wood - Michael McLeod - Marian Studenic

I’m happy with this lineup. The top lines are no surprise. And depending on whether Mercer is ready for the big leagues, that third line could be very solid. Finish it off with a line capable of creating chaos on the forecheck and we’ve got ourselves a team.

Ultimately it still all comes down to how the youth progresses. If Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt are star caliber players this year, and some of the supporting cast contributes, this has a good shot to be a playoff team. If either of the top 2 lines struggles for an extended period of time, we’re looking at a team that will have to rely on goaltending to have any chance at a halfway decent season. Here’s the full lineup.

Sharangovich - Hughes - Tatar

Zacha - Hischier - Bratt

Johnsson - Mercer - Kuokkanen

Wood - McLeod - Studenic

Your Thoughts

Now that you’ve seen my ideal line-up given the roster available, I want to know your thoughts. What do you like? What would you do differently? Would you keep Zacha at LW or do you think he’s better utilized at center? Do you think Mercer makes the team? What would your ideal lineup look like? Leave your thoughts down below and thank you for reading.