Throughout this season, Lindy Ruff and Co. have had a general setup for forward line combinations for the New Jersey Devils, but they have not exactly been static either, with slight changes being seen now and then to try and maintain the winning edge. To showcase this, here were the top 7 line combinations used by the team before the start of last night’s game against Buffalo, with the frequency percentage of that line out there, thanks to Left Wing Lock:
As you can see, the BMW fourth line on this team is pretty well locked in at this point, totaling almost 14% of total ice time. Wood does show up again there at the bottom, with Tomas Tatar and Erik Haula for 4.1%, but for the overwhelming majority of this season, that line has stayed the same and will most likely continue to do so. Because of that, I really won’t mention it further here. They do their job, do it well, and it should remain that way.
The top 3 lines are what is interesting. The remaining 9 guys get moved around to some degree, although there are two other lines that have seen 10%+ ice time together for the team. Tomas Tatar-Nico Hischier-Fabian Zetterlund has been together an awful lot at 12.6% of total team ice time, and the line of Jesper Bratt-Jack Hughes-Erik Haula is not far behind at 11.1%. The third line has been fairly set with Dawson Mercer and Yegor Sharangovitch, but who plays with them is not consistent, the most frequent being Jesper Boqvist, especially since Ondrej Palat went down.
But the interesting thing is that you can move these guys in the top 9 around, at least to some degree, and still see shockingly great success. Take last night, for example. With the first loss in quite a while still fresh on the mind, Ruff decided to make a slight change against Buffalo. Mercer and Sharangovitch got broken up, with Mercer moving up to play with Hughes and Haula. Bratt then took the spot alongside Hischier and Tatar while Zetterlund went down to play with Sharangovitch and Boqvist. The line combos, and how they played last night, can be seen here from Moneypuck.
What this achieved for the Devils last night was two incredibly dominant lines and one rather poor line. The top two lines of Mercer-Hughes-Haula and Bratt-Hischier-Tatar were lights out. The former was absolutely insane, with all 3 of Mercer, Hughes and Haula pushing a 90% xG%. Their on-ice xGF was well over 1, while their on-ice xGA was barely over 0.1. That is the definition of dominance, not to mention the fact that the line all contributed to the opening goal of the game. But not to be outshone too much, Bratt, Hischier, and Tatar were quite impressive themselves, although their on-ice xGA was over 0.5, marring their overall expected goal numbers. But their xGF was so high that it made up for it, and they of course were the cause of the third goal for that really made the third period a lot less stressful.
However, by consolidating talent on the top six like that, it really left the third line out to dry somewhat. The line of Zetterlund-Sharangovitch-Boqvist was not great. They were fairly well beat up at 5 on 5, with an on-ice xGF of 0.1 versus an on-ice xGA over 0.6. That also goes along with a CF% under 43%. They were responsible for the team’s second goal, which ended up being the game winner, but that was also lucky to some degree thanks to Mattias Samuelsson losing his edge and falling down behind his own net, giving the puck up. Other than that goal, however, they were largely dominated by Buffalo. And this was across around 7 and a half minutes of ice time, so it wasn’t a small amount of time together.
It will be interesting to see if Lindy Ruff keeps that line together in tonight’s game against Washington. They were clearly a liability last night based on numbers, and it does make sense. Most of the season, those three guys have played with someone who is clearly a top 6 skater, if not two of them. Zetterlund has been absolutely graced and beyond lucky to play the beginning of his NHL career with Hischier and Tatar. Playing with Yegor and Boqvist instead, he clearly did not have the same impact. Even Boqvist was not as successful after losing Mercer on that third line, which goes to show the impact Mercer has had. He was also crazy good last night when moved up to play with Hughes and Haula.
And if Lindy does decide to give that line some relief, who does he move to make that happen? As I said, the Mercer-Hughes-Haula line was insanely good, is there a real reason to break that up so soon? Bratt-Hischier-Tatar was not quite as good, but do you really want to put Bratt on a line with Sharangovitch and Boqvist? It would give Zetterlund a chance to thrive with Hischier and Tatar, but it might limit what Bratt can do. Or, he pulls those two along with him back to possession dominance. You could move Tatar I guess, but Hischier and Tatar have been locked together just like Hughes and Haula have been, I am not sure they want to mess with that.
Either way, it will be interesting tonight to see how the lines are set up. Does he keep them the same after a nice 3-1 win last night, even knowing that the third line really struggled? Surely Washington will know that, but the Devils also do get the last change at home, so that line could be protected somewhat with favorable zone starts against weaker competition. Regardless, it should be a fun one tonight.