Of all the things us hockey fans complain about, one of the most ubiquitous is probably lineup and roster decisions by a coaching staff. In my nearly 10 years of writing for this blog, there are probably more posts from me complaining about various line combos or certain healthy scratches than I can count. It’s an easy thing to pick at and criticize because in hockey it’s the most visible part of a coach’s job. We complain about lines being switched too much or not enough. Player X is getting too many minutes and Player Y isn’t getting enough. Why is Player Z even dressed for these games? Etcetera, etcetera. Are we in the peanut gallery likely to be happy with any set of line combos for long, even if we get what we want? Probably not. Anyway, without further ado, time to complain about the line combos.
Erik Haula has increasingly become a topic of conversation around the Devils fanbase, as the veteran forward has struggled to find the back of the net in his first season in New Jersey. The fact that he is enduring these finishing struggles while Jack Hughes is setting other teams’ defenses ablaze right next to him has only heightened the attention on Haula’s shooting woes. Jack Hughes is an elite playmaker and frequently puts opportunities on a tee for his teammates. In spite of the obvious ability, Hughes’ assist numbers are good but not elite, with him tied for 36th in the league right now in that category overall and all the way down at 102nd in 5v5 rate per 60. The fact that Erik Haula scored just his third goal of the season on Saturday and has zero (0) goals that have been assisted by Jack Hughes, in spite of playing over 370 minutes with him at 5v5 thus far, is a little tough to fathom. Common sense would dictate that you put a winger next to Jack Hughes who can finish a chance created by Hughes more than once every never.
To defend the setup for just a moment, we can point to the fact that the Devils have been relatively dominant with Hughes and Haula on the ice together. Up until the past couple weeks, Hughes’ on-ice goals for rate was comparable or higher with Haula than it was without. If the team is bludgeoning opponents with a certain combination of guys on the ice, even if it doesn’t quite seem like it should be a fit, it’s hard to kill a coach for running with that combo.
Two things have shifted in the past few weeks to start to challenge that status quo, though. First, Hughes on-ice goal numbers without Haula have begun to outpace the numbers with the two of them together, and second, the Devils’ bottom six has become something of a hot mess on a lot of nights. Haula is a solid enough player and can do some things well at both ends of the ice, but he’s also rarely been more than a middle-six depth player at most stops along the way. That Haula does good work along the boards, wins faceoffs, and can generally play decent enough defense are all points in his favor as a player, but they are also not the kinds of things that require a permanent placement in the top six next to one of the most dynamic forwards in the league.
The idea that Jack Hughes needs a defensive babysitter of sorts tracks with his early career arc and some of his clear limitations in his first few seasons. It may be a concept that has been rendered obsolete, though, as Hughes’ 200-foot game has improved significantly, and he is becoming something of a one-man wrecking crew who can drive just about any line you assemble around him. That Hughes can get his, seemingly independent of the linemates around him, doesn’t mean that the Devils shouldn’t be searching for guys who can compound the benefits of Hughes’ elite playmaking and drive the on-ice scoring to even greater heights, though.
Meanwhile, the bottom six has been somewhat adrift for a month or more now, with murmurs of life only recently becoming apparent from players outside of the top two lines again. Haula has had a long career as an effective depth player and could be the type of stabilizing force the team needs outside of the top two lines. The Devils have been limping along with some combination of Mike McLeod and Jesper Boqvist as their third and fourth line centers for a while (with Yegor Sharangovich pushed back over to C at times as well of late) when both of those two options are likely best suited to a fourth line role at center. A Haula-led third line gives the Devils a capable 3C (which was seemingly what he was brought here to be in the first place) and helps prevent energy players from getting miscast as top-nine scorers and play-drivers. If nothing else, the Devils should just try moving Haula down and see if it delivers a more well-rounded set of four lines like we were seeing back in November when things were clicking.
Moving Haula down to the third line center gets a more effective weapon, whether it’s Yegor Sharangovich and his quick release or Dawson Mercer and his smart playmaking, back into the top six with a player like Hughes that can better capitalize on that skillset. A guy like Sharangovich in particular is going to be most effective when linemates can find him around the scoring area and/or create space for him to use his shot to beat goalies. Guys like McLeod and Miles Wood have their strengths, but passing and playmaking are not among them, which limits a player like Sharangovich’s (or, if he’s in the lineup, Holtz’s) utility when lined up next to them.
Lately, it does seem like Lindy Ruff is starting to come around to the idea of Haula being moved off of Hughes’ wing, as he has spent some time on other lines in each of the past two games after beginning with Hughes. This has paid dividends almost immediately in both instances, as Hughes finished a great setup from Sharangovich on Friday not long after the switch, and Haula found the back of the net for the first time in a month and just the second time at even strength this season on Saturday after Mercer sprung him on a 2-on-1 that he finished himself. If nothing else, moving him away from Hughes might also get Haula to loosen up a bit and get back closer to his 11% career shooting percentage mark instead of his terrible 3.7% rate this season.
In short, I don’t think Hughes is particularly reliant on the setup and both Haula and the rest of the bottom six might benefit from his presence there, so the Devils should consider making the switch and sticking with it for a while. That way we can all move onto the next lineup decision that is annoying us and get to work on complaining about it.