Earlier this week, the New Jersey Devils played two drastically different games. The first was a tight, defensive battle at home against Vegas, and then a couple of days later, they played the first of a back-to-back in Nashville where we saw a ton of goals and poor defensive play. When comparing those two games and outcomes, it is logical to look at the defense. The third pairing was atrocious against Nashville, and no one would spare a second thought if you wanted to put the primary blame on them for why the Devils allowed 6 goals on Thursday night.
However, another interesting thing to look at is the line combos, how they differed between the two games and the different outcomes we saw. It really was a tale of two different philosophies. On Tuesday at home, Lindy Ruff and Co. put all of the top talent together on the top six while leaving the bottom 6 without much support. On Thursday, meanwhile, he decided to break up the lines and infuse the bottom 6 with some more talent while giving Jack Hughes less talent to work with on his line as a consequence. And the results, obviously, were rather different. Just check out the lines xGoals for and against from MoneyPuck. The first picture is from the Vegas game, the second is from Nashville.
So as you can see, the main difference in the lines between the two games was the movement of Erik Haula and Tomas Tatar. On Tuesday, both were on the Hughes line, while on Thursday, they were brought down to the third line along with Mercer to try and spread out the talent among all four lines. This then brought Fabian Zetterlund and Yegor Sharangovitch to the Hughes line. And the results from this change were, well, not great. Of course, with Tuesday being a defensive bout while Thursday was wide open, the overall numbers from one game to the next are tough to compare. The lines against Vegas mostly had great xGA numbers, while none of them did against Nashville, but of course, the opposite is true with xGF. However, we can look at the lines within each game, and at overall xGF% numbers, and compare those to really see which way worked better.
And when we compare, we see that the system of having two dominant lines and two weaker lines worked better, at least in this instance. Against Vegas, the top 6 was pretty good. The line of Nico Hischier, Ondrej Palat, and Jesper Bratt was not great defensively, but their expected goals for were great, best on the team by a very wide margin. The Hughes line with Tatar and Haula was still second best on xGF, if only barely, but unlike the top line, they had a positive overall xGF% and clearly were a cohesive unit. Meanwhile, the bottom 6, and especially the fourth line, were not producing much offense, but neither were they letting up much defensively, so it was a positive outcome overall.
Compare that with the game Thursday when things were switched up. The only line to remain the same was the Palat-Hischier-Bratt line. Their numbers were rather similar between the two games. They had a little more xGF against Nashville, but also a little more xGA, so overall it worked out to a similar performance. But the other three lines were different and worse. Hughes was given a downgrade in wingers, playing with Zetterlund and Sharangovitch. Not that these two are bad per se, but they are generally not at the level of Tatar and Haula. And it led to a horrible 0.904 xGA to only a 0.679 xGF. That xGF number is good overall, but in an open game like it was, the line needed to be better at stopping the puck going in the opposite direction, which they were not. The bottom 6 was similarly poor. The Mercer line was now infused with more talent from Tatar and Haula, and so you would hope it would have been better. But the line ended with a low 0.24 xGF (low for this game at least) compared to a 0.645 xGA. For a line that was put together to help create three playable lines instead of 2, they did not do that job at all. Then, the BMW line was especially awful against Nashville, with basically no offensive production to go along with a similarly poor defensive output as the other lines.
So, clearly, the decision to spread out the top 6 talent to make 3 playable lines instead of 2 was a failure, at least in the one game. It weakened the Hughes line while really not benefitting the third line at all. Now, maybe if the Tatar-Haula-Mercer line played together for a month, they would develop chemistry and start to play better. But in the short term, it was not great. Hughes and Haula have played significant minutes together this year, over 414 minutes at this point. The only player on the ice for more minutes with Hughes has been Vitek Vanecek. Why separate that chemistry at this point when it has led to a dominating performance for Hughes at this point? I know Haula doesn’t score much, but he plays well with The Big Deal, so why move him?
Now, this issue of how to create more depth among the forward corps could be solved if Tom Fitzgerald makes a deal for someone like Timo Meier. There would be an instant infusion of talent and would allow Ruff to drop someone like Haula or Tatar to the third line without weakening the Hughes line. Considering the position NJ is in, it seems likely they will try to trade for someone, but in the meantime, Ruff is going to have to navigate between putting out a strong top 6, or weakening one of those lines to create a stronger third line. And between those two games from earlier this week, it seems keeping a stronger top 6 could be the way to go.