On Thursday night, the New Jersey Devils got back their big free agent signing in Ondrej Palat, the first game he has played since the sixth game of the season. It is a welcome addition to a team that has needed better depth play from its forward group. While Palat might slot into a top 6 role most of the time, it allows someone else who was playing up there to bolster the bottom 6, providing the Devils with some much needed improvement from the bottom 6.
But with Palat coming back, it means that there is an excess of forwards with the team at the moment. There isn’t an easy answer for who has to sit. Against St. Louis, Lindy Ruff and Co. decided to bench Fabian Zetterlund while playing a bottom 6 containing, in no particular order, Jesper Boqvist, Alexander Holtz, Michael McLeod, Yegor Sharangovitch, Dawson Mercer and Miles Wood. And in that game, there was a clear and stark difference between the top 2 lines and the bottom 2. Just check out these numbers from Natural Stat Trick:
So especially in terms of possession, there is an incredible gap from the top 6 to the bottom 6 from that game Thursday night. The Hughes line dominated in all aspects, and ended with a +18.03 relative Corsi, it really was a dominating performance in all aspects. However, the second line still held their own, with a 64.29% CF%, which of course is very quality. They were in the red in terms of xGF%, as they were not expected to produce much at all, and indeed, while Nico did score a goal, it was on the power play, and so not credited to this line’s 5v5 play. Hughes, meanwhile, scored twice at 5 on 5. But overall, that second line with Hischier still definitely held their own, and did tilt the ice in NJ’s favor while out there. Not too bad for Palat’s return.
The bottom 2 lines, however, got pretty crushed by St. Louis. The Mercer line was only slightly underwater in terms of Corsi, but they had absolutely nothing going on offense, with only a 0.02 expected goals, which is about as bad as it comes for a line that had over 7 minutes together. The McLeod line had more offensive expectations, with 0.14 expected goals, but they were not good at all defensively, projected for 0.53 expected goals against and having the worst Corsi Against of all the lines. You cannot have that poor defensive output from your checking line that needs to be able to handle itself in its own end and help get the puck up ice.
So seeing the difference, and how the bottom 2 lines really struggled in comparison to the top 6, it begs the question of what they can do differently. And with Zetterlund in the press box, there is an obvious answer right there. Zetterlund has 14 points in 33 games this season, and while at least some of that came while he was being given top 6 minutes, it does show that he is capable of producing offense, something that this team desperately needs out of the bottom 6. Compare this to Boqvist, who has a grand total of 4 points in 33 games played. Just a small difference no? Across those 33 games, Zetterlund has helped generate 419 Corsi events For, while Boqvist is only at 300 even. That is a massive difference. Yes, Boqvist does have better defensive numbers, with only 279 Corsi events Against to Zetterlund’s 341, but I think the offensive capabilities far outweight the defense. Plus, Zetterlund is still clearly in the positive there, with a CF% over 55%. Throw him on a wing with Mercer and Sharangovitch and you have what should be the makings of a quality third line that can generate some offense. You might be a little unsure about that line’s defensive capabilities, but if you shelter them in terms of zone starts and put them in opportunities to pepper the net, they will definitely do so.
Of course, that does not need to be the only option. If the coaching staff really likes Boqvist, for whatever reason, then get McLeod out of the lineup instead and let Boqvist anchor the fourth line. McLeod is the only Devils forward with at least 100 5v5 minutes that has a negative Corsi, so he clearly is not providing what they need him to on the fourth line. He is supposed to be a defensive guy, getting faceoffs and forcing the puck up the ice. Instead, his Corsi Against per 60 sits at 60.24, worst among all of those guys on the bottom 6 except Miles Wood. That isn’t going to get it done.
Right there, you already have two players that could easily be benched for Zetterlund, and considering how they’ve played so far this year, playing Zetterlund over either one would provide a boost to the bottom 6. In the end, the Devils might need to be buyers before the trade deadline and acquire another bottom 6 talent that can help to bridge the gap between the top 6 and the bottom 6. For now, however, getting the right guys in there with Palat back should be priority number 1, and from where I sit, it seems to be that Zetterlund needs to be in there, for either Boqvist or McLeod. Given the way the third and fourth lines played on Thursday, that should be pretty clear.