Coming into this season, there was significant hype around the top 9 forwards on the New Jersey Devils, and rightly so. I wrote about how much potential they had in the season preview last week, and they really do have a shot to be the best top 9 in the NHL if things go right. And all things considered, they had a strong night against Detroit on Thursday. The second line of Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, and Dawson Mercer surprisingly struggled and were the worst line of the night, but the top line of Jack Hughes, Tyler Toffoli, and Jesper Bratt were dominant, and the third line of Erik Haula, Ondrej Palat, and Alexander Holtz more than held their own as well.
However, if you want to talk about shocking success, we should spend some time here discussing how great the fourth line played. The line of Michael McLeod, Tomas Nosek, and Curtis Lazar really had a banner night and kept things going positively for the Devils. First off, here is the Game Score chart from CJ Turtoro:
You can obviously see that the first line of Hughes, Toffoli, and Bratt had better game scores than the fourth line, but I mean, that is to be expected. They could be the best line in hockey by season’s end, so they should almost always be at the top of these charts, at least among the forwards. Right behind them, however, is the fourth line. Lazar, McLeod and Nosek were dominant defensively, and had the best defensive impacts for the Devils in the entire game outside of John Marino and Kevin Bahl. Yes, they had slightly negative offensive impacts, but that is also to be expected; they are on the fourth line for defensive purposes, to take defensive zone starts and get the puck up ice. And they were excellent defensively.
To showcase this in a little more detail, here is a chart of some game stats of the forwards from game 1 from Natural Stat Trick, all data at 5 on 5:
This chart just shows how good the fourth line was against Detroit Lazar, McLeod, and Nosek were. Before getting into any numbers, look at their zone starts. They had 0 offensive zone shift starts, whether they be from faceoffs or from on the fly starts. They never started a shift in the offensive zone all game. And despite that, they ended with the best Corsi and the best expected goals percentage, and it was not even close. Lazar was on the ice for 12 shot attempts for versus only 2 against, while McLeod was at 11 and 2 and Nosek was 11 and 3. In terms of expected goals, both Lazar and McLeod were on the ice for 0.42 expected goals for versus only 0.02 goals against, and Nosek was at 0.42 and 0.06. Those are incredible numbers for a line that had 0 offensive zone starts. They started all of their shifts in the neutral or defensive zones, yet allowed next to no shots against, and were expected to give up basically 0 goals. You cannot play better.
Now, that being said, they did not score a goal between them, and were not on the ice for any goals for at 5 on 5, so none of this play translated into actual goals to help them team win. But that also really is not their job, they are not asked to generate goals, especially with 0 offensive zone starts. They are asked to prevent goals against and get the puck up ice, and in this they were wildly successful. With a performance like this, it is hard to see Nathan Bastian drawing back into this line. I expected him to get the start over Lazar given the new two-year deal he signed in the offseason, but Lazar got the start and showed that he should continue to get them. Now, things could easily change, this was only one game, but it was a seriously good performance from this line that did exactly what was asked of them, and did it better than anyone could have hoped for. Let’s hope they can keep it up.