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Two Problems the Devils Need to Solve Sooner Rather Than Later

From the first two games, I have noticed two big things that I believe Ruff should try to get fixed soon.

Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils
Timo Meier has struggled to find his groove in Devils red.
Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

Good morning and happy Monday to all. As we look forward to tonight’s game, I wanted to take a look at two things I have continually noticed through the first two games. The first issue is one that I believe every fan who has seen the games has noticed. I may be on an island with the second issue — but I feel at least somewhat strongly about it needing to be evaluated and rectified. In the meantime — first up is the slow start that the top line has gotten off to.

The Bigger Problem: The Meier-Hischier Disconnect

When the New Jersey Devils traded for Timo Meier, the two possible destinations for him on the ice were either next to his fellow-Swiss native Nico Hischier, or next to Jack Hughes. Both ideas had their merit. Hischier and Meier had played together with the Swiss National Team, and in theory their styles may be conducive to a physical top line with a high shot volume. Meier ended spending more time with Jack Hughes, for whom he could theoretically serve as protection for. This year, Ruff opted to keep Bratt with Hughes while putting Meier with HIschier.

In their short stint together in 2022-23, the Meier-Hischier-Mercer line had a 57.53 CF%, a 71.77 xGF%, and an even 1-1 goals ratio in just over 40 minutes. From the small sample, you could see why Lindy Ruff wanted to put them back together after Alex Holtz looked like he could benefit from some more sheltered play. This year, the line has failed to meet expectations, with just a 42.22 CF% and 40.64 xGF%. They have been outshot at a 2-1 pace, and they have been extremely lucky not to see any goals against. It just has not worked out so far, and their lack of offense really hurt them in their shootout loss on Friday night.

It can be difficult to identify the exact cause of these issues. For all we know, one or more of them could be banged up — and some people saw Timo Meier in a heap of pain during their game against Detroit. Nico Hischier has been putting up career-worst numbers for faceoffs in the first two games of the season — and I found myself wondering if something was wrong when they had Erik Haula taking late-game faceoffs against Detroit. It would not have been unusual for McLeod to take faceoffs with Nico in six-on-five situations as a righty, but that was not the case with Haula out there. Nico is no stranger to fighting through pain, and it was at least in the back of my mind on opening night. And until I see this line flying with speed, causing turnovers, creating rushes, and pumping out dangerous chances from their transition game, I am going to be concerned about whether they’re at full strength. But after Detroit came the second game against Arizona, where the top line really struggled.

I have two competing reactions to their start to the season as a unit. The first is that this is a group of highly-talented professional hockey players — and each of them have played with one or another at one point in their pasts. As professionals, they should be able to figure out their disconnect and get back to wiring rush one-timers and shutting down opposing top lines. My other reaction is that perhaps their styles have become too redundant. Both Nico Hischier and Timo Meier can beat teams with their legs or by skating right through them. From watching them, it seems like a problem is that they have been skating themselves too much into trouble without another linemate to pass off to. Last year, Tomas Tatar was great at finding and skating into open space to keep the ice open for Hischier and, at various points, Mercer or Bratt. But this year, they have not been functioning as a unit — and only as a group of individuals. As a result, they have been split.

There are a few reasons I am not incredibly enthused about this decision by Lindy Ruff. In 236 minutes together, Hischier and Palat had a 53.62 xGF% and outscored opponents 12-8 (60 GF%). While this sounds fine, Hischier had a 61.51 xGF% when not lined up with Palat last season, and his goals ratio was a tad better at 61.25%. Mercer himself fared very well in 371 minutes with Hischier last year, though Hischier only benefitted a little bit in terms of xGF% when they were on the same line. So, you might imagine that Mercer and Meier would make for a powerhouse winger duo. However, as Palat has never played with both Hischier and Meier, I will reserve more judgement until they play together tonight. Perhaps Palat’s more peripheral and opportunistic play — at his age — is a better fit for the two Swiss guys that just want to barrel through the other team. But do I think the best answer here is to have Palat and Mercer play off-wing on the first and third lines, respectively? Probably not.

Something interesting from last year was Bratt and Hischier scoring at a better rate together than Bratt and Hughes, and it is something that I have been thinking about with the top six’s struggles through two games. With Bratt, Jack Hughes had a 35-27 goals ratio and 63.29 xGF% in 556 minutes. In 420 minutes with Bratt, Hischier had a 27-16 goals ratio on a 56.35 xGF%. If splitting Mercer off the top line does not fix the issue, I think Lindy Ruff should give a long thought to switching Bratt and Meier in the lineup. Bratt and Hischier have a longer history together, and a Bratt-Hischier-Mercer line may very well work better. Jack would still have a lot of fun working with Toffoli and Meier. However, I think Palat has earned his games with the top line with how well he has skated out of the gate. If he can be the cog that makes the machine work, so be it. But if he looks the way he did last year with Hischier, I will quickly want a younger, more skilled winger in that spot.

The Lesser “Problem:” The Split Power Play Units

To begin the year, the Devils have been using two power play units that coach Ruff has described as top units. There’s the Hughes unit, which features Jesper Bratt, Tyler Toffoli, Ondrej Palat, and Luke Hughes. And then there’s the Hischier unit, which features Timo Meier, Dawson Mercer, Alex Holtz, and Dougie Hamilton. To be fair, it has been a very small sample size. Yet, I cannot help but feel the units have struggled to get going on their own and should be combined back into what they were at the end of last season.

The Hischier unit looks the roughest so far. In three minutes together, they only have 0.06 xGF on two shots with one shot against. They do not have a scoring chance or high-danger chance listed as of yet. By comparison, the Hughes unit has played over six minutes together and has one goal. That’s great. It is not great that they only have three shots, with two shots against, in over six minutes. Their total 0.86 xGF-0.24 xGA ratio is more appropriate for a power play, but still gives up a little too much the other way.

Seeing the Devils work their power plays against Arizona felt like a good comparison. Yes, it was against three-man kills, but the combination of the units felt so much more cohesive, fluid, and threatening. In 1:40, Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Hamilton had six shot attempts, four shots, and two goals, with 0.58 xGF, and 5 scoring chances. It is true that the Devils have yet to ice this group against a regular penalty kill, but I believe they would be able to pick up right from where they left off last season.

While Nico Hischier is mostly relegated to the slot here, I think the truly underappreciated part of their power play is Dougie Hamilton. Even though Luke Hughes’ skating and puckhandling ability is outstanding, Dougie has one of the best shots in the league at the defenseman position. It would be a shame to relegate Hamilton to a second unit that plays less than half as much as the other unit — even though the coaches and players act as if the units will be used equally. At the end of the day, though, it’s really tough for a second power play unit to get rolling when they only have 30-45 seconds to work with.

Here, you can see the potential of adding Toffoli to that group of skaters. The opposition simply has too many shots that they need to respect, and they still have the puck carrying ability that the Hughes unit currently offers. I understand exactly why Ruff wanted to split the top power play guys — but I think it has not looked very good in the first two games. If the power play were restructured to be like last season, the second unit can still give younger players — Holtz, Mercer, and Luke Hughes — the chance to play with talented forwards in Meier and Palat. As long as the goal of the power play is to score as efficiently as possible, my view is that Hischier and Hamilton need to be with Hughes, Bratt, and Toffoli. Relegating all three of Hischier, Hamilton, and Meier to the second power play unit is a bad idea, given how well the former two worked with the power play last season.

Final Thoughts

I am by no means pressed to get answers in the first week of the season. But with how much talent the Devils have, I would like to see them build off of last year with the Hischier-Mercer connection and the power play, which was led by Hischier, Hughes, and Hamilton. While I do not expect Mercer back with Hischier unless Meier comes off the line at this point, I do think the power play can be made more efficient — like last year’s — with a quick personnel realignment. Make no mistake — this is the greatest group of forwards the Devils have seen in about 20 years. I still have no doubt that they will figure it out, one way or another.

Your Thoughts

What have you thought about the top line and the split power play groups so far this season? Do you see the vision from Ruff, or do you think this still needs to be readjusted? How much time should each line get together before being reworked? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.