The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, graced us with a shorter version of the word chemistry with respect to his preseason play with his linemates Jesper Bratt and Tyler Toffoli: Chem. And why not? The trio was a monster as Bratt would go on to lead the entire NHL in preseason scoring with Hughes and Toffoli not far behind. Their play was sufficient enough for head coach Lindy Ruff to keep the threesome together through the first three games of the New Jersey Devils season.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Jack Hughes has played 46:04 of 5-on-5 hockey in this season and 30:55 of that have been with Bratt and Toffoli. That is not a lot of time but the Devils also spent significant portions of their first three games in outside of 5-on-5 hockey. The second link in that first sentence goes to NST’s Line Tool, which shows the on-ice stats for a combination of players. While the trio is even in terms of 5-on-5 goals at 2-2, there is plenty of evidence to keep 63-86-73 together. For example, the three have out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced their opponents by healthy margins in those near 31 minutes of ice time. Here’s a point-by-point breakdown:
- Attempts: The line has crushed it in attempts in 5-on-5, out-attempting their opponents 50-29 in 5-on-5. That is a 60-minute rate of attempts for the Devils of above 96. Which is astounding.
- Shots: Those attempts get on target with an impressive SF/60 rate of 52.37. Oh, they’ve out-shot their competition by a healthy 27-19 margin.
- Expected Goals: By count, it’s 2.54 to 1.49. By rate, it’s 4.92 to 2.89. By eye, it’s glorious when you see Hughes and Bratt - perhaps the only two Devils who have shown up for a full 60 minutes to start this season - take the puck into the offensive zone.
- Scoring Chances: A massive 26-14; a near doubling-up of opponents. A rate of 50.43 SCF/60 is fantastic. With a SCA/60 of 27.16, it is even better.
- High Danger Scoring Chances: The line is not as dominant at 6-5, but you will not complain of a rate of HD chances above 11.5 per 60 minutes.
- Goals: The only downside: it’s 2-2. Which is not amazing, but not at all terrible. They have contributed.
Yes, the goals from those three have not been so frequent at 5-on-5. But the efforts are absolutely there. The points will come should those three keep attacking oppositions. In fact, we have seen it - just not in 5-on-5. Hughes and Bratt have 5 points each in other situations, which furthers the idea that they are working well enough.
Offense is more than just points. And while you or I may not know what exactly a 4.5+ xG/60 looks like on the ice, you and I know that the Devils’ issues in their first three game have little to do with that line. That is what good chem looks like.
What does bad chem look like? You likely know the answer too: Timo Meier, Nico Hischier, and Dawson Mercer. A group that took Lindy Ruff over two games to split them up. Even that required Meier to take two silly and unnecessary tripping penalties against Florida and earn a benching. Rather than rely on memories, let us look into the numbers to prove that their “chem” was definitely bad.
Thanks to the same Line Tool at NST, we know that those three played 19:13 together. That does not seem like a lot but do recall that the Devils did not play a ton of 5-on-5 in each of their games so far. And, again, Meier was benched and the line was split up during the loss to Florida. Still, this is over half of Hischier’s entire season so far in 5-on-5 play with 34:28 played. With the captain boasting zeros to go with two shots in 5-on-5 play, this line was certainly a reason why he has not found the scoring part of the scoresheet yet. How bad has it been? Quite. Witness:
- Attempts: The line has been out-attempted 19-26 in 5-on-5. That is a 60-minute rate of attempts against the Devils of above 80. Ouch.
- Shots: The line has been out-shot 9-18. What’s worse? The heinous 56.15 SA/60 rate or the unimpressive 28.08 SF/60 rate?
- Expected Goals: It’s 1.43 to 2.09 in favor of this line’s opponents. Which jives with the following two points...
- Scoring Chances: The line is up 11-10, which is positive but not barely so. And not so positive when you look at...
- High Danger Scoring Chances: The line is out-done 4-5.
- Goals: Hey, it’s 0-0. So they have not cost anything but they have not been adding anything either. Not good if the line is supposed to be a scoring line.
While this is just based on less than 20 minutes of hockey, it is quite awful considering the combination is between a two-way center with Selke buzz in Hischier, a very wealthy strong winger in Meier, and a young man with a lot of DAWG in him in Mercer. In theory, it should work. In practice, it has not. This is what bad “chem” can look like. Again, you and I may not know what a CA/60 of over 80 looks like on the ice, but the lack of attack has been apparent to any of the People Who Matter who has actually paid some attention to the games.
But It’s A Short Sample Size?
Here is a bitter pill that I eventually had to swallow and I hope you do too at some point. It really does not take long to figure out if hockey players mesh well together. It does not take long to find out if the “chem” is good or not. Similar to two people meeting up for the first time, it really does not require a protracted amount of time for them to know if they can be friends or not.
Sometimes, a head coach will keep players together just to avoid having to break some other group up or not having any better option available. Lindy Ruff does not have to do that. His own time with the New Jersey Devils alone has shown a willingness to mix things up, even in games, if a combination or a match up or a player/team performance is not working to his liking. I have learned to recognize that is actually a better thing than keeping a line or a defensive pairing together and hoping they figure it out. Mostly because a line or a pairing not playing well is not going to contribute much for the Devils and/or could hurt them in games.
Further, part of the job of being a head coach - or any kind of decision maker - means considering and making changes without having the luxury of the time or resources to have larger pool of data. The NHL season is only 82 games long. To use Ruff’s term, is jamming a square peg into a round hole worth doing for 10 games only to find out that, yep, it is not good even though we had the signs of that now? Is it worth the risk of putting the team in a hole in the standings to do so? I do not think so. No, it is not “pressing the panic button.” That is some black-and-white thinking that only hinders our acceptance of the reality we live in. This is making decisions to try to avoid having to be in a panic situation later. (Aside: Plus, panicking would be something ridiculous like lining up Hughes with Nathan Bastian and his younger brother Luke as a forward with a third pairing of Colin Miller and Brendan Smith supporting them.)
To that end, what can the Devils do? Let us look at the bad chem example of Meier, Hischier, and Mercer. In addition to the benching on Monday, Thursday’s practice showed Bratt and Meier switching positions with Mercer and Ondrej Palat switching off too per Amanda Stein on X. That seems off considering it is breaking up a trio that has worked to salvage one that has not. However, I think that is justifiable. Some of the People Who Matter seemed to have forgot that Meier played 21 games with the Devils last season plus 12 playoff games. In 5-on-5 play, Meier with Hughes was an effective partnership in the regular season. When together, the Devils out-attempted, out-shot, and (heavily) out-chanced their opposition albeit for 108 minutes. It was not so effective in the run of play in the postseason. However, Meier’s time with Hischier was effective in 5-on-5 in the 2023 playoffs and, well, you saw the first three games of this season to know how that carried over to today. It may be worth taking with a grain of salt. The 21 regular season games may be more applicable to the team’s current situation of being in the regular season. It is worth a shot. Plus, Jack Hughes is capable of carrying a lot on the ice as Mike Kelly pointed out yesterday on X.
As for Bratt and Hischier, the two played over 430 minutes together and it went quite well. It is a tried-and-tested connection. Throw in the fact that Bratt is hotter in terms of production and it is worth a chance to put him alongside the captain. This makes sense. The risk is with the other wingers. Toffoli is still new and it remains to be seen how he would play off someone like Meier. Palat and Hischier had about 237 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together last season. While it went well in terms of CF%, SF%, and xGF%, it was better with Mercer last season. An apparent injury to Erik Haula may have forced Ruff’s hand to put Mercer on a line with Michael McLeod and Alex Holtz just to keep it somewhat threatening. It is also another unknown to see how it plays out.
Which would be fine with me. Going to back to the first point of this section: it really does not take a long time to see if something really works or not. If it does not, then make the change. Better to do that even with limited information at hand than hoping for the best-case scenario - which does not always happen.
Is This the Biggest Problem with the Devils Right Now?
Your mileage may vary, but I think it is one of the top-three issues with the team.
The biggest one, to me, is the terrible starts to the game. It is one thing to be down a goal or two after one period. It is another to do so while struggling to put even 5 shots on the other team’s goalie without referee help (read: power plays). The concerning one to me was the Florida game as it was after two straight games of “We gotta start better” and a weekend without games. What is the effort going to be when the schedule gets tighter? Where is the motivation? But this is rather straight forward. Lindy Ruff, his staff, and even Hischier and the leadership team have to find some ways to wake up for the first period. I will even accept air horns and car alarms in everyone’s ears after the pre-game skate.
The second biggest one is the discipline. This goes hand in hand with the first part since I view discipline as a function of professionalism. This means being ready to start. Rebounding after bad shifts and bad events like goals. This means learning from mistakes and not losing your cool. Yet, the first three games have seen plenty of uncharacteristic and straight up obvious penalties taken by the Devils. The time to whack Jake Walman in the shins after he laid on you is understandable but still dumb by Jack Hughes. Putting sticks into legs and skates is going to lead to tripping calls, as the Devils found out against Arizona three times. Timo Meier got his benching for two trips. Were some of the penalties called soft? Yeah. But part of managing a game is understanding how the ref is calling it and adjusting. Bad news: teams are going to sell and dive against the Devils this season. The Devils have to be smarter about it. And, again like the first one, this is something the players and coaches just have to figure out. There is no magic method here. Make like Nike and Just Do It.
I would place chem as third because the imbalance has really undercut the performances. Bad nights are going to happen. Yet, it was bizarre to see Ruff be so stubborn with the lines and pairings for two and a half games after seasons of mixing it up at a moment’s notice. Perhaps a message was sent and Ruff will recognize that finding chem is not a long process at all and it will take some potentially unpopular paths to find it. The benefit: a better team on the ice. One that is not leaning one line and one special teams unit (power play) to provide the goals. This is also something that is adjustable unlike the other two issues. So go forth and seek it out.
One final point: Yes, the team is 1-1-1 and nothing is over. But this is a league where it gets late awfully early and catching up is hard to do. Part of last season’s success was not just the 13-game winning streak but that it happened from late October through Thanksgiving. Our Hated Rivals and others tried to catch up but they just fell short. Better for the Devils to do what they can to earn points in games now than struggling for them in 2024.
Now that you know how I view it, I want to know what you think. What does good chem look like to you? What about bad chem? How long do you think a coach should stick with a line or a pairing before realizing it works or not? What do you think are the biggest issues with the team right now? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about chem in the comments. Thank you for reading.