Coming into this season, one of the perceived strengths of the New Jersey Devils was their incredible forward depth. The way this lineup was put together, it looked like the team had an incredible top 9 to pit against any opponent, and given that depth, they should have the advantage in many of these games by being able to exploit that depth advantage. When you can put together a third line that has the likes of Erik Haula, Dawson Mercer, Ondrej Palat, Alexander Holtz, or the like, guys many guys who could easily play on a second line and thrive, it should lead to an advantage.
So far, however, that has not been the case. In fact, when looking at the stats, the fourth line for the Devils has been significantly better than the third, and the third line has regularly been the worst to take the ice for this team. When the third line is out there, the Devils are consistently having the ice tilted against them, and are getting out-attempted and outscored. So far, the most consistent players on the third line have been Haula, Mercer, and Holtz, although Palat has gotten some third line play, as Michael McLeod when Haula was hurt. However, for the sake of this article, I am going to consider McLeod as a fourth liner for this team, as that is what he is. He was on the third only as an injury fill-in. So, with that in mind, take a look at these numbers for those guys on the third line thanks to Natural Stat Trick. There are 14 forwards who have suited up for the Devils through 6 games.
First, Palat’s numbers are clearly on a different level than the others, and there is a very good reason for that. He has spent about 17 minutes, give or take, on the third line. He has 16:25 with Haula, 15:55 with Holtz, and 9:48 with Mercer. However, he has 40:51 with Nico Hischier and 35:22 with Jesper Bratt, so he has clearly spent considerably more time on Hischier’s line than he has on Haula’s. That leads him to have a very high 62.4% Corsi and a strong 58% xGF%. Realistically, he has been mostly a second liner this year, so his numbers are not really all that indicative of how the third line has played.
The other player who has also spent a decent amount of time up in the top 6 has been Mercer. He has time numbers that are fairly evenly distributed between the third line and the second. He has 30:15 with Hischier and 25:16 with Timo Meier but also has 28:21 with Alexander Holtz and 22:37 with Haula. Despite having split his time between the second and third lines, however, he has been the worst forward on the team through the first 6 games. He has the worst Corsi among forwards at a lowly 40% to go with the worst expected goal percentage at 44.42%, also the worst among forwards. He has struggled out of the gate hard, and it has especially tanked the third line. Granted, Nico and Timo on the second line do not have the point totals yet that we would hope, but they have much stronger underlying numbers, whereas Mercer does not, and neither do the guys he has played with on the third line.
The other two, Haula and Holtz, have been much more exclusive to the third line, and they have also struggled, although not quite as much as Mercer. Those three, Haula, Holtz, and Mercer, are the only three forwards on the team through the first 6 games to have a Corsi under 50%. The Devils, as a team, have been so good at possession so far in the season that 8 out of 14 forwards have Corsi For percentages above 60%! That is insanely good. Despite that, the third line is actually underwater in possession and is regularly playing without the puck. That is a huge indicator that they are seriously struggling as a group. And it should be the opposite, as again, these are guys with second line potential who are getting easier competition by playing on the third line. Instead, they are getting crushed.
To really sustain success this year across 82 games, Lindy Ruff and Co. will need to figure out a solution to this issue. The Devils can be incredibly dangerous when they can roll out 4 solid lines: a top 9 with legit scoring potential among all players, and a fourth line that does its job extremely well playing defense and getting the puck up ice into the offensive zone. Right now, however, only 3 of those 4 lines are functioning properly. The third line, through 6 games, has been an absolute liability, and that is not going to work. Ruff will need to figure out how to shake up the lines, or how to put these guys in positions to succeed soon, beacuse as of right now, the Devils have an exploitable hole in their forward group, and it is becoming a problem.