Before the season started, one of the reasons people were so high on the New Jersey Devils was because of what, on paper, looked to be a dynamic offense. But more specifically, it was the top 9 that looked like it could potentially be so dominant. There was star power all through the first three lines, and lots of scoring capabilities, not to mention a team that had just grown together during the playoff run the previous season. It looked like a top 5 offense to many.
Fast forward to this week, and what has happened over the last three games has really been an inverse of what we expected coming into the season. This is because, for these last three games, it has been the fourth line of Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, and Curtis Lazar that has arguably played the best among all the lines, and has played the most consistently as well. Coming into this year, that was the one line that was not propped up as being the next big thing. It was seen as a solid line for sure, one that could play very defensively sound hockey, get the puck out of the defensive zone, and get it up ice for the top 9 to work their magic. But as a scoring line? As a line to generate the best possession and expected goal metrics on the team over a multi-game stretch? That was not what the line was supposed to be.
Yet, over the three game losing streak we find ourselves in, that is what has happened. There has been some other quality play from some of the top 9 during this stretch as well, don’t get me wrong. But across all three of these disappointing results, it really has been the fourth line that has been the most consistent and solid of the lines. Just check out these numbers from Natural Stat Trick:
So even with a mediocre Edmonton game from Thursday night, the line of McLeod, Bastian, and Lazar has really been the most consistent and solid throughout this poor stretch of Devils hockey. Their expected goals in particular have been very strong each game, with truly dynamite games against Anaheim and Philadelphia. This line has consistently produced and generated offense for this team, and it has shown with goals against both Anaheim and Philly. And while the Edmonton game was not their best, with a Corsi that was ever so slightly underwater compared to the rest of the team, they still produced a positive expected goals percentage and were not on the ice for any goals against, which is what they are supposed to be doing in the first place.
The problem, of course, is that the fourth line cannot consistently be the best line over a three game stretch, at least not if the team wants to win. And they have not won this week, with a 0-2-1 record and a whole lot of disappointment. But if we try to look at the positive, something we probably should around Christmas, this line has been really solid and is doing what it is paid to do on a nightly basis, and at least in two of the last three games, has been going above and beyond with some fantastic underlying numbers and goals to boot. For a line with a combined $2.75 million cap hit this season, you cannot ask for more, and you certainly can expect less.
If the Devils are to turn this around and avoid these losing stretches, something it absolutely needs to do to move up in the Metropolitan Division, the top 9 is going to need to play a lot better than it has. But all the fourth line needs to do is keep doing exactly what it has been. Lindy Ruff tried switching up lines in the Edmonton game to generate a spark, but he should absolutely not touch the line of McLeod, Bastian, and Lazar. Let them keep doing what they have been and helping the Devils to win games.