On Thursday night, without MVP candidate Jack Hughes in the lineup due to injury, the New Jersey Devils still found a way to beat a very quality Seattle team at home. However, that win was thanks, for the most part, to an amazing game by Mackenzie Blackwood and some timely shooting by Dougie Hamilton, and less so because of forwards. But more than anything else, it was an especially poor night from the top line of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Ondrej Palat. Check out the 5 on 5 stats for the forward lines from that game, thanks to MoneyPuck:
As you can see, it was a brutal night at 5 on 5 for that top line. The bottom 6 actually played very well. The third line of Fabian Zetterlund, Erik Haula, and Yegor Sharangovitch crushed the competition, with a 0.533 on-ice expected goals for, but only 0.039 against. That is a massive win, equating to a 93.2 xGF%. They also had the best possession among the lines at 54.5%. The BMW line was given more time on ice than usual, second most at 5v5 behind only that top line, and they played well, with positive percentages in both xGF% and CF%. Even the second line, centered by Dawson Mercer and with Alexander Holtz, still managed a positive on xGF% (if you want to claim the Haula line was the 2nd line and Mercer line was the third line, so be it, you can swap them either way, doesn’t change much).
But the top line, with the top talent, was totally crushed all night. They generated almost no expected goals for, but were the absolute worst defensively, expected to give up more goals against than the other 3 lines combined. That is especially poor. The only individual player in that game, on either team, who had a worse expected goals percentage than Hischier and Palat was Kevin Bahl.
If the Devils want to ride out Hughes’ injury and sustain success, this cannot continue. The Devils won the other night thanks to exceptional goaltending and offensive contribution from anyone not on the top line. That isn’t a sustainable model for success. Blackwood is not going to bail this team out every night, and neither will Vanecek. And Hamilton isn’t going to score at a goal per game pace, nor is the BMW line going to generate decent xGF many nights. Hischier and Bratt specifically, but also Palat here, are going to have to step up and help to fill that void left by Hughes for the time being, or they will not make it out of these next weeks until he returns without some serious damage to their record.
The good news is, realistically, they shouldn’t be this bad moving forward. Most likely, it was a bad night, one that should not continue. If you look at With or Without You numbers, Bratt and Hischier have a 54.83 CF% and a 54.52 xGF% together. And that is across nearly 350 minutes of 5v5 ice time together. They play well together on average and have the numbers to show for it, with Hischier having 47 points in 50 games and Bratt having 52 points in 51 games. If both end up putting up a point per game plus while Hughes is out, the Devils could come out of this stint with a decent record. The possibility is certainly there.
However, if they play much like they did on Thursday night, then the odds of the Devils maintaining winning ways in the near future is not terribly likely, no matter what else happens on the roster. It is something to monitor tonight in Minnesota, which has a quality top line led by standout star Krill Kaprizov. Can Hughes-Bratt-Palat counter that line tonight, or will they get crushed once again? If that happens tonight, it would surely lead to some goals against from that Minnesota top line, and would most likely lead to a defeat. Let’s find out.