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FanFirst Friday: BMW: The Ultimate Playoff Machine?

Lindy Ruff constantly throws lines in the blender, but he has stuck with one line for the majority of the season. The BMW line. I don’t understand why, but I have a theory.

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NHL: New Jersey Devils at Vegas Golden Knights
The M in the BMW line. It hasn’t been great, but it also seems to be Coach Lindy Ruff’s security blanket.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

On any hockey team, someone usually becomes a punching bag for the fans. A player that either fairly, or unfairly, gets the majority of the blame for whatever ails a hockey team. Sometimes it’s a series of two players or even an entire line. That brings me to the New Jersey Devils and the BMW line, otherwise known as Nate Bastian, Michael McLeod and Miles Wood.

Let’s recap how we got here. The year was 2020-2021 and it was a weird one. Lots of Covid protocols in place. The Devils were terrible and dealing with lots of goaltending issues (an ongoing problem for this franchise). I remember a particular game in Buffalo where Coach Lindy Ruff threw together BMW. I don’t remember if it was the first time, but it was the first time I recall this line buzzing and swarming the opposition with hits, cycling and puck possession. I believe it was this game. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s what my memory tells me. Michael McLeod had two goals that night, including the game winner and Miles Wood also potted two that evening. Maybe they were together earlier...maybe they had even greater success in other games, but that’s the one that sticks out in my memory as the one where that line legend was born. And it’s been an ongoing desire for Ruff to build upon that success ever since.

Obviously, Miles Wood barely appeared in 2021-2022 due to having hip surgery, so the BMW line was officially put on hold for a season. That being said, basically from the beginning of the season this year, Lindy Ruff has gone right back to his security blanket.

Hockey people believe that in order to win the ultimate goal that you absolutely need a fourth line and depth that can outplay, outwork and many times, outchance the opposition. And there’s truth to it. Devils fans don’t need to reminded of how important the Crash Line was in 1995 (though some might say that was probably the third line). Or how important any line with John Madden and Jay Pandolfo was to the 2000 and 2003 championship teams.

I think Lindy Ruff has been in the game long enough that it’s hard to shake that belief. I think he sees that in BMW, despite the fact that this is how modern analytics currently views the BMW line:

There is a ton of good value on the Devils roster, except for that fourth line. Still, if The Athletic’s advanced stats are good, Bastian has been the best of that group and he is seemingly the one punished the most. My bet is Bastian likely comes out for Lazar when he clears up his immigration issues. Miles Wood is the teflon winger. Nothing sticks to him or he doesn’t pay at all for his poor play, other than him being benched for a third period recently. John Fischer covered Miles Wood very well here and not much has changed since he wrote that piece.

By way of comparison, look at every other fourth line in the Metropolitan Division. The two best according to the depth charts are the Capitals with Conor Sheary, Nic Dowd and Nicolas Aube-Kubel and the Hurricanes with Stefan Noesen (remember him?), Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan. Course the biggest difference between the Caps and Canes is the higher end up front talent and with the Canes, obviously a killer defensive corps.

Ultimately though, and this is where I think I diverge from the old hockey man belief, I think having a fourth line with offensive capabilities is the key. The Crash Line potted key goals at key times. Randy McKay and Bobby Holik were skilled enough to do damage when called upon. John Madden and Jay Pandolfo also did so with regularity. They often caved in whatever line they faced. And based on the way Ruff uses some of his matchups, you’d think he felt like BMW was every bit as good as the Crash Line or Madden and Pando.

Here’s where I’m at with regards to BMW. I do think that Ruff believes that BMW is built for playoff hockey. They hit, they bang bodies, they win faceoffs (thanks to one skill that Michael McLeod is actually phenomenal at). I believe he really thinks they will come through in April and June. I’m not 100 percent sure of it because I haven’t seen the journalists that cover the Devils ask why that line has a place etched in stone in the lineup. I’m kind of hoping maybe they will do so. So these are all just educated guesses based on about 40 years or so of hockey fanaticism and being around coaches (I interviewed a lot back in my 20s when writing for hockey magazines). As far as analytics have come, coaches tend to fall back on what they “feel” and “believe” more than what straight numbers are telling them (those spreadsheets and numbers are for nerds, after all).

Since acquiring Timo Meier, the Devils have sat Yegor Sharangovich. Timo Meier was with Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes for a grand total of about four and a half periods of hockey. I’m writing this Thursday before the Caps game and from the looks of it, Bratt has shifted down to the third line and Jesper Boqvist, after one of the most dominant performances from a third line for the Devils in a loooooong time against the Maple Leafs, is getting a crack with Hughes and Meier. Aside from Ruff not giving Meier any sustained run with Hughes and Bratt, which seems like it could be one of the best lines in the NHL, Ruff has kept the BMW line intact. It’s the only one right now that appears set in stone. To be honest, I love Bastian and think he could be a part of a very effective fourth line because he seems very good on puck retrievals and is willing to hit constantly. I also felt like the Devils power play was never as good as when Bastian is on it because of that puck retrieval and willingness to park his bus on the opposition goalie’s doorstep.

But, you say, what happens when Curtis Lazar finally makes it through immigration? My bet is that he will probably take Bastian’s place on BMW. OR if Boqvist doesn’t perform with Meier and Hughes, it’s possible that Bo sits and Lazar plants himself on the third line with Palat and Haula. Life lesson here: Find someone who loves you as much as an NHL coach loves mid-players who hit and are aggressive.

So what’s the answer? Thing is, I think the answer is coming, but Devils fans will have to wait for it. See, Miles Wood is an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end. Michael McLeod and Nate Bastian are both restricted free agents. My bet is that unless Wood goes off in the playoffs and becomes something that he really hasn’t been all season, Wood is gone, especially with all the contracts and roster shuffling that GM Tom Fitzgerald will have to juggle. Actually, it’s even more likely he’s gone if he does this, I suppose. Given how much hockey people love a big guy with speed who is willing to hit, Wood will likely be signed for $5 million or more someplace else. Bastian and McLeod seem to both love it it New Jersey, so it’s possible both are brought back on shorter-term reasonable contracts. So if Lindy is back as the Devils coach next year (his contract expires at the end of the season), he will no longer have his security blanket of BMW. He will be stuck with BM. Or, if you put Lazar on that line to replace Wood, MLB (awesome when acronyms work out perfectly like this).

Any way, it’s a source of frustration for me and has been all year. Based on some of the ongoing discourse on Devils Twitter, I know I’m not alone. We shall see if Lindy Ruff’s old school hockey intuition is right and BMW turns into a force in the playoffs. Or if they will simply be what they have been most of the year? I tend to think you kind of are what you are, but the cliches run rampant when it comes to hockey and the playoffs. It’s a harder game where everyone finishes their checks and tougher players rise to the top. At least that’s what is often said.

As a fan, sometimes you hope to be proven really wrong about a take in order for your team to reap the ultimate rewards. This is the case for me. Until then, Lindy and company will just running it back with that group. I mean, despite Meier’s presence, he’s still playing Miles Wood on the second power play. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Lindy, I don’t know what else will.

What about you? Is there something I’m missing in the numbers about the BMW line? Is Miles Wood just taking time in figuring out the NHL again after a full season off and coming back from a major surgery? Am I being too harsh on them?