Tonight, we should see the debut of Curtis Lazar for the New Jersey Devils. At least, according to Lindy Ruff, he will be joining the team in Montreal, so you would think he probably checks into the lineup. This should hopefully be good news for the Devils, who have mostly been dominating on the top 6 since the arrival of Timo Meier, you might even say top 9, but have been struggling overall with the fourth line.
Given that, this could be an obituary for the BMW line, which I think most Devils fans would be happy to see bite the dust for now. The line has a flashy nickname, and it comes with supreme faceoff ability in Michael McLeod, also some great speed in Miles Wood, but that really has been about it in recent times. Beyond that, they are mostly a line that is struggling to produce quality minutes for this team. Check out their on-ice versus off-ice expected goal percentages, thanks to MoneyPuck:
That percentage for Bastian is not bad at all. Playing on the fourth line, he still has a strong on-ice expected goals percentage. You would expect the team to have a higher percentage when he is not on the ice considering he has been playing on the fourth line. The top 6 should have a better percentage than the BMW line after all. But the fact that his differential is only -2.86% is a good sign for him, and really means that he should still draw into the lineup on a nightly basis.
The other two, however, are really drowning. On a top 3 team in the NHL, both Wood and McLeod have an on-ice expected goal percentage well under 50%. That is the true negative here. Again, you would expect the differential to be negative considering they play on the fourth line. But the low on-ice xGF%, coupled with the very high off-ice, is just unacceptable. If they were pulling on-ice numbers even around 52%, you would feel comfortable rolling them out each night, as they are at least handling their own minutes. But clearly, they are not.
Theoretically, the good news is that there is a clear and ready solution. There are two players that can easily replace Wood and McLeod in the lineup, as early as tonight, players that could hopefully pull numbers similar to Bastian. Curtis Lazar and Yegor Sharangovitch could easily draw in, and give the Devils a solid fourth line of Sharangovitch-Lazar-Bastian. Like with Meier, it could take a little for Lazar to get into a rhythm with the team, and with Sharangovitch and Bastian not having too many minutes together, it would take a little for the entire line to gel. But once it does, you have to think that the ceiling for that group is definitively higher than for the BMW line. Sharangovitch has proven that he can be a 20 goal scorer when his game is right. Even if that would not be possible in a fourth line role, he is a legitimate scoring threat for that line, something they really do not have currently. Yes, Wood can get a breakaway with his speed now and then, but he is not the scorer that Yegor can be when he is on. Bastian can continue to do what he does, playing solid hockey, and Lazar can provide the defensive play from the fourth line that McLeod is supposed to be providing now. Put it all together, and you have a fairly strong fourth line for a NHL team.
One of the biggest reasons to make the switch now is that, as I mentioned before, it will take a little time for this line to gel together, as it is for Meier on his line. Tonight is game 65 for the Devils. Putting this line together would give them a solid 17 regular season games together before they need to be on the top of their game for the playoffs. That is plenty of time to get right and figure each other out and get on the same page. If they wait another 10 games to make the change, the line might not be truly in sync by the time the playoffs roll around, and that would be a really bad coaching mistake.
Now, there is one negative about making this move. If you bench McLeod like I am suggesting, you lose his faceoff abilities. This is his one serious benefit to the team. McLeod is a top 4 or 5 faceoff man in the entire NHL. He currently has a 60.77 faceoff win percentage across 627 draws. The only players in the NHL with similar or better numbers with a large number of attempts are Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, and Claude Giroux. Jamie Benn has better numbers but with only 458 attempts, so you could potentially add him as well. But that’s it, McLeod is currently better than anyone else. If the Devils have a vital, tough draw, having McLeod in there to take it is a strong play and gives the team a strong chance to gain possession.
Now, the question is whether or not having his faceoff ability in the lineup is worth the negative play he produces at 5 on 5. In my opinion, it is not worth it. I would rather have better play from my fourth line center and risk losing some extra faceoffs. In the long run, the better play at even strength will produce more goals for and/or prevent more goals against than winning some extra faceoffs will. Of course, we don’t know how Lazar will play. Maybe he comes in but only produces comparable numbers and stats to what McLeod does. Then you probably want McLeod back in there, as his faceoff ability would give him the edge. But you would think that Lazar should outplay him in the long run, considering the trade occurred at all. If Tom Fitzgerald did not think Lazar was an upgrade, he wouldn’t have looked to acquire him.
In the end, we will see what Lindy Ruff and Co. decide to do tonight against Montreal, but this just seems like the perfect point to say goodbye to the BMW line and upgrade the fourth line. The new line would have a somewhat weaker opponent tonight to try and get their legs, and it would give them a good number of games together before they need to be on top of their game for the playoffs. I mean, after what you saw from the BMW line on Thursday, why not try a Sharangovitch-Lazar-Bastian line?