The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (49-21-8) versus the Columbus Blue Jackets (24-45-8).
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN2, BSOH
The Jackets Recently
As I am sure you are aware, the Blue Jackets have been one of the worst teams in the entire NHL this season, being the absolute worst in the eastern conference and tied for worst overall with Anaheim and Chicago. As I write this their Bedard odds rank third behind these two teams by the Athletic and second to only the Ducks by MoneyPuck. Needless to say, after entering the year with at least some sort of imaginations of contending for the playoffs, getting one of the top top propsects in the draft would be the only possible consolation. By all accounts, keep losing.
In their last ten games the Jackets are 3-6-1 — a 0.350 points percentage putting them as high as 27th over that run — winning against Ottawa, the Islanders and Washington. They have a 34.94 5-on-5 goals for percentage, 3rd worst in the NHL. Their goals for per 60 is 26th, their goals against in the same span is dead, dead last, conceding 5.07 goals per 60, with the Capitals in the unattainably high spot of 31st allowing 1.24 fewer at 3.83 per 60 at even strength. Nobody would ever mistake this team for a good one.
Over these past ten games, the Jackets’ special teams have gone in opposite directions, following a trend from the second half of the season. Generally, per NHL.com, Columbus sits 25th and 23rd on the power play and penalty kill, respectively. From NaturalStattrick, on the powerplay, all season the Columbus have scored at 6.72 goals per 60. This number is 7.29 since January first, 8.68 since March first and 7.57 last 10. So they have slowed down a bit, but the Jackets powerplay has clearly improved dramatically recently relatively to what it was previously (note that the 6.72 goals per 60 number is an average for the entire season, accounting for this later run where they have been well above that average: up until January first they scored at 5.97 per 60, up until December first, 5.76). The point is that the Columbus powerplay has actually been a lot better recently: the 8.68 that they have been scoring at since March first would put them at 8th in the entire NHL over the entire season. This, then, is something for the Devils to watch out for. They went 0 for 2 in their previous game, a losing effort to in Toronto, so we’ll see if they get the unit firing again.
Regarding the penalty kill, it has been going in the opposite direction. In terms of goals agasint per 60, all season they have conceded at 8.86; since January first, 9.83; since March first, 9.98; last ten, 10.26. Sinking deeper and deeper. The Devils powerplay this season has scored at a NHL 12th-best rate of 8.06; since March first, this number is 8.67. The last ten games have been tough, only scoring at 7.25, so this would be a great opportunity to get some powerplay time and run up the numbers.
The following is Columbus’ lineup from their previous game (a 4-2 loss to the Leafs who were utterly dominant, posting a Deserve To Win O’Meter of 95+%, something I have never seen before):
Johnny Gaudreau - Boone Jenner - Kirill Marchenko
Kent Johnson - Jack Roslovic - Liam Foudy
Eric Robinson - Sean Kuraly - Emil Bemstrom
Joona Luoto - Josh Dunne - Hunter McKown
Gavin Bayreuther - Andrew Peeke
Tim Berni - Adam Boqvist
Marcus Bjork - Billy Sweezy
Where rookie goaltender Jet Greaves (no I’ve never heard of him either, apparently he’s been good in the AHL, coming in to the organisation undrafted) made his first NHL start with Elivs Merzlikins being injured day-to-day, and put up a strong effort, saving 3.03 (!?) goals above expected. Before I note that I would expect Michael Hutchinson to start tonight against the Devils, let us just comment on the above lineup, which is pitifully bare, lacking in any sort of talent whatsoever, where I have only heard of a handful of those guys. This is not surprising, as the injury list is long and distinguished:
Zach Werenski, Patrik Laine, Erik Gudbranson, Jake Bean, Mathieu Olivier, Alexandre Texier, Justin Danforth.
Big misses. Now, whether these guys are all legitimately injured, in the “I wouldn’t play even if my team was entering the playoffs today” sense, or not is insignificant, the point is that they will not be lacing up the skates against the Devils tonight, leaving the above barren lineup for Hischier and Hughes and company to prey on.
“But, but Johnny Hockey?”, you might say. Thankfully, he’s just one guy, and he has only been one guy all year. Granted, a highly skilled, impactful, point-getting guy, but only one nonetheless, which will never be enough to drag a bad hockey team places. In fact, he has been just as advertised, scoring at a 0.95 points per game pace, equal to that of running mate Patrik Laine (who is injured, as noted above). Other than these two, Boone Jenner is third with 0.68 points per game, which is a pretty significant drop off. But again, Gaudreau has been great (HockeyViz):
When I first saw this graphic my thinking was, sure, he’s elite offensively — his even-strength offense is off the charts, his power-play is great, his setting and penalties drawn are awesome — and does nothing for his team on defense, which, of course, is not unusual for skilled forwards. However, Gaudreau has historically been a forward with strong defensive impacts, check out his card from the Athletic (note that his goal, assist and point totals are in line with his average other than last season’s career contract year) especially the Defensive +- row, where he has gone from plus 9.6 and 15.9 seasons to a -13.2 this year.
How much this is due to being on an inferior team is hard to say. Obviously these cards aim to capture exclusively the individual impacts, isolating all other variables, but in practice this can be tricky, but overall it’s probably a bit of both: being on a worse team with a worse defensive environment would make anyone’s impacts worse, but it would also decrease the motivation to play good defense. To this point, the only Blue Jacket with an Athletic hockey card (these are updated way less frequently than they should be, meaning the myriad faceless Columbus players above are mostly unlisted) that has defensive impacts above average is, uncharacteristically, Patrik Laine (uncharacteristically: his previous three seasons had defensive +- of -19.5, -25.9, -23.4...) so this is most probably an outlier season for him. Irrespective, the point is that no Columbus forward is good defensively (according to these numbers, I am sceptical), which would make for good watching tonight for Devils fans.
As mentioned above, I expect to see Hutchinson in net. Teams rarely tend to give consecutive starts to hot-shot rookie guys like Greaves, who generally come in as an emergency alternative. Hutchinson has had sufficient time off since his previous start and is the known entity. If he does not get the nod, I would expect to see old friend Jon Gillies — the man of the miraculous 3-10-0 record in 19 games played for the Devils last year, posting an 0.885 save percentage. Or again alternatively they might throw in some other guy in pursuit of the Devils’ Gillies-inspired record (I think it’s a record, it seems to be?) of having seven seperate goalies last season, with Columbus currently at six. Either way, given that Elvis is still out, there is nothing to be afraid of in net from the Jackets, unless you believe Greaves is the next big thing.
The Devils Lineup: Finding the Right Fit
With the Metro playoff standings all but confirmed (The Athletic):
There is little for the Devils to do but optimise line combinations. And Lindy Ruff has been doing his very best to get those combinations right, trying seemingly everything under the sun. Now, there does seem to be some parameters for this search: Ruff has seemingly decided that the fourth line will consist of three of McLeod, Wood, Bastian, Lazar and Sharangovich, while the top nine will be three lines with a particular combination of Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, Meier, Mercer, Tatar, Palat, Haula and Boqvist. For the top nine, what have been the best combinations this season? Per MoneyPuck’s line tool,
The Devils have two independent lines in the top four of xG% forward lines in the entire NHL this year, with Bratt-Haula-Hughes being the best offensive line with 150+ minutes; Tatar-Hischier-Mercer being 4th. Given this, it would seem wise to let theese lines play. This would leave a Meier-Boqvist-Palat line, which has not been tried yet. I see no reason why it shouldn’t work, and I would love to see Ruff try it out in the last couple games. The following is from NaturalStattrick’s line tool, showing the results at 5-on-5 when Palat and Boqvist are together, compared to when they are not.
Evidently, in all defensive metrics, Palat plays better with Boqvist, Boqvist plays better with Palat, and the Devils play better when the two of them are on the ice. Conceding only 0.94 goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 in such a large sample as 127 minutes together is crazy, as is their suppression of xG against, scoring chances against and high-danger chances against. And they do this while having a offensive-zone faceoff percentage below team average. However, as indicated in the red cells, offensively this duo has struggled, scoring significantly less and creating significantly fewer scoring chances (they are slightly better than Palat is alone in high-danger chance creation, but the overall offense numbers suffer), compounded by the terribly-low on-ice shooting percentage. This is why I think adding Timo Meier to this line could work wonders for the Devils, adding a pure offense guy to what is one of the most defensively responsible duos on the team. If they find chemistry, Meier would alone increase the 5.88% shooting percentage by maybe 5%. Imagine trying to stop the Devils when the roll with
Tatar - Hischier - Mercer
Bratt - Haula - Hughes
Meier - Boqvist - Palat
Two of the best four lines in the entire league, and a third line with a 40 goalscorer, one of the most clutch playoff performers of all time and a defensive center who would keep it all together? I admit that the Boqvist-Meier numbers aren’t great in their 75 or so minutes together, mostly on a line with Haula rather than Palat. But the potential fit is too good for the Devils not to try it. Lindy: heed my words.
What about the fourth line? There is only sufficient line data for the BMW line, with no other fourth-line combination, as outlined above, having played together enough to draw significant conclusions. I don’t know about you, but I would not be comfortable in the playoffs if Ruff had the BMW line out for defensive-zone draws, irrespective of how well McLeod can win those initial faceoffs. Without immediate data to back this call, my preference would instead be a Sharangovich-Lazar-Bastian line. The argument, simply, is that these are the best (and yes, these are without doubt the best), most defensively-responsible, three players of the five, each of which can contribute something a bit different. Sharangovich has scoring touch, Bastain is physical and net-front, while Lazar is a bit of everything. Of course, this would never happen, as McLeod and Wood are Ruff’s two favourite players, but this would be the lineup (this fourth line with the above top-nine) I would like the Devils to try. Lazar is back in practice, so I woud be shocked if he does not play tonight, as the Devils really need to get a look at what they have got in him.
What do you think of tonight’s game? The Columbus Blue Jackets are a bad team, but just how bad are they? Bad enough that the Devils can win playing at 50% effort, or do they need to give their all to make the Jackets looks what they are? Johnny Gaudreau has had a good season on a bad team, having turned down the Devils for less money in the summer. In retrospect I am delighted, as there is no way the Devils trade for the younger and better (stylistically and just generally) Timo Meier if Johnny Hockey signs in New Jersey, but what do you think, do you still regret not landing him? And what do you think of my proposed lineup? Honestly, I think the Devils would be really difficult to beat if they could justify having Palat and Meier on a third line that could score and punch you in the face (I note that the top-six would lack physicality without those two, so that would be a reason why I doubt Ruff tries it out). Let me know in the comments, and thank you for reading and supporting the site!