File this under a good problem to have. With the New Jersey Devils making the playoffs, playoff lines will need to be figured out and solidified, and with a couple of games left in the regular season, this is a great time for Lindy Ruff and Co. to really figure that out and get a grasp on it. There can be line movements in the playoffs of course, they can and do happen, but consistency is a great asset to have in the playoffs, and if they can find 3 solid lines to run out there game after game that produces results, well, good things should happen.
As was discussed in the preview for the Columbus game earlier this week, the Devils have a couple of the top forward lines in the NHL this season in terms of expected goal percentage. In fact, two of them rank in the top 5 in the NHL in terms of lines that have played at least 150 minutes together. The line of Jesper Bratt, Erik Haula and Jack Hughes have an xGF% of 69.2% across 173.7 minutes, good for 2nd in the NHL. Meanwhile, not far behind, the line of Tomas Tatar, Nico Hischier and Dawson Mercer have an xGF% of 66.9% over 224.8 minutes of ice time together. Those are really, really good numbers, and it would be logical to want to keep them together for a playoff push. If both of those lines are putting out xGF percentages better than 65% in the playoffs, the Devils can go far.
However, those top 2 lines exclude Timo Meier, who the Devils obviously want to spotlight in a top 6 role since his acquisition. And there is a very good reason to want to give him a top 6 role. Now that he has been here a little while, Timo has gotten enough ice time to really look at his stats specifically with the Devils as opposed to just on the season as a whole. And he has been very, very good in a red and black uniform. Here is a chart of some of his numbers for far in New Jersey, compared to other forwards that have played at least 200 minutes for this team this season, thanks to Natural Stat Trick. 14 forwards qualify.
These numbers, of course, don’t show the numbers that matter the most, the points. Meier has 4 goals and 2 primary assists at 5v5 play for the Devils in his first 17 games with the team. If you include all situations, he has 7 goals and 3 primary assists in those games. Obviously that is not at a point per game pace like you might have hoped when they got him, but there are some clutch goals in there, and it is still quality numbers.
Of course, you can see that his goals for percentage is significantly lower than his expected goals percentage, essentially 9% lower. Meier ranks 2nd in expected goals for percentage at 62.75%, which is a crazy good number. Assuming he had more minutes and time with the team, you would expect his actual goals for percentage move upwards closer to his expected goals number, which would increase his point pace across 82 games. This would also especially be true with better linemates, who would increase his chances of gaining actual goals for as opposed to simply what is expected.
With numbers like those, you would want him to play in the top 6. Anyone who has such a high xGF% probably should, especially when compared with a strong possession game and a very good high danger chance rate. But given how good those other two lines have been, where would he go? It becomes a really interesting question, one that Lindy Ruff will have to figure out over the next couple of games and hopefully have decided before the regular season ends and the playoffs begin. You obviously aren’t moving down Hughes or Hischier, and the way Mercer has played in the top 6 over the last few months, he is not going anywhere. Plus, do you really want to move Bratt anywhere? That would leave Haula or Tatar.
In my opinion, despite how well those two lines have been over the course of the season, if Ruff sees any sort of chemistry, either one of them are worth moving to the third line in favor of Meier. It would make a stronger top 6 to play against the opposition. This is especially prevalent in home games, where Ruff has last change. He can throw out Meier’s line in the offensive zone against favorable opposition, giving him and that entire line excellent changes to score goals. You cannot overlook those situations. And since Meier has been very sheltered since arriving here, 2nd most among all forwards, it makes sense to continue that.
The only negative to this is that it weakens the third line and creates a scenario where you really have two dominant lines, one mediocre line, and the fourth line which who knows what you’re getting. If you keep those two lines that have dominated all year, and leave Meier on the third line, you are rolling three strong lines. A third line consisting of Meier, Jesper Boqvist and Ondrej Palat is a very strong third line, better than many other teams’ second lines. It really is a good call to do that, but it does leave open the possibility that you are putting out weaker top lines when compared to the opposition, as Meier is definitively better than either Haula or Tatar.
In truth, I do see it either way, but I think these last couple of games should be used for Ruff to see where best to place Meier heading into the playoffs. Getting that straightened out now will be very helpful come game 1 of the playoffs.