On February 26th, 2023, the New Jersey Devils made what I deemed a blockbuster trade at the time when they acquired Timo Meier from the San Jose Sharks. I wrote at the time that I thought this was a home run acquisition by GM Tom Fitzgerald for a variety of reasons, as he checked a lot of theoretical boxes of things the Devils not only needed but were missing from their lineup. The Devils certainly agreed when they acquired Meier and then doubled down on that acquisition, taking their relationship with the Swiss winger to the next level when they agreed to an 8-year contract worth $70M. Most of us celebrated both of these moves as they were excited about Meier’s fit with the team moving forward.
With the one year anniversary of that trade approaching, the tenor has changed.
Meier drew some light criticism last season, as he only had 14 points in 21 games for the Devils down the stretch. Lindy Ruff seemed to struggle finding the ideal spot for him in the Devils lineup, as Meier was shuffled from line to line in an attempt to develop chemistry with anyone. Meier did make an impact in the playoff series win over the Rangers despite failing to register a point in seven games, and he wasn’t the problem vs. Carolina with 4 points in 4 playoff games, so it would be easy to write off any concerns last year to adjusting to his new team and new surroundings post-trade. You would think that with a full training camp, he’d be more comfortable and would have hit the ground running in his first full season in New Jersey.
That has not been the case.
In 34 games this season, Meier has only recorded 9 goals and 9 assists, but there’s more to it than just the sheer statistics. He has missed time on two instances this season between a lower-body injury and an oddly-described “mid-body injury”. It’s one thing to not score but its another to generally look disinterested as Meier has throughout some of these games. His skating has looked off all season long. He looks less engaged physically. He’s not getting to the front of the net as much as one would like. All of this culminated in a benching during the Devils final loss before the All-Star Break.
Timo Meier has gone from a player who looks like this....
Timo Meier signed a big deal with New Jersey. He is Extremely Good. pic.twitter.com/N93O7YyF1f— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 28, 2023
Yikes. Timo Meier has been really bad since he was traded to New Jersey. Which is weird as he was an excellent winger in San Jose. If he’ll not improve his performances soon, it’s gonna be one of the worst contracts in history. However we still believe he’ll be fine. https://t.co/CiwKGco2Q3 pic.twitter.com/erXoCSpvOL— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) December 2, 2023
....in a span of about 8 months.
All of this raises the question....why? Why has Timo Meier not been effective? Why has Timo Meier not been as seamless a fit as we thought he might be when the Devils acquired him? Why is Meier less engaged over the course of play? Why has the highest paid forward on the roster not only not come close to delivering on that level of production we expect, but is doing so looking like a shell of himself? And how concerned should the Devils be moving forward with this being Year One of an Eight-Year pact?
I have some thoughts or theories as to why Meier’s production has dipped, so lets dive into them and see how plausible they are.
Theory #1: Meier has been playing hurt all year
It might be a simplification, but Occam’s Razor says the simplest solution is most often the correct one.
In the case of Timo Meier and the Devils, Meier trying to gut it out through injuries, but because he’s not playing anywhere near 100 percent, he looks nothing like the player he has been in the past. This would certainly be an explanation for a lot of what we are seeing on the ice.
Obviously, we can’t get in Meier’s head and know what, if anything, he is dealing with physically. But as I mentioned earlier, this is a player who has missed time with both a lower-body injury and a “mid-body injury” this season. It’s apparent from watching the games that his skating hasn’t been where it needs to be. He’s less physical than he has been in the past, as he’s gone from averaging about 2 hits per game to 1, but its tough to blame Meier for not wanting to throw his body around as much if he’s hurt. Being physical isn’t just about hits either, as wingers need to dig the puck out along the wall and win board battles. Meier can’t win battles if he can’t win a race to the puck, and he can’t win battles if he’s not engaging as much as he could when he does get there. All of this not only is this impacting what Meier brings offensively, but it also impacts what he is trying to do in the defensive zone.
I believe this is the most likely explanation for Meier’s 2023-24 season and that most of the following theories can be linked back to this. But rather than kick my feet up and pat myself on the back for another job well done, I do think there are some other potential reasons worth exploring.
Theory #2: Meier is playing out of position / The Devils don’t know how to properly utilize him
Our old friend Mike Stromberg posed an interesting question on Twitter.
Has anyone ever asked Ruff why he's been playing Timo out of position most nights for the past 11 months?— mike (@ColdSportsTakes) February 4, 2024
Meier had primarily played RW for the Sharks throughout his career there, but ever since the Devils acquired him, he has played LW throughout his time in New Jersey (Meier is a lefty-shooting wing). It would stand to reason that having a player play one position, and then all of a sudden switch to the other wing, might have some sort of negative impact on his production when the player is used to playing where he has been. It would also give credence to the idea that the Devils don’t quite know how to utilize Meier to get the best out of him.
Do I see this changing anytime in the near future? Probably not, as the Devils have Jesper Bratt (another lefty shooting wing who has primarily played right wing), Dawson Mercer, Nathan Bastian and Alex Holtz as their RW options. Bratt has enjoyed the best seasons of his career playing RW on Lindy Ruff-coached teams, so this approach clearly works for him. But just because Bratt playing off-wing works for Bratt doesn’t mean Meier playing off wing works for Meier.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter whether wingers play off-hand in the Lindy Ruff system. Ruff and the Devils coaching staff are clearly aware of where Meier played prior to arriving in New Jersey and are playing them where they’re playing him for a reason. Whether or not the logic behind that makes sense is up to you, but part of the head coach’s job is putting the talent he has on the roster in the best position to succeed and its at least debatable whether or not they’ve done that with Meier.
Theory #3: Meier has really missed Jack Hughes
The premise behind this line of thinking is fairly simple. Jack Hughes is arguably the best player on the Devils. Hughes is capable of getting the puck to players to get their shot off. The Devils as a team have missed their best player, failing to win enough games without him, so why wouldn’t the individual players who rely on him to do what they need to do also miss him?
There might be some truth to Meier missing Jack Hughes. But I think the numbers and the eye test suggest he misses being a regular with Nico Hischier more. At 5v5 this season, Meier has a higher CF% with Hischier (54.31%) than Hughes (52.78%). He has a higher xGF% with Hischier (55.89%) than Hughes (42.12%).
If it were me drawing up the lineups, I’d have Hischier and Meier together. Of course, that is not what the Devils are doing coming out of the break. We’ll see if Meier can get going with Curtis Lazar and Nathan Bastian as his linemates, but I’m not overly optimistic.
Theory #4: Meier is shooting less than he has in the past
Part of the reason why Timo Meier is who he is as a player is because he’s a heavy shot-volume winger. You can rely on him, when healthy, to attempt roughly 600 shots over the course of an 82 game season.
He isn’t going to come close to those numbers this season, and to borrow a quote from Michael Scott of “The Office”, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. - Wayne Gretzky”.
Last season, Meier registered 327 shots on goal between San Jose and New Jersey and registered his first 40-goal season. He has 98 SOG in 34 games this season with 35 regular season games remaining, so he’d be fortunate to reach 200 SOG on the season at this rate. Meier attempted 573 and 599 shots last year two years. He is at 201 this year.
Critics wouldn’t be as loud criticizing Meier’s game if he had more than 9 goals on the season. But you can’t score if you’re not shooting the puck, and you can’t shoot the puck if you can’t get to a position to shoot the puck. This is one of those instances where we revisit the idea that Meier has been playing hurt. If his skating is compromised and he’s not able to get to the areas of the ice where he needs to be to do the things that makes Timo Meier a great player, that is a concern.
I don’t know how much of this has to do with his linemates, but Hughes has been a volume-heavy shooter himself when he’s been on the ice while Hischier has deferred to his linemates more. It further supports my theory that Meier is better off with Hischier than Hughes.
Theory #5: Meier is getting unlucky when he does shoot
Not only is Timo Meier shooting less than he has in the past, but when he does manage to get his shot on net, its not going in.
Meier is only converting on 9.2% of his shots on goal, which would be a career low over an 82 game-season (he shot 7.7% during the 56-game season in 2020-21 and 3.5% as a 20-year old rookie back in 2016-17). He also has a PDO of .946 on the season, which is an indicator of being extremely unlucky.
Of course, one could argue that good players create their own luck and Meier hasn’t done enough of that this season on his own, but this is another one of those circumstances where if he’s compromised on the ice, he is what he is at the moment as a player. If you’re looking for a regression to the norm though, this would suggest that things will eventually turn around for Meier, assuming he keeps firing pucks on the net.
Theory #6: Meier is already declining as a player at 27 years old
Some players age gracefully. Others age as well as milk left out in the sun in the middle of August.
Meier crossed the 500 NHL game milestone earlier this season. He’s not ancient as he’s still only 27 years old, but players age differently than others. Meier has played a physical brand of hockey prior to his arrival in New Jersey and that brand of hockey might have caught up to him this season with this run of injuries he’s had to endure. Other physical wingers such as Jamie Benn and Milan Lucic saw their production slip around the 650-700 NHL games played mark (around age 29). Perhaps Meier is starting to decline as a player sooner than expected.
It’s an interesting and downright scary thought, especially when one remembers he is in Year One of an Eight Year contract. But I think its a bit premature to panic that Meier, a player with a different skillset than Benn or Lucic, is heading down the path they went down. Most players don’t become washed up overnight and Meier has certainly plenty of built-in reasons that would suggest why he’s having the season he is having, many of which we’ve already covered here.
I would be concerned that this season is a glimpse into the future of what Year 8 of a Meier deal could look like when he is slowing down as a player and there might be a few “business decisions” being made as he’ll hit UFA with one last opportunity at a decent payday at age 34. But that is the assumed risk when you’re paying for the remaining prime years of a players career at UFA prices. It’s a 2030 problem that is worth worrying about then, but not so much now.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why Timo Meier is having the season he is having, but much like other players on the Devils who have struggled this season, I don’t think its because he just forgot how to play hockey overnight. And while pointing to injuries could be seen as excuse-making, I think its also an explanation for why Meier hasn’t been the same player this year. I would hope that with the Devils coming off of their bye week, Meier feels as close to 100 percent as he has been all year, as the Devils will need Timo Meier to be Timo Meier for them to make a playoff push.
Still, I think its far more productive to have an open dialogue about the why when it comes to Timo Meier rather than simply throw one’s hands up and yell into the ether about how its a bad trade. What’s done is done. The trade happened. The contract extension happened. They can’t be undone, so there is no sense in lamenting it or continuing to complain about it time and time again a year later. It’s now on the Devils to figure out why their investment hasn’t delivered as expected and to do something to fix it.
Regardless of the reasons, the bottom line is that this is a results-oriented business. Your best players need to be your best players, and through 34 mostly unremarkable games thus far this season, Timo Meier hasn’t been good enough for whatever the reason. The good news is that there is still time for Meier to change the narrative, have a strong second half of the season, and silence the critics while helping lead a Devils playoff push. But ultimately, seeing is believing, and we need to see it to believe in it.
(stats referenced in this article do not include the 2/6 game vs. Colorado)