The New Jersey Devils entered the weekend having won just once in their last six contests, after their deceptive 4-0-0 start. We’ve learned more about this Devils team in the six games since, namely how New Jersey is essentially a one-line team, and where the holes in this roster are evidently forming.
Of the 56 points Devils players tallied in their first 10 games, 37 came from three players—Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri. The remaining 19 were from 13 different players. Devils defensemen are quietly contributing offensively at a steady pace, with four having at least five assists through 10 games. Circling back to the forwards, of the 30 remaining points that didn’t come from their first line, 26 have largely come from their third and fourth line-caliber players, whose individual point-per-game averages are around what you’d expect from seventh through twelfth forwards.
New Jersey’s gaping roster hole lies in their second line, where 4th-6th forward staples (through the first 10 games) Pavel Zacha and Marcus Johansson have combined for a meager two goals and four points.
Zacha was given a prime opportunity as the Devils’ number two center. Between a seeming lack of chemistry with his linemates and a complete absence of any offensive finish in his game, Zacha failed to tally a single point. Zacha’s struggles also attributed to having his linemates like Marcus Johansson—who spent the majority of the last 10 games on Zacha’s wing, and is normally an ideal secondary scorer—stand with just two goals and four points going into Saturday’s matchup. Those extra 5-8 goals the second line’s struggles probably prevented from being scored could have made the difference in those three games New Jersey lost by 1-2 goals, or made their losses by wider margins more watchable.
Not all hope is necessarily lost for the Devils’ fourth through sixth forward depth, and it’s very possible this matter could be taken care of internally. Jesper Bratt should slot into the second line’s right wing slot when he returns, whose speed and 200-foot game has been sorely missed. Marcus Johansson is a versatile forward and has had stints at every offensive position since arriving in New Jersey. While he hasn’t spent the majority of his playing career at center, he could try a few games between Bratt and Miles Wood or a rookie like Joey Anderson— or maybe bringing Quenneville back up and trying him with those two?
If you look at player stats, the logical choice would seem to be slotting Travis Zajac—who has three goals and eight points in nine games, and is the team’s best face-off taker—between Johansson and Bratt. Having said that, Zajac tends to start the regular season strong, but has developed a tendency to fade off in recent years—he hasn’t finished with more than 48 points in his last five seasons. While Johansson and Bratt would be two of the better forwards Zajac would have been on a line with since his days centering Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, he has shown promising chemistry with Miles Wood on the third line, which has played a notable role in the Devils’ bottom-six offensive contributions.
It’s certainly not an easy situation Coach Hynes has at his disposal. It’s smart of him to keep Wood and Zajac together while they play with Johansson on the second line tonight, so perhaps the chemistry they showed these first 10 games can provide some offensive stability and support in the Devils’ top six. You can easily say the Devils have over 70 games left to figure things out, but the points they lose out on while rectifying this matter can ultimately decide the fate of this team’s playoff hopes this spring.