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The New Jersey Devils open training camp this week and begin a six-game preseason schedule in just a few days.
While many would like to fast-forward to October, these games do have plenty of meaning. For established players, live reps will be really helpful in terms of shaking off the rust. For fringe players, preseason is a great opportunity to showcase themselves to the Devils – and other teams – in hopes of landing a job.
Preseason also gives coaches a chance to experiment. They can toy with different line combinations, pairings, etc. without worrying about end results.
There are a few ideas I'd like to see tested:
1. Play Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall on different lines
Though Marcus Johansson's return will boost the offense, it's entirely possible, if not likely, the Devils won't get much secondary scoring again this season.
I like Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen as much as the next guy but a bottom-6 featuring those two, Travis Zajac, Brian Boyle, and prospects like John Quenneville and/or Joey Anderson isn't going to score a ton. It's just not realistic.
Even a 2nd line of Johansson, Pavel Zacha and, say, Jesper Bratt has its share of question marks.
By splitting up Hall and Hischier, the Devils would be able to ice a premium offensive player for well over half the game.
Without Hischier at 5v5, Hall posted a 57.79 scoring chance for% and averaged 1.95 points per 60. Those are excellent numbers.
Without Hall at 5v5, Hischier posted a 50.53 scoring chance for% and averaged 2.6 points per 60. Again, those are excellent numbers.
As much as people – myself included – enjoy watching Hall and Hischier work their magic together, permanently playing them on the same line may not be the best idea for a team with a lot of question marks offensively.
It can't hurt to split them up and see how they mesh with others. The team is fully healthy right now so John Hynes can get creative if he wants to.
2. Play Miles Wood in the top-6
I would really like to see Wood given a chance in a top-6 role – especially if the coaching staff wishes to keep Hall, Hischier, and even Kyle Palmieri together on the top line.
Wood scored at a 20-goal pace last season despite averaging less than 12:30 per night, consistently playing with defensive-minded linemates, and getting little run on the power play.
He averaged 1.11 goals per 60 minutes at 5v5, which tied him for 23rd(!) in the NHL with Rickard Rakell and Alex DeBrincat.
Some of the many notables Wood scored at a higher clip than include Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jack Eichel, and Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall. Not bad!
Maybe Wood's efficiency numbers would dip over a larger sample but his goal totals were not a byproduct of unsustainably high percentages and he is a volume shooter. It's reasonable to say he's simply a really solid goal scorer.
He should get plenty of opportunities to prove it on a team that is lacking finishers. Oh, and if MoJo and Zacha are on the 2nd line the Devils are going to need someone who isn't pass-happy and will actually put some pucks towards the net.
3. Pair Will Butcher with Sami Vatanen
I think New Jersey's top-4 on opening night will be as follows:
Andy Greene - Vatanen
Butcher - Damon Severson
That may not be the optimal top-4, though. Personally, I'd like to see Butcher paired with Vatanen and Severson reunited with Greene.
Despite what people want to believe, Greene does just as well with Severson by his side as Vatanen. Perhaps even better.
Over a very comparable time period, Greene + Severson posted a Corsi For almost 4% higher than Greene + Vatanen. While the shot generation numbers are extremely similar, Greene + Severson fared better in terms of shot suppression and limiting expected goals against.
This isn't me knocking Vatanen. I like him as a player and think the Devils were smart to pull the trigger on the trade last November. I'm pointing out Severson has proven to be just as capable of getting results with Greene.
I also think Vatanen is a better compliment to Butcher. He is more defensive minded and aggressive than Severson is. You need those traits alongside Butcher, and it showed last season.
While the Devils' offensive numbers with Butcher and Severson together were really good, those two gave up a *ton* defensively. In ~230 minutes they posted a minus-8 goal differential while allowing more than 60 shot attempts against/60 and nearly 2.9 expected goals against/60.
By pairing Butcher with Vatanen and Greene with Severson, the Devils would:
a) split up their two best passing defenders – Butcher and Severson – in terms of shot assists, ensuring both pairings have some puck-moving/offensive ability;
b) enhance the Butcher pairing's defensive prowess without taking away from Greene's pairing (again, his results with Severson are just as good, if not better, than with Vatanen).
Two birds, one stone.
Note: data via NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.Hockey.
Three reasons to be optimistic about the Devils heading into the 2018-19 season
Three question marks for the Devils heading into the 2018-19 season
Power play dominance, and a little luck, behind Hall's big spike in production
The Devils should give Miles Wood an opportunity in the top-6
Damon Severson should benefit from John Moore's departure
Hynes might have found something in Coleman - Zajac - Noesen line