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Devils Shake Up Top-Six in Search of More Chemistry

Head coach Lindy Ruff swaps Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier in an effort to get more out of the offense.

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Devils Shake Up Top-Six in Search of More Offense
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

When the New Jersey Devils stumbled out of the gate in 2022-23, the feeling was all too familiar. However, after the first two games of the season, New Jersey went on to have the best season in franchise history. The Devils put themselves on the map as one of the brightest, up-and-coming teams last year. As a result, many chose the Devils to have continued success in 2023-24 and to even go further in the postseason. A 1-1-1 record to start this season has raised some tensions. As a result, the Devils shook up their top six in search of more offense.

Shaking up the Devils top six forward group is an early but desperate decision. The top line of Tyler Toffoli, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt have been an excellent trio. Together, they’ve scored 13 points and have driven the offense accruing a 63.29 CF% and 63.02 xGF%. However, that might be exactly why Ruff is making this decision.

Unfortunately for New Jersey, Timo Meier and Nico Hischier have struggled to be effective on the ice. Additionally, the Devils haven’t really figured out a proper running mate to round out the duo. For the majority of preseason, it was Alexander Holtz, before they switched to Dawson Mercer, and then Ondrej Palat for a cup of coffee. Instead, it will now be Hughes centering Meier and Mercer, while Hischier centers Toffoli and Bratt.

“I feel like I have good chemistry with both of them,” Bratt explained. “I’ve played almost as much with Nico as I have with Jack. Sometimes splitting up the lines a little can give energy to a team. I feel like we’re in a position right now where it doesn’t hurt to switch something up and see how it works. We’re excited about it.”

In 435:33 of ice time last season, Bratt skated alongside Hischier. They built chemistry together, partially leading to each of their first 30-goal seasons. According to Natural Stat Trick, the duo dominated the puck per their 56.68 CF% and 56.72 xGF%.

Through the first three games of the 2023-24 regular season , Hischier was absent of a play driver on his line. Although Meier has shown the ability to do that himself in the past, that hasn’t made itself present in New Jersey. Giving Hischier a driver such as Bratt should work to his strengths. Now the Devils captain can focus on what he’s best at. Shutting down the oppositions top players, while Bratt worries about driving play and distributing.

At Thursday’s morning skate, Palat rounded out the duo of Hischier and Bratt. Palat is off to a strong start to the season despite just a single assist in three games. The veteran forward has been excellent at retrieving pucks and help pushing play to the offensive zone. As a result, he’s working with a 64.44 CF% and 62.64 xGF%. The idea here is a stronger, healthier Palat and playdriver in Bratt should elevate Hischeir’s game.

The idea for Meier is the same. On a national level, Meier has proven chemistry with Hischier. However, it hasn’t worked out that way this year in the small sample size.

As San Jose Hockey Now’s Sheng Peng explained, Meier is a volume shooter. Through the first three games, he’s only managed to put four pucks on net. Last season, Meier netted 40 goals for the first time in his career. That’s partially due to the fact that he averaged 4.19 shots per game.

Part of Meier’s issue that saw him benched is due to the fact that he also wasn’t paired with a playdriver in Hischier, Mercer, or Palat. Now, he has the opportunity to work with New Jersey’s best possible playdriver in Hughes.

Similarly to Hischier’s situation with Bratt, Meier built excellent chemistry with Hughes. In 108:21 together over 21 games, the duo created 56.05 CF% and 61.12 xGF%. This year, Hughes is off to an hot start with six points (two goals, four assists) in three games. Flanking Meier (who has moved back to the right wing) and Hughes is Toffoli who has also had a strong start to the season. The chances have been there for Toffoli despite being absent from the goal column. The veteran forward has produced some of the most chances, accruing a 62.35 CF% and 61.05 xGF%.

Lindy Ruff is going back to the well with some of his most successful duo’s from last season. On paper, the Devils offense looks more potent than 2022-23. Now, it’s just a matter of finding the right chemistry. The Devils are now headed on the road for two games against the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. Ruff is hoping a road trip will rectify his clubs struggles.

“A lot of times you can determine your team by how well you play on the road,” Ruff explained. “For a good period of time, our road game was real good. I think some of the details in our home game have been missing. We spent a lot of time talking about that (on Thursday).

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