The New Jersey Devils were embarrassed by the Washington Capitals on Wednesday. The 6-4 loss certainly brought back frustrations for the Devils head coach after New Jersey allowed three goals against in the first period. As a result, Lindy Ruff shuffles the bottom six after indicating changes were coming.
“Defense is a commitment by individuals,” Ruff said. “It’s not about shuffling. If you don’t make a commitment, it’s not about where I shuffle them to. The only way that you can really eliminate poor defensive play is if I shuffle them out of the lineup.
“(However, lineup changes are) a way to get the attention about playing better defensively.”
At Friday’s morning skate ahead of the Devils’ tilt against the Buffalo Sabres, we got a glimpse of Ruff’s changes in the forward group. The workflow looked as follows:
Ondrej Palat-Nico Hischier-Jesper Bratt
Tyler Toffoli-Jack Hughes-Timo Meier
Erik Haula-Dawson Mercer-Curtis Lazar
Alexander Holtz-Michael McLeod-Nathan Bastian
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Ruff’s most recent shake-up is certainly how the defensive pairs remained the same. After the opening frame against Washington, Ruff deployed Luke Hughes with Dougiue Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler with Brendan Smith. The change indeed worked out well for L. Hughes. However, Siegenthaler continued to struggle throughout the game. Regardless, the defense pairs on Friday reverted back to how they were originally.
“Changing the (defensive pairs) doesn’t create hardness,” Ruff said. “That’s an individual trait you have to take pride in your one-on-one responsibility. You try to breed familiarity by keeping guys together. They become accustomed to each other’s traits which most of the time is a good thing. But, sometimes you have to switch ’em up too.”
In the forward group, the biggest change is unquestionably Ruff swapping Lazar and Holtz. Lazar is now skating on the third-line right wing with Mercer centering him and Haula. Consequently, Holtz moves down to the third line with McLeod and Bastian.
“It’s just a little more what we’re looking for in the third line. Putting Dawson in the middle and trying to get a little bit more hardness.”
Looking first at Lazar, a promotion is surely deserved. He’s been one of New Jersey’s best forwards this season with an excellent 54-25 chance differential (68.35 CF%). He’s also due for a goal soon after accruing a 72.70 xGF% in five games. Perhaps sticking Lazar, who is creating a lot of scoring chances, on a line with Mercer (pointless in six games), will finally get the birthday boy on the scoresheet.
“Nothing really changes for me,” Lazar said Friday morning. “I think I’m there for a reason playing assertive on the forecheck and playing strong defensively. Hopefully, it’ll lead to more rush chances. I just want to be a spark. Get that energy going. We talk about our starts at home, they haven’t been the best. I just need to continue to play my game. I know Mercer and Holtz, they see the ice well so I’ll just try and stay open and create more space for them.”
Meanwhile, looking at Holtz’s last contest paints a clearer picture of why he was demoted. In 9:45 of ice time against the Capitals, Holtz finished with an awful 5-12 chance differential (29.41 CF%). A fourth-line role is certainly not ideal for the 21-year-old sniper. However, his defensive deficiencies became too apparent. Holtz coupled with McLeod and Bastian who continue to push pucks up the ice and away from danger might open up some more opportunities for Holtz.
If Holtz wants to get back in Ruff’s favor, he needs to contribute to the solution of the Devils’ first-period woes. Playing more like Lazar would be a good start.
“(Lazar is) first in on every play,” Ruff concluded. “If you look at it, he’s a hard guy to play against. He goes to the net hard. He’s been able to create a chance a game probably by just getting inside.”