After the New Jersey Devils salvaged a point in an overtime loss against the Seattle Kraken on January 19, said head coach Lindy Ruff He didn’t like the direction his team was going. Most coaches wouldn’t say that after finishing a road trip with a 4-0-1 record, but Ruff was right in his assessment. The Devils rank 25th in Corsi and Expected Goal Percentage for the month of January.
One reason, perhaps the main reason, is that their bottom-six has sunk almost overnight since the flip of the calendar in 2023. It’s not just one player. Part of that could be spending ten days on the road, but Ruff has to figure out how to get his bottom-six going. Because if they don’t improve their five-on-five game, the team could be in for another slump in short order.
Devils bottom-6 well underwater in possession
when The Devils had their 13-game winning streak snapped Earlier this season, they had four lines firing on all cylinders. From a top line with Nico Hisier to a fourth line of Myles Wood, Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian, all four units were scoring and controlling play at five-on-five.
Bastian’s injury threw a wrench in the roll-four-line plan. He returned to the lineup last week after missing two months, but he’s only played in two games and it will take time for him to get back up to speed. The Devils’ bottom-six held their own without him in December, with most of their forwards finishing the month above water in Corsi and expected goal percentage.
But in any case, things have changed significantly since January 1. Ruff has moved players around the lineup, but those listed below are primarily third- or fourth-line forwards with a minimum of 10 games played this month. (CF% = Corsi percentage, xG% = Expected goal percentage):
- Jesper Boqvist: 42.31 CF%, 36.92 xG%
- Michael McLeod: 43.37 CF%, 38.98 xG%
- Dawson Mercer: 43.57 CF%, 42.5 xG%
- Yegor Sharangovich: 45.08 CF%, 36.21 xG%
- Miles Wood: 45.82 CF%, 36.21 xG%
Yes, I know there are five players above. This is because Ruff has used different forwards, from Nolan Foote and Alexander Holtz Fabian Zetterlund, in the bottom-six for a game here and there. Foote posted an xG% above 66 percent, but Ruff was used sparingly when he was in the lineup. Eventually, they returned Bastian to the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League after activating him from injured reserve.
Otherwise, the numbers posted above are quite troublesome. It’s never a good thing to see players in the low 40s and especially 30s in terms of Corsi and expected goals. And it’s worth noting that all five forwards listed above had Corsi percentages above 50 percent in December, while only Wood, McLeod and Mercer were below 50 percent on expected targets.
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That’s obviously a drastic change and a significant reason why the Devils haven’t been the same dominant five-on-five team they were before Jan. 1. So what has changed? Are players just going through a patch? Isn’t Ruff getting together in the best bottom-six? Is it a combination of factors? There is no one answer, but there are solutions.
Raf Tatar, Hisier and Zetterlund should be reunited
One of the Devils’ best bottom-six lines in 2022-23 is Sharangovich, Boqvist and Mercer. For the season, they posted strong results (67.38 xG%), although they only scored two goals as a line. Ruff shied away from using that combo until the last few games, so perhaps they provide a bottom-six with a spark.
But a significant reason why the Devils’ bottom-six underperformed is that McLeod and Wood have struggled, especially for the latter. Wood has scored a goal in his last 31 games, and it’s not like the opportunities weren’t there. He’s fired 68 shots on goal, which means he’s shooting 1.5 percent. That’s unsustainably low, but at the same time, he’s provided negative value to the Devils this season.
Wood’s expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of minus-5.6 is the lowest on the team, as his GAR is minus-4.2. Ruff criticized Zetterlund when he gave him a healthy scratch A 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes January 10. Zetterlund had been struggling up to that point, but Wood didn’t fare well. In fact, he got a lot worse. Ruff should bring Zetterlund back into the lineup for Wood, but not necessarily in a bottom-six role.
One of the Devils’ best line combos early in the season was Tomas Tatar, Hisier and Zetterlund. The Devils controlled 62.85 percent of expected goals and had a plus-six goal differential with them on the ice in 169 minutes. In reuniting them, it could help the Devils’ bottom-six by pushing other players down the lineup, which they need to improve their depth.
With Tatar, Hischier and Zetterlund together, Ondrej Palát moved to a line with Jake Hughes and Jesper Bratt. Instead, Erik Haula should center a third line with Sharangovic and Mercer. That would leave the Devils with a lineup consisting of the following:
- Tatar – Hisier – Zetterlund
- Palat – Hughes – Bratt
- Sharangovich – Haula – Mercer
- Boqvist – McLeod – Bastian
While Boqvist isn’t the same player as Wood, there’s no arguing who deserves to be in the lineup; Boqvist has a GAR of 3.1 this season. Bottom-six forwards don’t need to be scorers, but they provide something like forechecking and defense. Boqvist is one of the Devils’ best forecheckers, and he’s been quite good defensively:
Comparisons aside, Zetterlund should be in the lineup for the simple fact that he’s a solid player. Sure, he had one point in his previous 14 games when Ruff scratched him healthy. You couldn’t argue against scratching him, but he’s still one of the Devils’ best five-on-five players. He has a 57.09 xG% on the season, and his 14 points in 34 games came on a 34-point pace over 82 games. He should be back in the lineup soon as he is more likely to help the team than he is.
The Devils’ top-6 needs support from the bottom line
If Ruff doesn’t think there’s an internal solution for bottom-six struggles, which is possible, then the trade market is an option. Satan already exists Linked to Gustav Nyquist, someone who would play a third-line role if they acquired him. Targeting Arizona Coyotes forward Nick Bujstad also makes sense if the Devils want to upgrade their bottom-six on the cheap before the trade deadline.
But whatever the case, they need to figure out how to get the bottom-six going quickly. While the top-six has had its ups and downs in January, it’s the reason (including the goaltending) that the team is 7-1-2 in its last ten games. Hughes, Hisier and Bratt need support at five-on-five, and the Devils’ best bet is to shuffle some things around to make the bottom-six look more like it was before Jan. 1.
Alex Chauvency is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers with a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for the Devil’s Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017.