Why John MacLean Should Consider Splitting Up the First Line of the New Jersey Devils

I know full well that the vast majority of you will see the headline and immediately think, "No, no, and a thousand times no.  John MacLean would be an idiot to do something so moronic as to break up Parise-Zajac-Zubrus."

Then, after a thought, you may think of something like: "How stupid can you be for suggesting such a thing, John?  Travis Zajac and Zach Parise playing together has always been nothing but great for the Devils, and Dainius Zubrus looks really good with those two.  He even has a point streak with 1 goal and 4 assists in the last 4 games. That's massive considering how flaccid the scoring has been.  The team's already struggling as it is, why take that one bright spot away? I will have none of this nincompoopery, as I've seen enough by the team in their own so far this season."

I'm not suggesting to change just for the sake of change.  Please hear me out, after the jump.

I do not dispute how well the line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Dainius Zubrus has played in recent games.  They were put together last Saturday and have been racking up the Corsi at even strength like it was going out of style.  After the loss to Colorado, Parise was actually at a total of -7 Corsi while Zajac earned 2 Corsi.  That was the final game where John MacLean had Ilya Kovalchuk on their right wing, who earned a total of 3 Corsi at evens in those first 5 games.   Zubrus, who was a -3 going into Saturday's game, somehow clicked with the dynamic duo on Saturday (and to only one goal), and ever since they've led the team in raw Corsi at 5-on-5 hockey.

#s from Time On Ice
GF GA SF SA MSF MSA Fenwick BSF BSA Corsi QualComp QualTeam
Travis Zajac 7 5 90 60 23 26 29 34 24 39 0.184 0.303
Zach Parise 7 5 90 66 26 30 22 35 28 29 0.117 0.299
Dainius Zubrus 5 8 61 51 25 13 19 25 17 27 0.086 0.303

 

Note 1: QualComp and QualTeam come from Behind the Net, who strangely still has the Devils short a game. Odd. The other numbers come from the Corsi scripts at Vic Ferrari's Time On Ice.

Note 2: If the goals for and against are a little off, my mistake. Either way, they're still far ahead of everyone else on the team in terms of Fenwick and Corsi.   While not particularly productive, this will all turn into more goals.

Today, Rich Chere wondered who should be considered on the second line.  He offered two suggestions and I don't think either are good options.  It's either pair three forwards who haven't been good at generating shooting attempts at even strength or three forwards who have been terrible at generating shooting attempts at even strength.  To quote a wad of meat, "Yuck city."

Granted, either would describe most of the forwards so far this season.  The closest player to the team's top three isn't even a forward, it's defenseman Matt Taormina with 11. The closest forward has been, believe it or not, a tie between Patrik Elias and David Clarkson with 4. Given how both have played recently (and at relatively soft competition at that), I can't imagine too many Devils fans would want either following up after these three.  Total raw Corsi suggests that everyone outside of those three have struggled to be on the right side of puck possession on the ice at even strength.

#s from Time On Ice GF GA SF SA MSF MSA Fenwick BSF BSA Corsi QualComp QualTeam
David Clarkson 0 7 55 41 15 13 9 17 22 4 -0.04 0.113
Patrik Elias 2 7 53 45 17 18 2 20 18 4 -0.057 -0.17
Tim Sestito 0 1 14 12 8 5 4 5 8 1 -0.15 0.4
Adam Mair 0 0 14 16 9 6 1 7 11 -3 0.139 0.004
Rod Pelley 2 3 33 32 11 13 -2 10 14 -6 0.028 -0.506
Jacob Josefson 0 1 25 29 8 8 -5 8 13 -10 -0.162 -0.76
Ilya Kovalchuk 5 6 75 71 22 33 -8 23 31 -16 0.152 0.26
Jason Arnott 4 10 47 54 14 21 -20 22 21 -19 0.055 -0.335
Jamie Langenbrunner 3 7 47 60 14 23 -26 20 19 -25 0.147 -0.172

 

Given the mish-mash of other forwards in terms of Fenwick and Corsi, it's really difficult to identify who should be on the second or third lines.  That QualComp and QualTeam is still a bit wonky from the small population of this season doesn't help identify who's suffering from hard competition or who's just straight-up bad.  Though it appears that the straight-up bad category would likely include Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott.

So why not try to spread the wealth?  Zajac is leading the team by far in Corsi, perhaps he can help out Kovalchuk or Langenbrunner get their grooves back?  Perhaps Arnott doesn't need Patrik Elias to be revitalized but Zach Parise?  From where I sit, Zubrus has the "hot hand" (he has a point streak believe it or not, 1 goal and 4 assists).  Maybe that can spread to benefit others who have been cold?   It's not like the Devils have been winning by having the first line do the bulk of the work at evens, or scoring tons of goals

Besides, it's not like we haven't seen it done for a few shifts.  Do recall that the forwards on the ice for Kovalchuk's goal on Sunday was Kovalchuk, Zajac, and Zubrus.  I don't think any Devils fan freaked out seeing Kovalchuk out there with Zajac and Zubrus in that third period.  Why not go with that to start in San Jose on Wednesday night?   It would be at least put Kovalchuk with offensive players who can get the puck into good positions instead of guys who haven't (Josefson, Langenbrunner).  Perhaps it'll do well against the Sharks and future opponents (and also quell the complaints that Kovalchuk not lining up at left wing for faceoff was a major problem) and the team as a whole can benefit.   

That's the main goal of this suggestion: to turn a team that has been only getting good possession at even strength from one line into a team that gets it at even strength from more than just 3 forwards.  With more shooting opportunities, eventually the Devils will get the breaks along with the shots to score the goals they need.

If it doesn't work, MacLean can put those three back together later in the game.  I don't know about you, but I'd rather make changes to see what works instead of stubbornly keeping players together and waiting for some kind of chemistry that will make them better than what they are on the ice.

Yes, I know that making more line changes won't necessarily make this team suddenly start playing well.  I'm aware that splitting up the top line either completely or partially won't address the root issues of the team's terrible start.  Yet, when you're 2-6-1 and you've scored a whopping 14 goals in regulation in those 9 games, it behooves the coach to start trying out some different approaches.  The current plan hasn't been effective enough to get results.  This is one of them that I think would make some sense.

Of course, I'd like to hear what you think.  Even if it is, "No, no, and a thousand times no.  John MacLean would be an idiot to do something so moronic as to break up Parise-Zajac-Zubrus." Still, please share your reasoning in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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