Analysis: Looking For The Right Combos

Corey Griffin

We’ve spent the past couple days talking about guys like David Clarkson and Bobby Butler, but we all know the players that butter Pete DeBoer’s Combosbread. With that in mind, this upcoming nugget from ESPN’s Crosschecks Blog got me thinking not necessarily about the players mentioned, but who will be paired with them. Hmmm…

Via Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com:

Henrique, DeBoer said during our Monday interview, was still 10-to-14 days away from being healthy, but once that’s the case, he figures his two main offensive pairs up front will be Ilya Kovalchuk with Travis Zajac on one line, and Henrique with veteran Patrik Elias on the other.

“Those are our two pairs at the top that I want to keep together, but who rides shotguns for those guys are the jobs that are up for grabs,” DeBoer said.

First of all, let’s be clear that Zajac and Henrique could easily swap places throughout the year. While I think they both fit will with their respective partners at this time, it’s not often you see the top two lines on any NHL team will struggles to score (and the Devils will) stay together for an entire season. With that said, I came up three sets of line combinations that I think work well together, assuming the Zajac-Kovy and Elias-Henrique pairings. Two things should be noted before we go forward: I’m leaving out a fourth line that I assume will alternate between four players (Bernier, Carter, Janssen, Gionta) and I’m listing Kovy at RW because that appears to be where DeBoer is comfortable using him.

Line Combo No. 1
Zubrus – Zajac – Kovalchuk
Elias – Henrique – Clarkson
Matteau – Josefson – Butler

This is the both the most likely and unlikely combo at the same time. Confused? The top two lines is pretty much what you should expect for a majority of the season, but I’d be stunned if Matteau stuck past the five-game barrier. He’s been impressive thus far, but the Devils seem committed to sending him back to his junior club for more seasoning rather than develop him at the NHL level and kick-start his entry-level clock. That said, the idea of pairing Matteau’s balanced, two-way game with Butler’s shoot-at-will philosophy is very exciting. Add in the controlled, responsible, two-way play of Josefson and I really like what that line could give the Devils from a depth perspective. They would be defensively responsible (Butler’s play in his own end goes unnoticed at times) while also fitting perfectly into the aggressive forecheck that DeBoer loves. Alas, like I said, I don’t expect Matteau to stick around, so let’s hit No. 2.

Line Combo No. 2
Zubrus – Zajac – Kovalchuk
Elias – Henrique – Clarkson
Tedenby/Darche – Josefson – Butler

Here we stick with the same top two lines, but switch up the third line LW. In this scenario, I think Darche fits better than Tedenby because of his size and grit. I don’t love the idea of Tedenby on the same line as Josefson or Butler and think in the end, the Devils will only keep two out of Butler, Tedenby and Darche once Henrique returns. That creates an interesting dilemma. While the top two lines have an excellent balance of size, speed and skill, if they stuck with 5-foot-10, 176-pound Tedenby in this scenario, the third line would lack size and would risk getting pushed around on the half boards and in the corners. That’s why if they do want to keep the younger players instead of signing the veteran Darche to a contract, option No. 3 might be the best fit.

Line Combo No. 3
Tedenby – Zajac – Kovalchuk
Elias – Henrique – Clarkson
Josefson – Zubrus – Butler

Okay, so the second line stays the same but we do a little surgery on the top unit and the third. Josefson has played center basically his whole career, but has said he’d be open to moving to the wing. Also, if you do this, you still have two players that can take draws on the ice in two of your top three lines. I really like the idea of Tedenby’s speed on that top line — think what Carl Hagelin did for the Rangers last year on their top unit. You also create a much more balanced attack here with Zubrus bringing some reliable offense and a veteran presence to what is basically a kids line. I think in the end, the third option is the Devils’ best option. Send Matteau back to juniors and let him learn, while adding some real ice-stretching speed to your top unit and keeping a really strong second unit together.

Of course, the Devils could go out and trade a defenseman for a complimentary forward (and many think they will), but why not give the kids a shot to start? Obviously Henrique’s injury hurts since you’ll have to wait 10-14 days (according to DeBoer, per LeBrun) before he’s back in the lineup and then at least another week to see if these combos fit with each other. In the end, I think DeBoer has some pretty nice options IF the kids score, which is a big if. Needless to say, it’ll be an important first few weeks in Jersey.