The 2010-2011 NHL Season is looming. The New Jersey Devils started training camp last weekend and played their first preseason game last night, a 4-3 shootout loss to the Flyers - Here's John's recap. There are currently 12 centers on the training camp depth chart (plus Adam Mair). How are these players at the face-off circle? Some are veterans that are locks for the team, others have little to no NHL experience. How has their face-off statistics been recently? Are the Devils equipped to be a team who starts without the pick 35 times a game? Or do they have the personnel to have a big advantage on the offensive side of the game?
The Devils have lost a few of their centers from the previous season. Only one player has been acquired to replace this. Are the prospects with little or no experience capable of replacing the rest of the load? It's possible the depth at center could be further depleted after the salary dump as well. More after the jump.
*UPDATED: I've added the 2nd preseason game face-off statistics.
Last season, the Devils were right on the line at face-off circle percentage during the regular season. They won 2098 face-offs and lost 2146 face-offs, a difference of 48, or 49.43%. That's a hair below the medium, yet any further lower would be a cause for concern. In the playoffs, the Devils won 2 more drops than they lost (145-143), and were just above 50%. Face-offs aren't correlated with winning, but it sure doesn't hurt The Devils lost their 2nd and 3rd ranked players in total face-offs last season this summer: Rob Niedermayer, who signed with the Buffalo Sabres, and Dean McAmmond, who will not be returning at this moment. Patrik Elias was ranked 4th in total face-offs taken, but he will be playing at his natural left wing, says coach John MacLean.
Travis Zajac lead the Devils last in face-offs taken (1373), wins (726), and percentage (52.88%) least season. The Devils traded a 2011 2nd Rounder and prospect Matt Halishuk for Jason Arnott back in June. Rod Pelley and Tim Sestito have taken some face-offs over the past few seasons.
I've mentioned some of the players already, but here are the 12 centers on the depth chart. Six of the players have taken at least one face-off in the NHL: Jason Arnott, Adam Mair, Rod Pelley, Tim Sestito, Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus. Three have been in the AHL in Lowell the past few seasons: Stephen Gionta, Bradley Mills, Michael Swift. The final three are their first years in the pros in North America: Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, David McIntyre.
Here is a chart of the regular season face-off totals for the past three seasons of the six players with NHL experience at the dot:
The players and their amalgamated percentage is just above the medium. Arnott's percentage doesn't help the Devils, yet doesn't really hurt it either. The loss of Niedermayer's 50.6% hurts and McAmmond's 45.5% helps.
Over the past three seasons, four of the six centers have played an average of 67 games per season. They were full time players for their respected team and have been consistent at the dot. Of those four players, two have taken double digit face-offs per game, Jason Arnott and Travis Zajac at 16.3 and 15.0 FO/GP receptively. Zajac has a great percentage and Arnott is just below 50%. They are the Devils 1st and 2nd line centers. Currently, John MacLean has Zajac centering Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, and Arnott inbetween Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner. Arnott had 13 face-off wins and only 8 loses in the first preseason game. Zajac went 50% at 14 wins and 14 loses in the 2nd preseason game against the Rangers.
Dainius Zubrus and Adam Mair have played in plenty of games yet haven't taken that many face-offs. Zubrus was occasionally centering the 2nd or 3rd line, and has a strong percentage just under 51%. Zubrus was the RW for Josefson and the 2nd line in the first preseason game though. I'm pretty sure Mair was a 3rd or 4th line center int he past, thus his handful of face-offs a game and sub 48% percentage. Mair won 5 and lost 6 face-offs in the first preseason game, and won 4 and lost 5 in the 2nd game. Tim Sestito and Rod Pelley have been playing between the NHL and AHL. Sestito has a good percentage over 53% yet with only 9 games played, I'm not sold on just that. Other faucets of his game factor in. Pelley has a weak percentage at 47.8%. He may be better utilized at the wing position considering his play last season. He won all six of his face-offs in the 2nd preseason game.
Adam Henrique finished up his junior career at Windsor, who have won back to back Memorial Cup Championships. Jacob Josefson played in the SEL for Djurgardens last season. David McIntyre finish his senior year at Colgate a played a few games in Lowell last season. Josefson won 7 and lost 6 face-offs in the first preseason game. Some more time into the preseason will tell us more about these individuals. Stephen Gionta, Bradley Mills, Michael Swift have played in then AHL for a few seasons now. Unless they have spectacular camps or the Devils are in a dire cap space situation, I don't see these players making a large contribution to face-offs this season. Mills is at 50% for the preseason, winning 4 face-offs in first preseason game, and 3 in the 2nd game.
Dainius Zubrus is perfectly capable of centering the 3rd line. That would actually be very good. That would leave Pelley/Sestito/Josefson/etc to compete for the 4th line center spot and perhaps a depth spot. I'm comfortable with those group of players getting 4 to 7 face-offs per game. These players are are at a good cost with a good cap hit, and if other aspects of their game (scoring, board play, defense) improve during the preseason, they will get the spot. Gaining experience at a low risk is always good. There's the situation as of now.
Yet, one can't excuse the fact that Zubrus may not be with the Devils when October comes due to the imminent salary dump, or perhaps a different center for that matter. So if Zubrus get's traded somehow, there is a huge drop after the 2nd line. Do the Devils trust Pelley and Sestito to cover the 3rd line? Josefson is a 1st rounder; is he ready to take on a responsible role? He centered a line with Zubrus (a supposed center) and Clarkson. It his only NHL experience so far. There's a real problem at depth, at least depth of NHL experience at the dot if Zubrus departs.
Another thing to think about is injury. Jason Arnott is 35, and has played in 63 and 65 games the past two years. Zubrus only played in 52 games last season due to his kneecap injury. Bumps and bruises happen during the long season as well. There aren't many players that can can be called up to fill in positions with experience. Bottom line is there is a lot of inexperienced depth.
The Devils have plenty of personnel at the center position. There's no significant change with the departure of a few players with the arrival of a returning star. Arnott took just as many face-offs as Niedermayer, McAmmond, and Elias combined last year. Currently, the situation looks good. In the future, it may not. The Devils will have to remove some players to get under the cap limit, and the center position, most notably Dainius Zubrus, are viable options. Unless the Devils acquire a 3rd or 4th line center in a trade, or sign a free agent at a low cap hit, there's going to be some players with no experience getting a good amount of playing time. It fine to assume they will quickly adapt to the NHL and the Devils style itself, and contribute successfully. I hope this happens. But if it takes the Devils prospects longer than expected or hoped, then the face-off (and perhaps even other parts of the player's game) will hurt the team. The 3rd and 4th lines may be starting each face-off on defense 55% of the time.
How do you feel about face-off situation for the upcoming season? Do you think it's fine? Do you feel Josefson is ready? Are you more concerned if Zubrus leaves now? How would want the Devils to fix (if you think there's a problem) it? Do any prospects have the ability and talent to step up for a 3rd or 4th line role? Let us know in the comments. Thanks for reading.