Last week, I highlighted one of the two pending unrestricted free agents from the New Jersey Devils: Marek Zidlicky. I asked whether you would want him back. I highlighted his pluses, his minuses, and two big questions surrounding the decision from the team's standpoint. Most of you, based on a cursory look through the comments and tweets, would. Today, I want to raise the same question for the other UFA defender: Mark Fayne.
For the unaware, here's a quick summary of how he came about. Fayne was drafted way back in the fifth round of the 2005 draft. After four years at Providence, he got his first shot at the NHL in his first professional season in 2010-11. Back when the defense was hammered by injuries and the call-ups weren't so good. However, Fayne managed to stick around after the injuries and a coaching change. He played well with Henrik Tallinder and he remained in the NHL. In the 2011-12 season, he started playing significant minutes. When Tallinder had to sit out due to a blood clot, he was paired with Andy Greene. A pairing that has worked rather well over his NHL career. This deviated in 2013 when Fayne-Bryce Salvador was a thing; but ultimately, Greene was his most common partner. Together, the two have become a boss pairing right through the 2013-14 season. And so here we are.
Fayne is the definition of a non-flashy defenseman. He's big and knows how to use his size, but he's not crushing dudes on the regular. He's not taking an excessive amount of penalties. He had 15 minors last season, which isn't too bad considering who he plays against and pales in comparison to the Minor Machine, Marek Zidlicky. He's not totally devoid of offense - he's good for an average of about a little more than a shot per game - but he's not a productive player either. He's someone the team leans on for offense whatsoever. He's about getting the job done, so to speak, and he certainly does. Look at the player dashboard for Devils defensemen at Extra Skater. Fayne has a really favorable Corsi percentage (55.3%, third best on the team); a positive relative Corsi percentage (+1.5%, third best on the team), and has done this while starting in his own end of the rink more often than not (47.3% offensive zone start percentage, second lowest on the team). When it comes to making passes, he was quite accurate and was third in total attempts per Ryan's findings. Fayne plays against tough competition regularly and the team does well when he's out there. Basically, he's solid as one could reasonably expect from a defenseman. If he was putting up a ton of points, then he's be up there with among the best defenders in the league.
On his own, it's a no-brainer. Keep the 27 year old defenseman around with Greene and have a top pairing set for a few more years. Given he has not and will not be a big scorer, he's not likely to command a big salary. So if he wants to stay, he could cost as much as or a little more than Greene and it's arguable he's worth that. Done and dusted. However, as with Zidlicky, the decision is trickier given the existence of three young defensemen on a team with four veterans on the books.
When going through Fayne's numbers, I noticed something rather odd among the average ice time. Fayne averaged 18:18 per game and 16:24 of even strength ice time, which placed him sixth on the team in both. Before you get mad at who you see ahead of him, notice that two young defensemen have averaged more at evens than him: Jon Merrill by close to a minute and Adam Larsson by a little bit. This could be the result of other factors, like defensemen being stuck for longer shifts, but this was rather surprising to me. While Fayne has received tougher situations than Merrill and Larsson, one may conclude that the coaches see Larsson and Merrill as not too different of defenders than Fayne. Neither are not certainly as good as Fayne now. Again, let's go back to Extra Skater. Larsson shot up in possession but played most of his season with lesser minutes and easier situations. Merrill had a decent enough rookie season, but he was used similarly in more games. However, if they feel they're not too far off from doing what Fayne currently does then that makes keeping Fayne redundant.
This is the central question behind the headline question. Can anyone else on the team do what Fayne does without much of a drop off? Part of what made a favorable response for keeping Zidlicky was that no one else on the Devils really can do what he did last season. As much as I like Fayne - and I really like him, especially with Greene - I can't say he's entirely essential. Provided Greene continues to play well and Peter DeBoer continues to favor more bodies behind the puck in the run of play (Tyler Dellow found this out - go read it), I don't think it's unreasonable to think that the team's defense may not suffer too much without him. Ironically, if the Devils want to create a spot for a young defenseman, then they may have to let the young UFA walk.
Personally, my current mindset is that the Devils may have to decide on only one of Fayne or Zidlicky, I'd rather have it be Fayne. While I wouldn't mind Zidlicky returning for another year, the more I think about it, the more concerned I am with him falling off as he creeps closer to 40. If he does fall off, then what he does for the team doesn't matter as much because he wouldn't be all that good at it. Fayne, at least, is a safe bet to be a solid defenseman who can handle tough competition for whoever he plays for next season. But knowing that Larsson and Merrill are right there, I'd only retain Fayne on a short term deal. If one of those two young defensemen develop like I think they will, then they can replace Fayne when the time is right. The key will be whether either gets tough situations in 2014-15 and how they do in them. If they come out well, then the path is clear. Of course, by retaining Fayne means one fewer spot. But I'd take that rather than throwing Larsson or Merrill into the proverbial deep end and hope they can swim next season.
I put the question to you. Do you think Fayne is worth keeping around, and for how much? Is he worth keeping around knowing it's one fewer spot for a younger defender? Do you think Larsson and/or Merrill can play like Fayne and possibly play as well as him one day? If you had to choose between both, who would you keep: Fayne or Zidlicky? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Mark Fayne in the comments. Thank you for reading.