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Devils and Faceoffs Don’t Mix*

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The New Jersey Devils have been really, really bad overall over the past six seasons when it comes to faceoffs. Whether that matters is up to you, but come check out the numbers, despite what Travis Zajac does.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

*Travis Zajac not included

First off, I get that many people feel that faceoffs are overrated and are not something significant to look at when discussing a team’s statistics. Analytics have produced a myriad of other stats that provide us a better indicator of how a team played on the ice. In comparison, faceoffs tell us very little.

However, I also don’t see a need to totally ignore faceoffs either. I wouldn’t build my forwards around faceoff ability, but there can be no denying that every once and a while, a faceoff win or loss proves huge in the course of a game. From a quick win in the offensive zone that sets up a game tying or winning goal in the last minute, to that ever important faceoff win after an icing to hasten a line change for the wearied. To be sure, one thing that analytics have told us is that possession matters in hockey, and winning faceoffs provide that possession. It might not show up in Corsi stats if those wins are not in the offensive zone, but I don’t see how it can be totally discounted either.

To that end, I’ve noted to myself over the last couple of seasons that the New Jersey Devils have not been particularly effective at faceoffs. They have consistently produced under 50% in faceoff win percentage, which is not good. Since the Devils last made the Cup finals, here are the team’s faceoff percentages, as well as the team’s rank among all teams across those six seasons. That would be 181 teams in total (30 teams per season, plus VGK this past year). Info from NHL.com.

Just look at those ranks among NHL teams over those six seasons. Four of the six Devils teams over that span are in the bottom 20 teams in faceoff win percentage, and one other is in the bottom 31. The BEST team in faceoff win percentage, the 2016-17 Devils, had a percentage of 49.2%, good for 117th over that time frame. That is particularly bad, perhaps worst in the NHL over that time span, or at least one of the worst to be sure.

Now, as I noted above with my asterisk on the title, this futility in the faceoff circle does not remotely include Travis Zajac, who is quite awesome in that job. In the same time frame, here are his personal faceoff stats:

In each of those seasons, Zajac was comfortably above 50%, and in some, seriously above. His faceoff stats in the 48 game 2013 season are really impressive, to go a whole season above 57% in faceoffs. That year, he was 14th in the league among all players with at least 200 faceoff attempts. That year, he had 506 wins to only 375 losses. Excellent.

What is perhaps the craziest bit, however, is when you discuss those two charts together. The Devils have produced amazingly poor faceoff percentages over the past six seasons despite their top faceoff man being very, very good. Zajac has bailed the Devils out time and time again with timely and consistent faceoff wins, but almost everyone else acts as an anchor, losing way more draws than they win. Stephen Gionta was a particularly poor faceoff man, and Patrik Elias had a couple really poor seasons in there. Last year, Nico Hischier was quite awful in the circle, with a FOW% under 43% with almost 1000 faceoffs over the course of the season.

Again, what this means for the future is really up to how you interpret the importance of faceoffs. At a minimum, however, I think it is something that needs to be improved. Winning only 47% of draws, as they did last year, invites the opposition to control the puck more and more. For a team that needs help with possession, that is not good. And when the best and truly only good faceoff man is 33 years old, while the young guns really struggled last year (Hischier 42.9%, Pavel Zacha 43.9%, Blake Coleman 46.9%), bad faceoff numbers for the New Jersey Devils overall could continue for many years to come.

In the end, given how poorly the Devils have been at faceoffs overall, let’s hope that faceoffs are really and truly not that important.