For the better part of the past decade, whenever the New Jersey Devils were in a tight spot and needed a faceoff win desperately, there was only one man to turn to: Travis Zajac. He has been the faceoff king for New Jersey for many years, and has in fact been one of the better faceoff men in all the NHL. Just take a look at his faceoff stats here since the Cup run season of 2012, thanks to NHL.com. Note: Rank is for FO%, and in full seasons, is for skaters with at least 1,000 faceoff attempts. This season, being shortened so far, I stuck it at 100, and for the lockout-shortened 2012-13, went with 500.
So as you can see, he might be having a somewhat down year this year in terms of NHL rank, but that is more because of the less amount of data accrued so far as opposed to a full season. If he remains at 52-53%, his rank will rise. He only had one year under 51%, just barely, but was still ranked 32nd in the NHL that year in faceoffs, not amazing, but not the worst position to be in either. And last year, he was the absolute best in the league with taking draws, coming in just over 58%. If you need someone to win a faceoff a man down, late in the game up one goal or tied, Zajac has been as consistent as they come.
This year for the Devils, however, despite still holding a strong faceoff percentage, he is not even the best man on the team. Several games ago, Steve Cangialosi and Ken Daneyko were talking about how Nico Hischier had made it a point in the offseason to work on faceoffs, as that was an area he struggled at mightily over the early part of his NHL career. And they were right, he really did struggle. Look at his numbers for the first two seasons in the NHL, and then check out what he has done to improve this area of his game. Note: He had just under 1000 draws in both of his first two seasons, coming in at 983 in his rookie year, and 966 last year. So I lowered the cutoff for the rank at 950 for those years so I could include him.
While his first two years of faceoff stats are clearly bad, I don’t need to tell you that, what that table does not tell you was that for 2018-19, he was 53rd out of 57 eligible centers, and in 2017-18, he was 59th out of 61 eligible. That is about as bottom of the barrel as it gets.
This year, however, look at the difference! I know it only encompasses a little under 150 draws, but whatever work he put in on this facet of his game in the offseason, it has been paying dividends so far. He has around as many wins as Zajac has, but with fewer losses, with the result being a 55.2 faceoff percentage that is good for top 30 in the league. If he can maintain a 55% average or better on faceoffs this season, it would legitimately give the Devils two faceoff men they could rely on in tight situations. Need a faceoff win? Put both of them on the ice. If Zajac gets tossed from the circle, Nico is right there and has just as good a chance of getting that much needed win. That extra security blanket could matter on occasion, helping to secure a win or provide the team with a last minute offensive chance to try and tie a game late.
Now of course, faceoffs are not serious analytics, and it makes sense. Gaining initial possession is important and has consequences, but it does not tell us a boatload about how the player or the team is performing on the ice. Gaining initial possession might be great, but if the team is terrible when it comes to generating Corsi attempts for (like the Devils are this season), then what is the team actually gaining from the faceoff win other than to buy some time before the opposition gets a chance? So obviously, the data here is limited in how much it will really affect team performance.
But then again, it isn’t nothing either. If winning a key draw here or there helps to secure the team a few points during the regular season, those points could come to matter if the team is on the playoff bubble. New Jersey is not playing like a playoff bubble team, so this might not matter this year, but assuming the Devils become a competitive team at any point over the next decade plus while Hischier is here? A good assumption, anyway. Well, then his faceoff prowess can come to mean something. It might have been a small area of his game to work on this offseason, but it is one that carries at least some level of importance, and to see him succeeding at it so far is definitely a positive, especially since he is even outperforming Zajac, the faceoff king.