Every year, during the summer, I take a look at faceoffs and see how the Devils are doing in that scenario. Over the last several years, the answer really has been not good. They have perennially been one of the bottom teams in the league in terms of faceoff percentage overall.
Now, of course this is not something too major. Rarely are goals scored directly off of draws, and all it really determines is initial possession. At times, winning a faceoff does not even lead to good outcomes, as the opposition steals the puck behind the net, and a defensive zone win leads to having to defend in a precarious position. However, there are positives to hold as well. Those few goals I mentioned off of draws can lead to extra points in the standings if they are game winning goals, and those extra points can be huge in a bid for a wild card. Also, we all know how important possession is, and any little bit of advantage helps there, and faceoffs is just that.
As I tallied last year, over the previous six seasons, when you added it all together into one big pot, the Devils were atrocious when compared to the league in overall faceoffs. Their best year since the 2012 Cup run was in 2016-17, with a faceoff win percentage of 49.2% overall. This past season, if you believe it, the Devils actually improved upon that number and posted their best team faceoff percentage since the were in the Cup Finals last. Their percentage this past year? 49.3%, a full one tenth of a percentage point better. That was good for 23rd in the league, which while bad overall, is again pretty good for a Devils team that has been historically bad over the last half decade plus.
The reason for that? You know the reason. Travis Zajac is still a faceoff king, and was even more so this past season. He had his best season on faceoffs since 2012, posting an excellent 58.2%. He was actually ranked third in the entire NHL last season for those who took at least 200 draws. Only Jason Spezza and Derek Ryan posted better percentages, and Zajac was within 0.1% of both of them. And on top of that, Zajac had considerable more faceoff attempts than both of them. Spezza had 807, Ryan had 756. Zajac? 1446. Safe to say, he was the faceoff king of the NHL last season. Without him, the Devils team percentage would have been atrociously bad, nevermind just below average.
Did anyone else really help Zajac this past season on New Jersey? Could John Hynes rely on anyone else in a pinch? Not really. Michael McLeod posted a 53.03 faceoff percentage, a very solid number. But that was with 132 faceoff attempts overall. Considering he only played in 21 games, that is not a bad number, but in terms of helping the overall percentage of the Devils, it was minimal. Only two other Devils managed positive faceoff percentages with at least 100 draws, and both only barely so. JS Dea had 101 draws and won 51 of them, one more than even. Brian Boyle had 205 draws and won 103 of them, again only one more than even.
Everyone else who took a significant number of draws were in the negative, many sharply so. Pavel Zacha, in 712 draws, had a 48.88%. Nico Hischier, in 966 attempts, had a woeful 45.24%. Blake Coleman, in 262 attempts, was even worse, at 41.6%. None of those numbers are particularly helpful, and Hischier and Coleman really need to work on their faceoff games.
This season, with center being arguably the strongest, deepest position on the team, we can get a good indication of who will be taking the majority of draws. Of course, Zajac is the guy still, and that won’t change anytime soon. As a second or third line center, he will be in there for the most important faceoffs of every game. As the top line center, Hischier will still be getting a large percentage of attempts as well. At only a 45% win percentage, that leaves the top line regularly in a defensive posture to start their shifts, which eats away at time they could be attacking. Behind those two, Jack Hughes will probably be taking faceoffs as a middle 6 center, and perhaps Zacha leads the fourth line on faceoffs. I could not find faceoff stats for the USNTDP to see how Hughes did while there, but we will get a look into that soon enough. Let’s hope this is the one and only area of his game that is more like Zajac and not Hischier.
So in the end, another year, and the faceoff situation looks much the same for the New Jersey Devils. And frankly, that is not a good thing. Zajac is a beast, one of the best in the league at faceoffs, but the rest of the team is sorely lacking in this department. Hughes could potentially bring a boost depending on how he does, but for sure it is an area that Hischier does not do well, nor does most anyone else taking draws on the bottom 6. And for a team that struggles in possession, this could definitely be one area that could help improve that problem moving forward. Every little bit of competitive advantage could mean the difference, and while faceoffs are a small one, not much considered at all in analytics, it is a part of the game, and is something NJ could definitely improve on if your name is not Travis Zajac.