As you all know, over the last 10-15 years, Travis Zajac was arguably the best faceoff man for the New Jersey Devils. Whenever it was vital that the team got a faceoff win, either to ice the clock or to generate a quick attempt, it was usually Zajac who was in the circle trying to get the win. And more often than not, over thousands of attempts, he was successful, and that has created benefits for this team in the long run.
Now that he is gone, however, there is an opening that needs to be filled. Right now, there are only three other forwards who have at least attempted 200 faceoffs this year: Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod, and Jack Hughes. No one else is close, with Mikhail Maltsev having the next most not even at 150 total draws. Of the three, both Zacha and McLeod have been quality. McLeod has a faceoff percentage in all situations over 52%, and Zacha is over 51%. Hughes, however, has been poor, and that is a generous way to describe his faceoff abilities at this point. He is not even at 37% when it comes to winning draws, and that is not going to cut it for literally anyone, never mind him.
With Zajac gone, however, there will need to be someone else who comes in and can pick up his faceoffs. Zajac has had over 500 attempts at this point in the season, and almost all of them are while he was in a red and black jersey, so that leaves a gaping hole there. However, the good news is that there is a readily available centerman who can shoulder those faceoffs: Nico Hischier. Having only played in a handful of games this season, and with those other three faceoff men already locked into their positions, McLeod on the fourth line, Zacha and Hughes on the middle 6, it will soon be up to Hischier to take those hard draws that Zajac once did.
However, how has Hischier done with faceoffs in the past? Here is a chart of his faceoff work since being drafted by the NHL until this season, thanks to Natural Stat Trick:
So as you can see, he improved over each of the three years that he has been in the league before this year. His first two years, he was a very poor faceoff man, which is sort of like Jack Hughes now, although Hughes at 36+% right now is an even greater level of terrible than Nico was initially. Last year, however, he drastically improved his abilities in the faceoff circle. He went from someone who struggled to win over 45% of the time to someone who was over 51%. That is a monster improvement, and one that hopefully he can maintain, and if he wants to replace the production that Zajac usually provided, one that needs to be maintained.
Now, interesting enough, Zajac was not exactly the same with faceoffs this year as he has been historically. Among the four Devils with at least 200 draws this season, Zajac was only 3rd in terms of win percentage, worse than both McLeod and Zacha. With a solid 509 draws, Zajac was sitting at 49.90% in the faceoff circle heading into Thursday night’s games. Obviously, being under 50% is not something we are accustomed to with Zajac, but it was somewhat of a down year for him in this part of his game.
Still, it would be awesome for the Devils if Hischier could grow into the clutch faceoff man that Zajac has been for a long time. And the way he improved with faceoffs last year, dramatically so, is an indication that he is working hard at it, and could potentially fill those shoes. And early on this season, that seems even more possible. Through 6 games and 107 minutes of ice time, Hischier had taken exactly 90 draws and had a win percentage of 58.89, winning 53 and losing only 37. That is obviously an incredible number, one you do not expect him or anyone to maintain over a larger sample size. But If he can even keep that over 52% for the rest of the season, while getting regular faceoff opportunities against other top line centers, it would be an excellent sign that Zajac’s production and clutch abilities in the faceoff circle, winning those all-important draws at the right time, can be reproduced by Nico.