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A (Somewhat) Annual Look at Faceoffs: McLeod Becoming the Next Zajac

Let’s take a look at how NJ performed in the faceoff circle this year. With Travis Zajac gone, how has his void been filled?

NHL: MAR 26 Devils at Capitals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Most offseasons, I take a look at what has happened with the New Jersey Devils and how they performed that past season in the faceoff circle. I mostly started this when it was Travis Zajac who was an absolute beast on the dot and everyone else was mostly subpar. It was one way for me to highlight the importance of Zajac and what he brought to the table outside of producing offense.

Of course, in the world of analytics, faceoffs are not something that are particularly dissected or harped on. However, they do have importance and do matter. Faceoffs lead to possession, and of course, possession is one of the top metrics in analytics for hockey. A team that regularly wins over 50% of their draws is going to gain initial possession more often, which over the course of 82 games, is going to lead to a better Corsi percentage. And on a game-by-game basis, you never know when that one important draw is going to lead to a quick goal for or against, and that could change the entire game. Therefore, I always feel it is worth taking a look once a year, or at least most years, to see how the team did and where it can improve.

And that keyword, improve, has been the game. Especially with Zajac retired now, it has been incumbent on the other centers here to step up their games and up their faceoff win percentages to help gain possession for this team. And for some, they have delivered just that. Take a look at the numbers from Natural Stat Trick for players who took at least 200 faceoffs this season:

So let’s start from the top and go down. Michael McLeod is, in a way, positioning himself to take over Zajac’s job of handling the tough, important draws. His 57.25% win percentage is excellent. In fact, among all NHLers who took at least 200 faceoffs, he ranked 8th in the league in all situations with that percentage. At the top was Patrice Bergeron at 61.94, so McLeod is not far off from being the best. That is a huge asset to have. And being a strong defensive forward as it is, you can count on McLeod to take most any important draw on the penalty kill or in the defensive zone. He will get the job done.

Most impressive has been the growth of Nico Hischier in this department. His first year in the league, Hischier ended that 2017-18 season at a 42.93% in the faceoff circle across almost 1100 attempts. But it is a skill he has worked on incessantly, and now is consistently over 50%. Last season he was extremely impressive, ending the season at 56.23%. But that was only across 361 attempts, his lowest in a single season by far. This past year he ended with a great percentage, over 52%, and did it across over 1400 attempts. That is an insanely high number of faceoffs, and it shows that he has grown into a very good faceoff man, even if not at the level of McLeod or Bergeron. You might want McLeod out there for the most important defensive draw, but if you are trying to get a set play off on offense with little time left, you should have no problem having Nico out there for the draw.

Beyond those two, things are much bleaker for the Devils in the faceoff circle. Pavel Zacha has also improved as Nico has. He was a 40% faceoff man in 2016-17, and he was not good at it at all until last season when he finally turned it around. Now, he hovers near 50% which is acceptable, albeit not wonderful. But he is the only other one who is not a true net negative on the dot. Yegor just managed to get above 40%, but that was only across 220 faceoffs, he was not a major player in the circle. But I say above 40% like it is a good number when obviously it isn’t. It just happens to be better than the others. Jesper Boqvist, Dawson Mercer, and Jack Hughes were all simply terrible at faceoffs. Being under 40% is bad, and all of them were at least under 38%. Jack was under 35%, which is a big yikes. Between those three, you have almost 1,400 faceoff attempts as well, so a huge number of draws were given to one of these three guys. And the Devils did not even come close to winning 40% of those. When you give up possession that easily and that often across that many times, things are not going to go well.

Next year, you have to hope that those guys improve like Nico did specifically, but also Zacha to an extent. Both of them were very poor at faceoffs at the start of their careers, and both have improved, Nico especially so. If Mercer and Hughes specifically can follow his lead and do the same, the Devils have the chance to become a really good faceoff team. Even if those two can just get above 45%, the Devils could end net positive in faceoffs when you add in the good work that Nico and McLeod do. And again, while that is not the biggest catalyst in becoming a better team, every little bit of possession counts, and across 82 games, faceoffs can make a tangible difference in numbers. This, of course, is especially true on a per-game basis where set plays can lead to goals. It will be interesting to see if these guys can improve for next year and if McLeod can really cement his role as the next Zajac.