Among all forwards on the team last season, Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian have sort of carved for themselves a unique role on the New Jersey Devils. On the surface, it makes sense a little bit. McLeod started and played the entire year as a fourth line center, and being on a checking line means you have different responsibilities than does a top 6 center. Certainly, he was put on the ice in different situations and at different moments than would Nico’s line or Jack’s line. And Bastian, once he was reacquired by the team, fit right into that line as well and supplemented the role that McLeod created.
Now, how exactly is this quantified and shown in the data? When scrolling through Natural Stat Trick to find data points, a couple really jumped out. First, check out the list of forwards who played at least 500 minutes this year from the link above. 625 forwards qualify. Among them, here is where the top 5 NJ skaters rank in terms of hits:
As you can see, Bastian and McLeod had significantly more hits than anyone else on the team. And they also had more overall than most skaters this season. Remember, those ranks are out of 625 skaters. Bastian was ranked 25th and McLeod tied for 85th. No one else was even close, and indeed, no one else on the Devils had over 100 hits. Furthermore, you can see that the other 3 on this list are all defensemen. The next best forward in terms of hits for NJ was Jimmy Vesey, who ranked t-259 with 85 hits. The real significance of that comes with the time on ice stat. The defenders all were on the ice significantly more than the two forwards, yet they outpaced everyone in hits by a very large margin. That says something about the role they’ve carved for themselves.
The other really interesting stat is OZFO%. This time, let’s narrow the list to 5v5 only, as well as forwards only, as it doesn’t make as much sense to include defenders in OZFO%, their rotations are different. When you put these stipulations into Natural Stat Trick, we get 387 forwards who qualified last season. Check out the bottom 5 Devils forwards in terms of OZFO%:
What you see there is almost every NJ forward who played at least 500 5v5 minutes that had an offensive zone faceoff percentage below 50%. The only other one was Jesper Boqvist, who came in at 49.08%. And obviously, among these skaters, it isn’t close. McLeod and Bastian are in a category of their own. Maybe you want to throw Vesey in with them, but he really is his own tier there in the middle between those two and everyone else. The crazy part is that, again, those rankings are out of 387 forwards. So only 5 skaters had a lower OZFO% than McLeod did, and only 8 had it lower than Bastian. Those two were very rarely thrown out there for offensive zone draws. It just did not happen too often, basically just one in four faceoff attempts coming in the offensive zone. That is very, very skewed to the defensive side of things. Very few forwards are given those sorts of starts, but with the Devils, both of them fit the bill. It really is a pretty unique situation.
And moving forward, both are still under contract for one more year at very reasonable prices. McLeod is signed for $975k this year, and Bastian $825k. The Devils are getting two very defensive, fourth line forwards who excel at the physical, defensive game, all for well under $1.8 million. It might not be a job that pays well, but it is an important niche to have on a team. Whatever you feel about physicality in the game of hockey, and how much weight should be placed on things like hits, nonetheless teams still feel the need to have players around that can do it and do it well, and these two guys fit that bill. Plus, McLeod is becoming a very strong faceoff man, another guy the team can use. It also helps that both have played together for a long time, knowing each other inside and out on the ice. They both were drafted together, rounds 1 and 2 with back-to-back Devils picks, and played together in Mississauga before that. They make a great pair for what they do, and they provide the Devils with quality pieces on a checking line that helps to tilt the ice back in NJ’s favor whenever needed. For that, I think $1.8 million is a great deal.