As we all know, easily the best position group for the New Jersey Devils last year was down the middle at center, and that should remain again this year. The trio of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Dawson Mercer are arguably second-to-none, and considering how young the group is, it could easily improve this year and even beyond that. Don’t also forget about Michael McLeod, who does a solid job on the fourth line and on faceoffs. He might not be what you wanted from the 12th overall pick, but he has a definitive role on the team that is beneficial. Between this forward group’s abilities to score, generate points while not shooting, and just overall make their teammates better, they are who will really drive this team to the playoffs if that does indeed happen.
One area that they all do fairly well with, apart from the generals I just mentioned, is takeaways. They all are pretty consistent with generating takeaways and instantly tilting the ice in the opposite direction, which is a pretty big skill to have. When the opponent is consistently driving play forward and forcing your team into a defensive stance, the ability to take the puck away and create odd-man rushes in the opposite direction can really halt a team’s momentum and change the feel of a period. Last season, among the 600 skaters who played at least 500 minutes at 5 on 5 according to Natural Stat Trick, there were 119 who were able to generate at least 2 takeaways per 60 minutes. That is just under 20% of the total group overall. And believe it or not, all four Devils centers made that list, all of them generated at least 2 takeaways per 60 minutes at 5 on 5. That is a great sign for this group moving forward.
Jack Hughes was the absolute best at it among the four centers, and in fact, he was one of the best in the NHL at generating takeaways. This has been true for the entirety of his short career so far. Last season, he generated 3.52 takeaways per 60 minutes at 5v5. That number ranked him 4th in the entire NHL. The only skaters that were better were Mark Stone, Austin Matthews, and Evgeni Malkin. That’s it, and that’s some great company to be around. However, for the Devils, it wasn’t just him, although he was tops. Dawson Mercer was not too far behind him, coming in 17th in the NHL at 2.82 takeaways per 60. The other two were not as prolific, but that’s only in comparison to those two. Nico was 73rd last year and had a number of 2.31 takeaways per 60, and McLeod was 82nd at 2.24. Those don’t sound as awesome as for Jack and Dawson, but still. Those are quality numbers when compared to everyone else. We’re looking at four centers that generate well over 2 takeaways per 60.
What does this mean for a New Jersey team? It means that they can count on these guys to really help in the possession game. Takeaways quickly change possession and often lead to quality attempts in the opposite direction thanks to odd-man rushes and open ice. As most of the players on the ice are heading into the Devils end, a quick takeaway opens up the ice to the opposition’s net, and can often create grade A chances and goals. And even when that falls apart, it still gives the Devils possession in the offensive zone with the ability to set up and run some plays. Over time, this will lead to plenty of more chances on net, upping the team’s Corsi For and ultimately improving possession. Last year, the Devils ranked 15th in the NHL and had a positive CF% of 50.52%. There is no doubt that without those consistent takeaways by the center group, the team would have been under 50% in this stat and been in the bottom half of the league.
It might not seem overly significant because it doesn’t directly show goals, it really only bolsters another analytical number that doesn’t show up on the ice. But how about some video to showcase this skill? In the following highlight package, #5 is a takeaway that leads to a goal, while #s 4 and 3 are also him fighting along the boards and gaining possession of the puck, which while not exactly a takeaway in the stat book, works in a similar fashion.
With more plays like those in 2022-23, the Devils could improve on their possession numbers from last year, and could easily get more breakaway and odd-man rushes. Having all four centers generating 2+ takeaways per 60 and remaining in that top 20% of all skaters will be a huge boon, and with an improved wing corps, could lead to a quality offense that other teams will not want to play.