Last season, considering how much improved the New Jersey Devils were in terms of possession, the majority of players, both forwards and defensemen, had fairly good offensive zone start percentages. The overwhelming majority of the team was over 50% in this regard. Among the 21 skaters last year for the Devils who played at least 200 minutes at 5 on 5, only 7 had an offensive zone faceoff percentage under 50%. That is a great sign of a good team, one that was tilting the ice in their favor more times than not.
However, even the best teams are still on their heels over 40% of the time, so there have to be some players who are relied upon to start shifts, take faceoffs in the defensive zone, and get the puck up the ice. Among the forwards, this job regularly falls to Michael McLeod and his line, with Nathan Bastian also having a really low OZFO%. Among the defensive crew last year, the number one defender who was tasked with defensive zone starts was Ryan Graves, and it really was not even close. There were 8 defenders last season with at least 200 5v5 minutes, and 6 of them had an OZFO% above 50%. The only two below that were Graves and John Marino, and between the two, Graves’ number was much lower. This is even more relevant for the overall zone starts as opposed to specifically faceoff starts. When looking at overall zone starts, including on-the-fly starts instead of just faceoffs, Graves was the only defender to be under 40%, and one of three total on the team alongside McLeod and Bastian.
With Graves leaving to sign a lucrative contract with Pittsburgh, there is now a hole to be filled on defense with respect to these defensive zone starts. Again, the only other defender last year with more than 50% of his faceoffs outside of the offensive zone was John Marino, so someone else will also have to fill that void. Marino could certainly be given more defensive starts, and his number could go lower than his 47.03% from last season. He spent the majority of his time last year paired with Graves, so if he is given another defensive-minded partner this year and not someone like Dougie Hamilton or Luke Hughes, he could certainly become the number one defensive-defenseman for this team. But the question I really want to ask is, who will that partner be?
As I just alluded to, that person obviously won’t be one of the offensive-minded defenders, namely Hamilton or Hughes. Hamilton had the highest offensive zone faceoff percentage of any defender last year who played a decent amount of minutes, and that could likely continue. He is best when in the offensive zone, and the coaching staff will look to continue to make that happen as much as possible. Luke Hughes also has the ability to generate offense from the blueline, and he will also be a rookie, and rookies are usually sheltered to some extent with zone starts, so he will most likely also be up there with Hamilton in terms of zone starts.
That leaves a few options for who possibly could replace Graves with being given the defensive zone start responsibilities. Based on last year’s numbers, the next lowest OZFO% went to Brendan Smith, with Jonas Siegenthaler not too far behind him. Siegenthaler has the game that he could potentially be paired with Marino and given more defensive zone start responsibilities, but last year, that was not how he was utilized. Siegenthaler spent most of his 5v5 time paired with Hamilton, and being paired with the offensive dynamo of the defensive corps meant that he was given more offensive zone faceoffs. He was the more defensive-minded of the two, and he did have a much lower OFZO% than Hamilton, by over 4%, but he certainly was buoyed over 50% thanks to being with Dougie. And honestly, that pairing worked well last year, so I would expect that to continue this year. I don’t necessarily see Siegenthaler being the next Graves in terms of zone starts.
The other name I mentioned there was Brendan Smith. Smith had an OZFO% last year just slightly above 50% at 50.51%, and his game is one of being a defensive defenseman, so that is also possible. However, Smith is not exactly a lineup staple either. He only played in 60 regular season games last year, mostly as the 7th defenseman filling in for others, or when things needed a shakeup, so he was not a true everyday player. This year, with the loss of both Graves and Damon Severson, he has an opening to become an everyday guy as probably a 3rd pairing defenseman, but I really don’t see him moving any higher than that. So there is a chance he gets a ton of defensive zone draws, but if he ends up as the 7th defender once again, or has lower minutes as a third-pairing guy, he might not fill the role entire that was vacated by Graves.
That leaves either Kevin Bahl or Colin Miller. Bahl we have all seen last year as well, and he got into 42 regular season games and should be developing and growing as a player still. Last season, as mostly a rookie, he was sheltered in that sense. He ended the year with a 56.81 OZFO%. This makes sense since he had only played in a handful of games before last year, as it gives a rookie like that a better chance to succeed. Expect Hughes to see numbers like that this year. But now that he has a year under his belt, both in the regular season and playoffs, he could see more defensive zone draws, especially given his defensive style of play. Miller is new to the team after being traded, but he was not someone who was relied on in Dallas last year for defensive zone starts. Last year, in 79 games with the Stars, he had a 58.51 OZFO%, which was higher than every single Devils defenseman. So, assuming the Devils want to play him similarly to how he was played last year, you have to think that he will be fairly sheltered.
So, in the end, it’s clear that there is no one who clearly jumps out. Between Smith, Bahl, Siegenthaler, Marino, and Miller, no one really screams as the automatic replacement to receive the brunt of the defensive zone starts that Graves got last year. Marino might be the most obvious choice as the guy who was Graves’ partner last year and is used to that sort of game because of it. Smith and Bahl also have that type of game where they could see more defensive zone responsibilities, but it depends on how much the coaching staff wants to trust those guys in that role. Siegenthaler also could have that game, but if he continues to be paired with Hamilton, that is less likely too. In reality, it could fall to a few of these guys to fill that role instead of just one person. The coaches might mix it up and see what works initially, try different guys and different pairings until something jumps out as being successful. As long as the puck keeps being moved up ice, and the ice remains tilted in the Devils’ favor, things should continue to go well.