The New Jersey Devils had a difficult 2020-21 season for a variety of reasons. COVID-19 did play a significant role in their struggles, as they were forced to play in what was considered to be the most difficult division in all of hockey, but their struggles on special teams, as well as their struggles in the faceoff circle especially, should not go unnoticed.
New Jersey finished 27th in faceoff percentage, as they won only 46.6% of their draws on the year. The stat is not necessarily correlated to a team’s success in the standings, but it does become a cause for concern when you finish towards the bottom of the league. For reference, the only teams that were worse than New Jersey at the dot this year were the Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and the New York Rangers. Only the Wild happened to make the playoffs out of those four teams.
It’s fair to say that there is some relation between faceoff percentage, time on attack/possession time, and winning hockey. The Devils have some real gems down the middle in Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes especially, but the team as a whole really needs to address their woes in the faceoff circle if they want to start being more competitive as soon as next season.
Assessing Jack Hughes’ Sophomore Performance
Hughes will continue to be the main topic of discussion surrounding the Devils for the foreseeable future. There is no doubt that the young center has taken significant steps forward in his sophomore season. Throughout a shortened campaign, Hughes managed to produce 31 points in 56 games, which is roughly around a 43-point pace over the course of a full 82-game season. Those are pretty nice numbers for a 20-year-old who didn’t have much of a supporting cast and was simultaneously a part of one of the league’s worst-performing power plays.
Even during a long stretch without a point, Hughes managed to not only show flashes of offensive dominance, but also unparalleled defensive responsibility for a young player who plays the hardest position on the ice. A lot of youngsters, and even more experienced superstars, don’t provide much other than point totals/offensive production. When the points aren’t coming for them, they may seemingly disappear, or even worse, become a liability to their team. For Hughes, that couldn’t be any further from the case.
The young centerman finished second in the entire NHL in takeaways this season, tied with Connor Brown of the Ottawa Senators, and finishing only behind Vegas Golden Knights forward Mark Stone, who is commonly regarded as the best two-way forward in the league. This is an incredibly impressive stat for a center and a sophomore who still has plenty of room to grow. He doesn’t nearly get the credit he deserves for it.
Room for Improvement
On the flip side, one major aspect of Hughes’ game that also shouldn’t go unnoticed is his struggles in the faceoff circle. It was earlier mentioned that the Devils finished 27th in faceoff percentage on the season. While many players struggled at the circle, and it is in fact a team stat, it should also be noted that Hughes did take more faceoffs than a majority of New Jersey’s forwards, and that his 35.35% win rate should definitely be something that he should be focusing on going forward.
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Possession matters – plain and simple. Hughes needs to become at least respectable at the faceoff circle over the next few years of his development, or the Devils may need to surround him with wingers who can take the faceoff and then move back to the wing once the puck is in play. The problem is that the forwards as a whole (wingers included) are collectively below average at the dot. Lindy Ruff already experimented with Hughes at the wing as well, and it was immediately clear that his game was much better at center, so it is unlikely that a transition to the wing will ever happen.
Being bad at faceoffs is a common issue that many young centers face early in their NHL careers, so it should be expected for Hughes to improve gradually as he gains more experience. Devils management and coaching just need to do their best to build around their young center to ensure that he maximizes his sky-high potential.
The solution to the Devils’ faceoff problem is rather simple. General manager Tom Fitzgerald needs to bring in some more experienced centermen who have a good track record at the dot (Luke Glendening or Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, for example), or he needs to hire a coach who can help teach Hughes (and the rest of the forward group) how to win those ever-important draws. Learning from within doesn’t seem to be a good option right now, as New Jersey didn’t have a single player who finished within the top 50 in faceoff percentage this season.
In addition to a young and inexperienced roster, Ruff and his assistants Mark Recchi, Alain Nasreddine, Chris Taylor, and Rick Kowalski are all coaches who either have very little experience taking faceoffs at the NHL level, or none at all. Additions need to be made in order to address this issue, and luckily for the Devils, veterans like Glendening and Bellemare can be had for very little through free agency, or through trade.
Fitzgerald has plenty of cap space to work with, and while he should be looking to make some decently large moves this offseason to help stabilize the defense and bolster a struggling offense, smaller moves should also be made to help address more minute areas such as faceoff percentage. Each and every aspect of the game is important in the grand scheme of things. Making these acquisitions now will only help Hughes and the Devils down the road.
My name is Matt Makuta. I’m a writer for the New Jersey Devils here at The Hockey Writers.