For a young player who rose quickly and unexpectedly to become a regular on the Devils blue line, Mark Fayne is, surprisingly, a somewhat polarizing figure among Devils fans. Since being drafted in the 5th round of the 2005 draft by New Jersey, Fayne has enjoyed an unexpected rise from late round long shot to steady if unspectacular 4-year NCAA defenseman to NHL player. Fayne should certainly provide an inspiration to guys in the organization like Curtis Gedig, Seth Helgeson, Corbin McPherson, and Joe Faust. He seemingly came out of nowhere. Who is Mark Fayne? Before most fans even knew the answer to that question, he was on the ice, in New Jersey. Of course, that was several years ago. More recently, if you’ve been watching the Devils, love him or hate him, you’ve pretty much been watching Mark Fayne for most of the last 3 seasons.
When Fayne first broke in, he was an emergency call up to a depleted Devils blue line on a less than good team. Circumstances certainly played in his favor. But, he made the most of his opportunity, and since then, he proved he belongs. I’m not going to turn this into a technical read, but the advanced numbers are there, for all three of his seasons (2010-11, 2011-12, 2013).
Now, of course, there is nothing unique about fan sentiment being somewhat divided on a player. Its pretty common, in fact. But, it’s a bit surprising for a guy with a feel-good story who has had success on the ice to back it up. Maybe I'm overstating the amount of Fayne's detractors. Maybe polarizing was a bit of a strong word. At least on ILWT, I do feel many more of us are in his corner than not. But, I've certainly heard more than just a few anti-Fayners around the Rock over the past few years. If I had to try to characterize the most common knocks on Fayne, I’d say the one I hear the most is that he is ‘soft’, or that he doesn’t use his size that well for a relatively big guy. Are these complaints or criticisms baseless and completely invalid? Well, no. I hate the label 'soft' but, Fayne is definitely not the most physical guy in the world. The question I will ask, is, does he need to be? Maybe not. Hold that thought for one second.
On the positive side, he moves well for a relatively big guy, he is a decent skater, and he moves the puck well out of his own zone. That last point is critical. Fayne is good at exiting the defensive zone; potentially very good. It’s easy to sometimes forget among all the blocked shots, bruising hits, and cross checks that the ultimate goal of defense is, simply stated, to get the puck out of the zone and get your team moving in the right direction. Corey Sznajder wrote an outstanding article over at Hockey Prospectus about zone exits, talking about this exact point. Although the number of games in the study is still somewhat narrow, Fayne rated as one of the best in the league. If you look farther down the page at some of the league worst, there are two other familiar and not-so-surprising names near the top of that list -- two of our "shut down defensemen".
Although metrics are still somewhat limited for measuring non-offensive defensemen, Fayne rates very well in the ones we do have available. I don’t know what much more you could really ask for. Apparently, the New Jersey coaching staff disagreed, and wanted something more out of Fayne that they weren’t seeing last season. I say this, because he was a healthy scratch for probably almost 15 or so games last year. He missed 17 games, but I believe a handful were for other reasons. How did Fayne manage to fall out of favor with the Devils coaches? What does the present and future hold for Fayne here in New Jersey?
I would say there are two main questions surrounding Mark Fayne going into this season.
Will he be in the lineup every night this year?
Will Mark Fayne return to form this season? Did he ever lose form? Did he even have form in the first place? Personally, I think he never really lost form overall, although he certainly had a tougher go of things in 2013 than the previous seasons. Fayne dealt with a few issues both on and off the ice. First, he came back from off-season wrist surgery. This probably didn’t really impact his play, because the lockout allowed him to fully recover before the season started. Mid season, Fayne faced a personal loss, the death of his grandmother.
Although he valiantly tried to stay in the lineup, his play suffered in the immediately following games. Whether the two things are related would be purely speculation on my part, but, they are, at the very least, coincidental. A dip in Fayne’s play opened up an opportunity for Henrik Tallinder to step back into action on a crowded blue line. Tallinder took the opportunity, and ran with it. Fayne had a hard time breaking back into the lineup for a period of time after this, mostly due to the overcrowding. Still, it was frustrating to endure a capable player sitting in the press box every night for about 3 weeks.
There was one other change last season - Scott Stevens became the new defensive coach. Is it possible that he didn’t value Fayne as highly as the previous man behind the curtain, Larry Robinson? I’m not sure that this is the case. But, if a similar pattern of usage emerges this season, than I suppose it's possible. I don't expect that to be the case. I expect Fayne will be a regular on the blue line this season, and I think most would agree with that.
*Foreboding Alarmist Alert* That is, if he is in New Jersey….
Will he be in New Jersey this year?
Now a grizzled 26 years old, will Mark Fayne be traded sometime during the 2013-2014 season to make room for one of the kids to step in and shine? I would like to think not, but he is one of the only d-men on the team who possesses several very specific qualities needed to complete a trade. Organizationally, he is not ‘untouchable’. He has value (reasonable contract / doesn’t suck). He also happens to be a UFA after this season, which certainly isn’t a requirement, but doesn’t hurt.
Should one of the young kids (Urbom, Merrill, Gelinas) make an undeniable case for roster / playing time in New Jersey, I would love just as much as anyone to see Salvador or Volchenkov get their walking papers. Reality is, no team in their right mind is accepting either of those guys in a trade. Another reality is, if Lou called up and said Mark Fayne was available, there are probably a lot more than just one or two teams who would be very open to hearing the rest of that conversation.
If you told me it is short sighted to trade a guy who is just coming into his prime to make way for youth, I wouldn’t call you wrong. Especially when, by waiting out this season, you could pretty easily subtract Zidlicky and /or Volchenkov. Still, it’s not out of the question that it could happen. The Devils certainly kept the option open of easily parting ways with Fayne, if they so desire, by signing him to a 2 year bridge contract that took him just up to his first eligible UFA date. I will re-iterate, I don’t think Mark Fayne will be traded. Well, I hope Mark Fayne won't be traded. But, I can’t close the door on the possibility. If a subtraction needs to be made during the season, and the Devils are looking to not eat salary and/or get assets in return, Mark Fayne is on a very short list of potential trade bait.
Ultimately, I hope to see Mark Fayne in New Jersey all season, and re-signed to a longer term deal after this season. In case you haven’t realized by now, I like Mark Fayne. He’s not the most flashy, he’s not the most physical, but, when he is on the ice, the puck moves in the right direction- out of the Devils zone.