While the 2013-14 season may go down in infamy in the larger history of the New Jersey Devils, there have been plenty of very good aspects. Jaromir Jagr turning out to be a top forward at the ripe old age of 42 definitely counts. The team's penalty kill has been very good. There have been some rookies on defense who have shown to have a bright future. And then there's the emergence of a legitimate top pairing on the blueline: Andy Greene and Mark Fayne.
Let's go back a few years. Andy Greene was an undrafted free agent who legitimately worked his way up the lineup. When he signed his current contract back in 2011, there was plenty of concern. I wasn't so sure if four years for a total of $12 million was a good deal. I was comparing him to the likes of Ian White, Anton Babchuk, and Joe Corvo. I was hoping that if he was paired with someone more stable, he would be good. Little did I know then that he would turn out to be the defenseman he is now.
Meanwhile, Mark Fayne was one of the many defensemen who got his shot at the NHL in the lost 2010-11 season. I took notice of him late in 2011 as an unsung defender on the team, highlighting how good of a defender he was. In the summer of 2012, he signed a two year deal worth only $2.6 million. Then, there was concern it was too short of a deal but it was generally understood he was good. His season and 2012 playoffs went a long way to show that.
But believe it or not, the Greene-Fayne pairing that was featured in the postseason didn't start off so amazing. In the 2011-12 season, Fayne's most common pairing at evens was with Greene and they were just below 50% in Corsi together according to Hockey Analysis. Given that they were facing tough competition, that's not bad at all but it wasn't amazing. The duo really started to sparkle in the 2013 season at evens. Together, they were just above 55% according to Hockey Analysis, which is rather amazing. Remember that Corsi% is the percentage of shooting attempts for over total shooting attempts for and against. 50% is the break even point. A defensemen pairing who plays significant minutes at evens having a percentage of 55% when together means a lot of good things are happening on the ice. As Darryl Sutter would say, controlling the puck is far more important than being defensively responsible. Greene-Fayne getting big minutes is definitely evidence that they do the latter just fine and the high Corsi% is great evidence of the former.
If that wasn't enough, Greene-Fayne have been even better in 2013-14. At Hockey Analysis, Greene and Fayne together have an amazing 58.3% Corsi percentage. At Extra Skater, Greene and Fayne are among the top defensemen in the league in terms of Corsi% individually. Plus, they've done it with more defensive zone starts than offensive zone starts, which makes their very favorable possession even more impressive. On top of this, they've definitely contributed on offense. Fayne isn't likely to top his second season in points, but he's matched his season-high goal total of four. Time's running out on Greene for matching his career-high in points, but he's already set a career-high of eight goals, he's got 30 points, and he's set a career-high in shots with 112. Great possession numbers, more defensive starts than offensive ones, notable offensive production, and it's clear that Greene-Fayne have been a great pairing this season and better than prior seasons. They could look even better if they got some better goaltending behind them too but they can only control what they can.
I will say that Greene has been the better - bossier? - of the two. With the Hockey Analysis references, I intentionally used the With or Without You stats for Fayne. This season, possession has gone way south when Fayne is playing with some other defenseman. His time with Peter Harrold, Bryce Salvador, Jon Merrill, and Eric Gelinas in 5-on-5 play has been brief and not all that strong. Curiously, this wasn't the case in 2013. Maybe it's coincidence but it could also suggest that Greene has been a bit better than Fayne. I would also give an edge to Greene if only because he plays more. Ice time is a usually a good rule of thumb to see who the coaches rely on and Greene leading the defense is a clear indication of who that is. Greene gets power play time as well being the first choice on penalty kills when Anton Volchenkov is not available. This means more minutes and Greene has justified the additional ice time ahead of Fayne. Lastly, Greene has been a bit better than Fayne in individual Corsi% and in relative Corsi%. The former is easy to identify. The latter is the difference of the player's on-ice Corsi% compared with what the team's when he's not on the ice. A higher, positive value is better: Greene has that with a +4.7% compared to Fayne's +2.6% per Extra Skater. This isn't to say that Greene is carrying Fayne, just that Greene's been the better defender.
This is something to keep in mind as the offseason approaches. Whether it'll begin on April 15, later in April, or beyond April, one of the biggest decisions for Lou will be what happens with this pairing. Mark Fayne is an unrestricted free agent and it's going to be real interesting to see what happens. At 27 and with the kind of defensive experience he already has, Fayne could command a very interesting deal. Not an incredibly lucrative one, but definitely a lot more than $1.3 million on average. Greene's emergence allowed the Devils to more than survive without Paul Martin and he'll be around for another two seasons. Is it worth keeping Fayne, presumably to keep him with Greene so the Devils have a top pairing that does well against tough competition and difficult situations over a season? Could someone else step up and do the same thing Fayne does as Greene continues to be a boss? I don't know and I don't expect you to know now. It's certainly a question worth revisiting when the offseason inevitably comes.
Let's go back to the current situation as opposed to the future. The Devils are certainly in a bleak position with respect to their playoff hopes. But we can point to a strong pairing buoying a defense that has conceded the fewest amount of shots per game and per 60 minutes at even strength. Sure, they have made their mistakes but pretty much every player does from time to time. Over the season, it's hard to demand much better than what they've done. It's arguable that Greene has been the better of the two. Together, they are both bosses on the blueline. Let's hope they can continue to do so in the final 12 games of the season. Let's appreciate them as it may be the last 12 games we see them together.