We always hear that a player needs to find a role, accept that role and then excel at it if they want to be a difference maker. The lucky ones get to be goal scorers or point producers, but they are a rarity. The majority of players who stay in the league for an extended period of time have to find a role, and excel at it.
Some become a solid stay-at-home D-man, or an agitator, or a 3rd liner checker or a fighter, and then there are some who are solid in many areas, but become a specialist in some areas. A specialist who excels in the faceoff circle will earn himself more icetime and get to be a part of many key draws in high pressure situations.
An elite faceoff guy seems as rare, and as valuable as a 35-goal scorer nowadays. Any coach would love to look down his bench and see a guy he is confident can win a draw in the final seconds to preserve the win, or give them a chance to tie the game.
However the skill set of an elite goal scorer and faceoff guy are vastly different. Most pure goal scorers have a natural gift. The certainly work hard to improve their shot and accuracy, but for some it is just a gift to be able to hit the two-inch opening above the goalie’s pad or glove on a consistent basis.
Every hockey player dreams of being a goal scorer growing up, but very few can actually do it. The art of winning faceoffs seems to come more from hardwork and determination than natural skill.
TALKING WITH STOLL
Jarret Stoll, of the Los Angeles Kings, is one of the best faceoff guys in the league and he gave me some insight on how he became one of the faceoff elite.
GREGOR: What has lead to you becoming a pretty dominant, consistent guy on the draw?
STOLL: I think maybe caring so much about it and applying that responsibility and taking it upon yourself to get better and want to get better and practice it. I guess you can practice getting stronger by getting in the gym, but there are certain techniques and certain hand/eye coordination and a lot of quick rapid fire, little drills you could do after practice, and we definitely did those in Edmonton when I was there. Billy Moores would drop pucks for hours after practice and it was just what we did, but Craig McTavish was also huge for me.
Obviously he was a great faceoff guy when he played and also Adam Oates when he finished his career off in Edmonton. It’s just one of those things that I know if I’m good on the dot, I’m going to be out there in those situations to take a key faceoff and get some extra minutes and have that role added to my game. And it’s just practice and wanting to win that draw.
GREGOR: Shawn Horcoff told us that Adam Oates told him ‘what works for me, might not work for you’.When did you realize what worked for you and how did you figure that out?
STOLL: Well with Oatesy, he went on his backhand all the time. It’s obviously your strongest as opposed to going on your forehand. He kind of taught me that technique. I’d never used it before meeting him and it was a little awkward, and some guys would ask what I do on my offside, and I tell them I till go on my backhand and they’d look at me a little weird sometimes.
But if you practice it and you can master it — its not easy –but once you can get comfortable with it, it’s probably the way to go. Some guys just can’t do it and he’s (Oates) right. For some guys, everything is different, but for me I like to go on my backhand a lot and if I’m really struggling then I’ve got to switch it up. But, Oatsy was definitely a great teacher that way.
GREGOR: How much goes into knowing the tendencies of the guys you are going up against?
STOLL: Quite a bit. When guys are signing somewhere in the summer, especially if they are signing in our division, I’ll know if he’s a good faceoff guy or not. I’ll watch him take draws on film and if I have to face him six times in one year and various times in the course of the game it helps.
So going into every game, you definitely look at the board and see who you are going against. I know who I struggle with, and who I think I do well against and you kind of read it that way and prepare yourself and do the best you can.
GREGOR: Do you mind telling me who are some of the guys you struggle against?
STOLL: I struggle against Manny Malhotra…the other night he killed me. Rich Peverley too, this year against Atlanta, I think I was 0 for 6 against him. I didn’t know what he was doing, and I obviously didn’t change and didn’t win a faceoff because of it.
GREGOR: Manny Malhotra has been a pretty dominant faceoff guy for years, what is it that makes him so hard to go up against?
STOLL: He’s really strong. Against any guys who are really strong you’ve got be really quick or you gotta get some luck. You have to get your wingers to help you out and tie him up, try to tie his stick up. But, those guys that are really, really strong– Jason Arnott is a really strong guy – Scotty Nichol, he’s a little guy, but he’s very stalky and pretty strong on his stick and he’s a tough one also. Joe Thornton is another guy.
GREGOR: And you’re a decent sized guy at 6’1" feet, 210 pounds. But is it forearm strength, quickness, shoulders… What is the strength element that guys use to their advantage most in the face-off?
STOLL: I think just quickness – not giving up on it either. I think that a lot of times you’re not going to win the puck clean on your first swipe; you gotta dig in and battle for it. Some guys don’t have very good percentages because, maybe, they don’t care that much about it.
When they go into a faceoff, you can easily tell if it’s going to be a battle or if it’s going to be an easy go. It’s a little bit of forearms strength, obviously, you’ve got to be strong on your stick. But a guy like Adam Oates, I don’t think he was very strong on his stick, but he figured it out and he had little techniques and he was very quick on his stick. Obviously his hand/eye coordination was great, so he had those things working for him to help him win draws.
GREGOR: What about the tendencies of the linesmen. I’m guessing they don’t all drop the puck exactly the same, so do you have to know how to read the linesman?
STOLL: I just invite them all to my golf tournament in the summer. That’s how I get ahead (laughts). You definitely have to talk to them. You know pretty early in the game if it’s going to be a tough night or not if they are kicking you out early.
You have to kind of behave in the dot and not cheat as much but they are all supposed to be kinda the same and most guys are, but some guys woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day and they are kind of a bit — you know — they’ll be after you that night, but you just have to make sure to treat them with respect and they will treat you with respect.
GREGOR: One year in Edmonton you had Marty Reasoner, Horcoff and Mike Peca – all very good faceoff guys. You also got to practice against guys who were good. Do you need a good opponent in practice to go against to make you better?
STOLL: I think so – that’s fair to say.
For sure, you got to learn to adjust, learn how to read other guys, if they’re beating you five out of six, six out of six times – you’re doing something wrong, you have to change something up. It’s not him who’s got to change, it’s you. You’ve got to figure out different ways to win a draw. In a game if you do need a big faceoff and you’re struggling against a guy, you’ve got to figure it out and try to win it.
We’ve got Michael Handzus and Andre Kopitar around here in LA and they’re good, big strong guys on their sticks and they’re tough on the dot. It’s great to go against those guys because those are the guys that I usually struggle against; Big, strong guys.
WHAT IS CONSIDERED ‘GOOD?’
What is interesting about faceoffs is only nine of the last year’s playoff teams were better than 50% in the dot during the regular season. San Jose was the best at 55.2%, Boston was 2nd at 52.6%, Chicago was 3rd at 52.4%, Washington 6th at 51.5%, Vancouver 7th at 51.5%, Detroit 8th at 51.1%, LA 12th at 50.6%, Philly 13th at 50.1% and Phoenix was 14th at 50%.
Over the course of a season many draws probably don’t have an immediate impact on the game, but in the final minute of a game when you really need to win a draw, every team would love to have a guy they feel confident can win the draw.
Here’s a list of the dominant guys, who took at least 1000 faceoffs, in the league last year.
David Steckel: Took 1076 draws and won 59.2%
Patrice Bergeron: Took 1342 draws and won 58.0%
Paul Gaustad: Took 1043 draws and won 57.4%
Jonathon Toews: Took 1397 draws and won 57.3%
Mikko Koivu: Took 1518 draws and won 56.9%
Jarret Stoll: Took 1105 draws and won 56.0%
Sidney Crosby: Took 1791 draws and won 55.9%
Pavel Datsyuk: Took 1070 draws and won 55.1%
Antoine Vermette: Took 1573 draws and won 54.2%
Rich Peverly: Took 1193 draws and won 54.2%
Joe Thornton: Took 1228 draws and won 53.9%
Vinny Lecavalier: Took 1449 draws and won 53.2%
Manny Malhotra only took 664 draws, but he won 62.5% of them. The Sharks had Thornton, Malhotra, Scott Nichol (832 draws, 60.6%) and Joe Pavelski (821 draws and 58.1%) so they didn’t have to rely on just one player. And tough guy, Zenon Konopka took 462 and won 62.5% in Tampa last year.
- The Dallas Stars are off to a good start at 4-1, but I don’t see it lasting. The Stars are averaging a league-low 21.8 shots a game while giving up a whopping 38. Only two teams, Montreal and Colorado, made the playoffs last year giving up more shots than they took. The Stars won’t win much longer unless their defence tightens up.
- The Leafs were the only team to average more shots for than against who didn’t make the playoffs last year. While faceoff% doesn’t guarantee you a playoff spot, garnering more shots for than against gives you a much better chance to make the dance.
- It is early but the Flames, despite being shutout three times in regulation so far, are outshooting their opponents by eight shots a game. The Leafs have averaged five shots more per game, and have averaged a league-low 23 against per game. The Canucks are even at 30 for and against, while the Oilers have been outshot by an average of 8 shots a game. Similar to the Stars, the Oilers need to reverse their early-season trend in shots or it will most likely be a long season.
- Rick Rypien was clearly in the wrong for grabbing Wild fan, James Engquist Tuesday night. Rypien screwed up and he’ll be suspended. But reading Engquist comments, "I was assaulted that’s just the bottom line," makes me sick. If he tries to get money out of Rypien he should be embarrassed as a man. He clearly wasn’t physically hurt, and his ego shouldn’t be bruised. So what is he suing for? To get a quick buck. He’s a joke if he does that. * Engquist has stated all he said was,"how to be professional out there." Maybe that’s all he said, but remember how many athletes caught using steriods said they never took them. Until we hear Rypien’s side of what was said, I’m not sure I want to believe a guy who wants to make a quick buck rather than just be a man and accept Rypien’s apology. Had Rypien punched him, I’d be singing a different tune.
- And speaking of different tunes, did you hear what Rob Ray said on the FAN 590 about Rypien. I watched his clip on Sportsnet last night, but couldn’t find the audio at the Fan 590 website. Ray said he hopes the league throws the book at Rypien, because a player can never go after a fan. Ray is correct, but did he forget what happened one night v. the Quebec Nordiques? Don’t be a hypocrite Rob.
- Marian Hossa looks possessed early on. He leads the league with seven goals and eleven points in eight games. He had 100 points in 2007, but since then he’s had 66, 71 and 51-point seasons. He’s had two 40-goal seasons and never more than 43. It is early, but this is the best he has looked in four years.
- I think Daniel Sedin will make a strong push for the Rocket Richard trophy this year. He and Henrik have incredible chemistry and I think he wants to reach the 100-point plateau like his brother did last season.
- Steven Stamkos has the most underrated shot in the league. He already has five goals in five games, but four of them have come from deflections or rebounds. If he can score from the tough areas consistently, he might get sixty. His release is lighting fast and very accurate. He is also one of the most polite players I’ve spoken with in a few years.
- If Phil Kessel scores 40 goals and the Leafs make the playoffs or come close, I wonder if Leaf fans will forgive Brian Burke for that horrendous trade? I don’t think it matters what they do, Burke clearly overpaid for Kessel and the only way he wins that fight is if Tyler Seguin doesn’t pan out. Very, very doubtful.
- The usual suspects are leading the league in hits so far. Dustin Brown, Matt Cooke and Cal Clutterbuck are at or near the top, but Benoit Pouliot already has 18 hits in five games. He only had 61 hits last year. The former 4th overall pick in 2005 hasn’t lived up to expectations so far, but lots of players take four or five years to finally "get it". I wonder if Pouliot finally realizes that he needs to use his size and compete every shift to be successful?
- The Flames are 3-2, but they’ve been shutout twice, and then won 1-0 in OT over Nashville. That is pitiful, going 180 minutes with no goals.
- Tampa Bay is 4-1 and Simon Gagne has yet to show up. In five game he has no points and is -7. Once he gets comfortable the Bolts could be really dangerous. Their top six forwards match up with any team in the league.
- Pete Deboer was on hot seat at the start of the year in Florida, but the Panthers could easily be 4-0 right now. They dominated the Oilers, but lost 3-2, then had 41 shots in Vancouver the next night and lost 2-1. Since then they’ve blanked Calgary and Tampa. The Panthers are very Jekyl and Hyde. The are a perfect 8-for-8 on the PK, but they’ve only scored one goal in 15 PP chances. I think the east is wide open for the 6th to 8th spots, so don’t be surprised if the Panthers are in the hunt come March. The question will be if they keep Vokoun and risk losing him for nothing this summer.
- I’m surprised how forthcoming Sens GM, Bryan Murray, has been about making a trade. He hasn’t mentioned any specific names, but once again Jason Spezza’s name is out there. If Murray trades Spezza he might as well go in complete rebuilding mode and trade Daniel Alfredsson as well. It doesn’t seem like Murray has an idea of where he wants to take the Senators. He signed an aging Sergei Gonchar in the summer, but if he trades Spezza he’s basically wasted signing Gonchar.
The Buffalo Sabres have done a great job of developing their own draft picks over the years, but their top three picks of 2008 might be their best class fo the past decade. Derek Roy and Jason Pominville were solid picks in 2001, but in 2008 they took Tyler Myers 12th, Tyler Ennis 26th and then Luke Adam 44th.
Myers was incredible last year and earned the Calder trophy, Ennis should be in the running for rookie-of-the-year this year, while Adam should be a rookie-of-the-year candidate in the AHL this season. That’s a pretty solid three picks in the first 44 of 2008.