Work in progress
You won't find any glue guns or knitting needles stuffed into the backs of lockers, but Canuck centers are definitely into their crafts.
Not that foo foo Christmas decoration stuff with cotton balls and pipe cleaners, but drawing; winning pucks back to defensemen with speed, strength, and truck loads of determination.
Taking faceoffs is definitely an art, and like toll painting, it's not as easy as it looks.
"It's tough," says Vancouver's Henrik Sedin. "You've got to work really hard at it. There's a lot of practice behind it to be stronger."
And there's no shortage of that. It's not uncommon to see associate coaches Mike Johnston and Jack McIlhargey dropping dozens of pucks for Canuck centers at the end of practice. Through 18 games, the Canucks were ranked third in the NHL with a 52.3 winning percentage on faceoffs.
The Canucks haven't traditionally been a juggernaut in the faceoff circle, but are steadily improving. While it would be a Yao Ming stretch to say the extra possessions off the draw are the reason Vancouver is on pace for a stellar 104-point season, they certainly don't hurt any.
"Faceoffs are a really big part of the game," says Henrik Sedin, one of the Canuck centers who has pulled his average up this year. "To start with the puck after every faceoff is huge in this League. To be able to create chances and not have to spend 20 or 30 seconds every shift trying to get it back is really big."
When Henrik first came into the League in the 2000-01 season, Vancouver was struggling to win draws and he turned in a lowly 44.1 faceoff percentage. A little tutoring from the likes of Trevor Linden and Johnston have brought his average up. After winning 47.4 percent of his draws last season, Hank is now winning 48 percent.
"It's so up and down," says Henrik, hanging around in the locker room after a vigorous mid-week practice. "Some nights you're nine out of 11 and you think you're pretty good, and the next night you lose nine out of 11. But a lot of it is experience too. You need to know what other guys are doing ,and some teams you're playing once a year, so it's pretty tough to know."
Sedin's still the lowest ranked of all Canuck centers, but that speaks more about Vancouver's improving fortune in faceoffs than it does about Henrik's prowess in the circle.
Every player has their own special approach, but there are three main techniques when taking a draw.
Smaller, faster players will try to snap the puck back before it bounces on the ice and the other guy can get his tape on it.
"It's a lot of quickness and a lot of timing," says Sedin. "You've got to see the puck when it drops. A lot of time it's knowing how hard the ref drops it. Some refs just throw it down there and some refs just like, leaves it, so if you're too quick you miss the puck and the other guy takes it."
Stronger players, especially when they're on their backhand and can exert more downward force on their stick, will try to out-muscle the opposition by putting their stick over the top and yanking back hard.
"Adam Oates is probably the toughest," explains Sedin when asked about the power draw. "He's not a big guy, but he's got great down weight and is really strong on his stick. He's got a big blade too so it's really tough to get the puck from him."
When both methods fail, the only other option is to tangle the opposing player up and kick the puck back with a skate, or pray that a winger jumps in a bails you out. At worst, it turns into a scrum and then it's anybody's puck -- which is far better than a clean loss.
Johnston, who coaches Vancouver centers on taking faceoffs and running set plays off the draws, says it can easily be the difference between a win and a loss.
"One thing you don't want to do, is give up the advantage of the faceoff. As much as anything else in the game, you want to come out ahead. If you want to be an elite team, faceoffs is a key area."
Johnston points to a 3-0 loss to San Jose earlier in the season as a prime example.
"We gave one up the other night in San Jose and it probably cost us the hockey game," says Johnston.
With San Jose already ahead by a goal late in the second, center Patrick Marleau slid back to the point while defender Jeff Fahey slid up to a spot on the wing. The alignment confused Vancouver's coverage, and then Todd Harvey beat Mats Lindgren on the draw.
Marleau beat down the right wing and took a return feed from Fahey before snapping it high for a 2-0 lead. It created a sinkhole that Vancouver couldn't climb out of.
"We set up on the draw and missed our coverage," says Johnston. "And they got a goal off the side, right off the draw. It was a faceoff goal against. It's a little part of the game, but people say the little things make the difference, especially in the key games."
It's a small part, but one that helped Vancouver enjoy success during the last couple seasons.