Man with a plan
How important are faceoffs in the NHL?
"If you don't win the faceoff, you can't run the play you want, so you have to play defense," said Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Guy Charron in explaining the importance of faceoffs.
From that simple premise, Charron has fashioned a reputation as one of hockey's foremost experts on a play that happens about 60 times in every NHL game. The 12-year veteran concluded his playing career in 1981 and has gone on to be an NHL head coach and assistant coach with several NHL teams as well as an assistant with the Canadian national team.
Charron was the previous head coach of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, not coincidentally the best faceoff team in the NHL last season, while the Canadiens improved to fifth place in 2002-03. He's working on a daily basis with Yanic Perreault, the NHL's faceoff win-percentage leader the last four years.
"I was Guy Charron's roommate in his last professional season in New Haven and if you want to talk to an expert on faceoffs, he's your man," said Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell. "He's given the subject a lot of thought."
Charron made a skill-instructional video for the Canadian Hockey Association that would make an excellent holiday gift for any hockey player 12 and older. It should be in the library of every progressive hockey coach.
The video begins with standard positioning for the common faceoff situations at center ice and in the defensive and offensive zones. Charron then brings his international experience to bear by showcasing variations used by Europeans teams, including several used by the Swedish, Russian, German and Finnish national teams.
Among the different strategies that Charron explains are a setup used by the New York Islanders when they won their four Stanley Cups in the early 1980s. The Islanders used a left-side, offensive-zone setup that placed right-hand shot Mike Bossy on the left wing. Bossy would move to his right after the drop and be in position for a shot from the slot off a pass or rebound. A favorite Islanders right-side offensive faceoff strategy had Bossy moving to the high slot after the drop to be in position for a one-timer. Brett Hull has used this play for many goals over the years.
"As much as you introduce it to your players, it's up to the players to integrate it," Charron said. The video includes instructions for players at all positions, not just the centers. With each faceoff arrangement, Charron explains the objective as well as the positioning. "We used some of the most common arrangements in the video but there are a lot of variables available."
Charron said that just as there are offensive-attack strategies that can backfire, there are faceoff strategies with inherent weaknesses. Game situations dictate whether the risk is worth it. Player skills are also an important factor. On faceoffs, as in so many other aspects of hockey, Wayne Gretzky could do things few others could.
"Gretzky would set up with Jari Kurri behind him and he'd tap the puck forward, then pull it back to Kurri, who had never moved, for a shot," Charron recalled. "We have a lot of different formations. A guy I thought used a lot of formations was Ron Wilson when he was coaching Anaheim. I see some teams try unusual formations, but a lot of teams don't try things because if they lose they don't want to look vulnerable. Some arrangements can result in weakened defensive positions if you don't win that faceoff. Other teams can counter your players and that's when your players defensive skills can make a difference.