The art of the draw
At first glance, the drop of the puck for a faceoff sends a hockey game back into a whirling maelstrom of activity, with players scurrying left and right, side to side, up and down. The puck's in motion, the linesman is retreating out of the way and the mosaic of NHL hockey is back in business.
So, to the uninitiated, a faceoff may appear to be just an exercise in controlled chaos. But as those who ply their trade in the League know, and what's clear to hockey's legion of savvy fans, is the faceoff is an important – if not vital – strategic weapon in a game.
A faceoff, after all, establishes possession of the puck, and even the novice knows that puck possession is key. And since faceoffs are contested dozens and dozens of times in an average game, there has to be more method than madness in the faceoff circle.
And there is. While winning a faceoff may not qualify as a science, in and of itself, becoming an expert at winning draws is an art, the art of the draw.
To go back, or not to go back? Go to the forehand? Use the backhand? Tie up the opponent? Go for the outright win? Pass back? Move the puck to the side? Shoot right off the draw? These are some of the questions asked before each and every NHL faceoff.
Aside from questions, there is technique -- lots and lots of technique. Some players like to turn over their wrist on their stick in an effort to draw the puck back, while others prefer to stay on their forehand and win it forward. But no matter the grip or the method, each player has one thing on his mind during a faceoff -- winning.
"I think a majority of the faceoff guys -- most centermen -- usually feel the strongest winning faceoffs on their backhand," San Jose Sharks center Wayne Primeau said. "I mean you look at a guy like Joe Sakic. He turns his wrist over and with his hand-eye coordination is pretty good at getting it back pretty quickly to the point. Then there are guys like Joe Thornton who are very creative and tries to sometimes push the puck forward in the offensive zone and take it to the net or pass it over to his winger."
Tampa Bay's Tim Taylor, who was ranked seventh in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage last season, doesn't agree with the philosophy of players trying to go forward on a draw. Taylor likes to take all his faceoffs on his backhand, even though years ago that was frowned upon by coaches who believed their players were tipping their hand as to where they were going on the draw.
"One thing that used to be a myth was that you should never twist your arm because you'll show you're going back with a draw," Taylor said. "You know what, I do it all the time simply because I don't agree with going forward. You can try to go forward 10 out of 10 times in a game, but you might only make it through once. I don't think you should try that. The odd time you could trick someone, but I believe -- especially since most of my draws are going to be in the defensive zone -- in getting it back, so my stick is over and I'm just trying to time the referee's hand."
Even Vincent Damphousse, who's logged more than 1,200 regular season NHL games in his career, believes in going back.
"I turn my bottom hand so I have more strength to pull back and basically I think every faceoff guy has a couple of ways to take faceoffs depending on what side you're on and if you're righty or lefty," he said. "I have a power move with my hand turned over at the bottom so I got a pull motion that's easier. That's what I'll use 95 percent of the time and then try to out-strength the center and out-quick him. Sometimes I also may just take the body and use my feet to bring the puck back."
Forwards also rely heavily on communication with their teammates when they're out on the ice taking faceoffs.
"Communication is huge," said Primeau, who won more than 50 percent of his faceoffs last year. "There's a big percentage of faceoffs being won by the wingers helping out or the defensemen moving up and helping out as well. The majority of the faceoffs are won by the center, but you can win a good percentage with your wingers helping out."