The one area that continues to be a glaring weakness, in a season of analytics tied somewhat to puck possession, is the Canucks prowess in the face-off circle. Start with the puck, and dictate the game, is the convention line of thinking.
The Canucks rank 28th in the NHL in face-off winning percentage at 47.2%, and have only one player on their roster above 50%, that being rookie Bo Horvat at 52.2% to date. It was only a few years back, 2011 to be exact, that the Canucks owned the face-off dot and were the best in the league at that particular skill. They fell to third overall in 2012, and pin-balled up and down the next two year to bring us to this one.
In talking with Canuck coaches, who go over the tape of every game played and track everything imaginable that is tied to their overall performance, the general consensus is that the league numbers are slightly lower than actual, but not far off. Conversations with the players who actually take the face-offs have centered around four main areas that can be identified as important to winning the draw more often than not. These are: strength, experience, rhythm and practice.
With strength during the face-off, it’s more about using leverage than overall brute force. You can use your opponent’s superior muscular advantage to your advantage by either having a quicker stick, or by tying up the draw to then get help from your wingers. If that is the strategy, then your line-mates must be ready jump in immediately to be of service. The sooner you figure out how your opponent is using his strength, the better you can exploit the other areas that might be off like his timing or balance. To know what would work best you need to read his style in taking the draw and make mental notes. That is where experience comes in.
The better face-off men in the league over the years, Patrice Bergeron, Joe Thornton, and former Canuck Manny Malhotra, have all put in their time in the NHL and have faced almost every other center and have encountered every variety of challenger to have a “read” on what to expect. That experience can only come over time, knowing your opponent, adjusting to different linesmen and their tendencies, and most importantly, preparing before every draw for what opposes them. With that being said, it is even more impressive that Bo Horvat is as accomplished as he is while being a rookie in the league.
Regarding rhythm, you hear players say that they were “in the groove” or “on a roll” all the time after a good night in the circle. With winning face-offs, it’s that feeling, that when you know you have the edge on a player, it reinforces your decisions on what to do and forces the other guy to make adjustments instead of yourself. Getting in the rhythm starts with studying your opponent early in a game and creating a rapport with the linesmen that night so you know when the puck will come down. Many linesmen have “tells”, little things they’ll unknowingly do just before they drop the puck, whether it’s a quick twitch or a subtle shake of the puck, or even a bounce with their body getting ready to throw down the rubber disc. It also involves timing with when to put your stick down and when to sweep or hold strong. The best way to enhance your ability to win face-offs is to incorporate all the above and bring it forward to every draw, every time. The use of video to go over these points can be equally as important to figuring out where success can be found.
To hone the skills mentioned above, and many other nuances not mentioned that are needed to be a good centerman in the dot, one has to practice. Face-offs are the one area where repetition in practice can certainly be carried over into games. It’s also an area where the players themselves have to put the time in to perfect their skill, and to try out different methods to refine their overall performance. They can also share tips with one another on the traits they’ve learned from other players they’ve played with before or have recently faced. In all, despite the less than impressive standing the Canucks have statistically in winning the drop of the puck, the encouraging part is that the team has not been overwhelmed with not starting with the puck more often than not and has continued to wear teams down in other areas of the game. Come playoff time, with league numbers being re-set for the post-season, time for practice and an increased focus on the same face-off men throughout a playoff series offers hope that the team can raise their percentage above fifty, and start with the puck more often than they do now.