The addition of one player, renewed health of another, and a tweak to an existing rule, has allowed the Canucks to be the best face-off team in the NHL nine games in.
With puck possession being the current buzz word of the last few years, winning face-offs is considered the best way to control the game and the play as that means you’re primarily starting with the puck more than half the time. The Canucks are leaders with their 54.9 face-off percentage as of game nine and the arrival of Brandon Sutter as a bonafide right hand face-off ace has helped the team be somewhat dominate over the last few games. Sutter, at fifty-five percent, is five percentage points over his best career numbers, and even though it is early, it’s a great benefit for Vancouver to be able to use him in key situations in face-offs on the right side of the rink. Currently the Canucks deploy Henrik Sedin mostly on his strong side for key draws, being a left hand shot, and now we’re seeing Sutter being used across the way. Most centermen would agree that it is easier to win face-offs to their backhand, rather to their forehand, so that is why a left shot player considers a face-off on the left side of the rink his strong side. It has to do with pulling the puck back on your natural shooting motion side rather than having to sweep your stick across your body.
Speaking of Henrik Sedin, it was revealed recently by coach Willie Desjardins that he was nursing a shoulder injury last season. With no real relief to take important draws on the right side as the Canucks had multiple left hand centermen, Henrik struggled, as did the team, and it showed in their 29th place finish last year. This season, Henrik is among the elite, operating at a sixty-three percent clip, which is near the top in that discipline, and it has allowed the Sedin line to formulate plays in the offensive zone connected to a face-off win.
The tweak to the rule about who has to put their stick down first in a draw has certainly benefitted Vancouver too. Previously, the road team would have to put their stick down first before each face-off throughout the entire game, and over the course of 60 minutes or more, the home team centermen could read the visual cues of the opposing player on the dot and adjust his strategy accordingly. The adjustment made to the face-off procedure for this season is that the defending team, the one on its own side of center ice, has to put the stick down first, thus taking away any advantage home teams would previously have over road teams. The one exception is at center ice, where the visiting must still put their stick down first.
How has this altered face-off rule helped Vancouver? Well, it’s evened the playing field for a team that traditionally has had poor face-off numbers. The advantages to the rule change are such that the team is winning more offensive zone face-offs because they can put their stick down second and anticipate the puck drop that is imminently coming. The wingers have been able to jump in sooner on draws because they know that as soon as their own centerman puts his stick down the puck will follow. Obviously other teams are trying to use this strategy as well this season, but the Canucks have been better at formulating designated plays from wingers jumping in to help whereas in the past they were forced to wait on the opposition, especially on the road, to help out their centermen on the draw.
Look no further than the Jared McCannn goal against the Montreal Canadiens, where a somewhat clean win behind him on his strong side in the offensive zone, the left side as he shoots left, allowed for Brandon Prust to circle in behind, drive to the goal-line with the puck, and then put a pass right to where McCann had relocated in the slot. Prust didn’t have to look, as he knew where McCann would be as part of their drawn up face-off play, and the rookie made no mistake with his shot to beat Price and put the Canucks up 3-0 late in the 1st period.
For a team that has languished near the bottom of the NHL in face-off percentage since reigning supreme in 2011 and 2012, it’s a welcome return to be able to dictate plays from the puck drop and catch your opponent trying to figure out what is coming next, especially when the face-off is in their own zone.