When Capitals center Jay Beagle was a young hockey player growing up in Canada, he was always naturally drawn to the center position, and loved the challenge of winning face-offs. Fast forward to today and Beagle is in his 10th season in the NHL, and has consistently proven that he's one of the League's best at winning draws. Since the 2014-15 season Beagle ranks sixth in the NHL in face-off win percentage among players with at least 2,000 face-offs taken (57.0%).
Joining Beagle at the top of the face-off win percentage ranks this season is fellow Capitals center Lars Eller, who has won 57.4 percent of the draws he's taken this year. With Beagle sitting at 59.8 percent, both he and Eller rank in the top eight in the NHL among players with at least 100 face-offs. While Beagle has always been strong at the dot, Eller has made strides this season and has seen a big spike in production as he is up from his 47.1 percent mark from last season.
"Last year was really a bad year for me and not really the norm for me," Eller said. "And this year is probably my best year so far. "I've been working with [Caps assistant coach Blaine Forsythe], and he's been a big help analyzing what to do, and I definitely switched up my technique."
According to Forsythe, the Capitals assistant coach who focuses on the team's centers, Eller's adjustments came in last season's playoffs, and focused on improving his quickness to the puck.
"He's a stronger guy but he was relying on that a little bit too much," Forsythe said of Eller. "So we focused a little more on technique and what he had to do to get his stick in there quicker and be faster essentially. I think the biggest thing for Lars is now he has a full year of playing that position versus playing that position and the wing back and forth like he was in Montreal. So I think a lot of the experience comes in by getting the reps he needs to be successful."
While Eller made some changes to his face-off technique, Beagle had to adjust his technique as well when the NHL introduced new face-off rules for the 2017-18 season. The League's rules focused on making sure players are squared up to one another, and that their skates are clear of the L-shaped markings at the face-off circles at the end of the ice.
For Beagle, who stands in at 6'3", 218 pounds, that meant he had to rely less on his physicality, and more on his stick skill.
"Beagle was somebody who was a little worried about the rule changes," said Forsythe. "He was one of those guys who relied on being a bully in that circle, and getting in there and competing as hard as he could. It's become more of a skill play and he's responded greatly. We focused on it early and he's changed the way he's taken face-offs, but at the same time he hasn't taken away from his technique and what's worked well for him in the past."
Beagle and Eller's adjustments have clearly paid off in their individual statistics this season, but if you ask them about how they perform on face-offs, they're quick to mention how much of a team effort it is to win the puck.
"Every time I tell my wingers or defensemen where I'm trying to go with the puck so they can anticipate it and so they can help win the draw," Beagle said. "A lot of times it's a 50-50 puck and having your wingers and defensemen come in and win those draws for you, and help you start with the puck is key. People always think it's an individual stat, but it's definitely a team and a line stat for sure."
Although some might not view face-offs as a critical factor to winning hockey games, Beagle takes great pride in his ability to win draws, because of how it changes the team's mentality after winning the puck. Beagle's ability to win face-offs is key to the Capitals success, especially in high-leverage situations. He ranks third among active players in face-off win percentage in draws taken in the defensive zone (57.7%), and third in shorthanded face-off win percentage among players with at least 200 draws (56.1%).
"Going off games last year, because we haven't played enough games yet this year to know, but the games we felt like we were chasing the puck were games that I looked at and I was under 50 percent on draws," said Beagle. "As a line you feel like you're chasing the puck because you're always starting without it. Even though you can get it back within two or three seconds, you now have to work to get that back instead of starting with it and dictating what we want to do with the puck. I think winning faceoffs is a huge thing and it's always way more fun to start out with the puck and be able to run your plays, instead of having to be on the defensive side of the plays."