Faceoffs: They are one of the most mundane aspects of hockey, repeated dozens of times over the course of a game. But they are also one of the most important. Teams that control the lion’s share of draws spend less time defending and more time controlling the play. They also reduce the risk of quick scoring chances for the opposition, which often present problems for a team’s goaltender.
Over the course of the Flyers’ history, the club has often been among the top faceoff teams in the league. In recent years, however, Philly has struggled in that department. Last season, the Flyers finished 22nd overall in the 30-team NHL with a 48.3% winning percentage on faceoffs. Through the first 15 games of the 2009-10 regular season, the club has performed at roughly the same level, winning 48.5% of draws (ranking 22nd overall in the league). The San Jose Sharks lead the NHL with a 56.8% winning percentage.
|The Five Best Flyers Faceoff Squads |
While it has only been in the last dozen years that the NHL has started to keep meticulous statistics on faceoff performance, Flyers teams of several different eras were considered among the league’s most dominant clubs on the draw. Here’s a look at some of the best in team history.
1. 1995-96 (Eric Lindros, Rod Brind’Amour, Joel Otto, Bob Corkum): The Flyers owned the faceoff circle whenever the right-handed Lindros and Otto or left-handed Brind’Amour took the draws. Late season acquisition Corkum made the club even more dominant in this area. It also helped to have savvy, gritty wingers such as Shjon Podein and late season acquisition John Druce to help win puck scrums around the circle.
2. 1986-87 (Dave Poulin, Peter Zezel, Ron Sutter): The Mike Keenan area Flyers rarely got outworked or outfoxed in the faceoff circle. In addition to the aforementioned pivots, Tim Kerr (who started out as a center before being moved to right wing) could also more than hold his own on draws.
3. 1975-76 (Bobby Clarke, Rick MacLeish, Orest Kindrachuk, Mel Bridgman): The Flyers weren’t quite able to capture the Stanley Cup for the third straight year but the veteran trio of Clarke, MacLeish and Kindrachuk as well as 20-year-old rookie Bridgman helped to provide the team with nearly nightly control of the puck possession battles.
4. 1979-80 (Bobby Clarke, Kenny Linseman, Mel Bridgman, Rick MacLeish): The passage of time did nothing to damage the squad’s strength on faceoffs. The team’s ability to win the lion’s share of draws contributed to its 35-game unbeaten streak and run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
5. 2003-04 (Keith Primeau, Michal Handzus, Alexei Zhamnov, Jeremy Roenick): Primeau and Handzus were often dominant draw men. Zhamnov had a knack for winning offensive zone draws cleanly back to the point. While Roenick was just average statistically on faceoffs, he could be dangerous on bang-bang plays off the drop of the puck.
While the team is not yet where it wants to be, there have been signs of improvement. The addition of checking center Blair Betts
, who has won 53% of his draws, has enabled the club to improve its performance in defensive zone and penalty killing faceoffs. Also, after struggling mightily through the first five games of the regular season, the team has won roughly 54% of its total faceoffs over the last 10 games.
In the club’s most recent game, the Flyers utterly dominated the St. Louis Blues in the faceoff circle during the first and second periods. In the third period and overtime, fatigue set in for Philadelphia, which was playing on back-to-back nights and dealing with a lineup racked by a flu outbreak and injury-related depletions.
Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube says that the coaching staff is pleased with the progress the team has made in the faceoff department, but it is an area that requires constant vigilance and focus. While centers take most of the faceoffs (unless they are tossed from the circle by a linesman), the outcome of many draws depends on how effectively the other skaters jockey for possession if the pivot is unable to decisively steer the puck to a teammate.
“You aren’t going to win every faceoff clean but you need to bear down and make sure you go where you’re supposed to go. It’s that attention to detail that we focus on, especially on our side of the blueline,” he says.
Not all faceoffs are created equal. Special teams faceoffs often take on greater importance, as do draws following icing calls (because the team that committed the infraction must keep the same players on the ice while the other team can change lines). Most important, defensive draws in the waning seconds of one-goal games can sometimes mean the difference between a game-tying goal and a clearing pass or empty net goal that seals the outcome.
The Flyers’ top two centers – Mike Richards and Jeff Carter – have both faced mild criticism over the past few years for losing more draws than they win. After a slow start this season, however, Carter has improved to 51.5% for the season, up from 48.3% last year. Big and strong and blessed with quick hands, Carter could still blossom into a top faceoff man with greater game-in/game-out consistency.
Asked about his improvement over last season in the circle, Carter smiles and shrugs.
“It’s just of those things. We all know faceoffs are important, and it’s an area I try to focus on every day at practice and in the games.”
Richards, who is built along the same lines as Bobby Clarke, relies more on savvy and anticipation than Carter. Nevertheless, the Flyers captain has a way to go before he acquires the sort of arsenal of tactics that Hall of Fame inductee Clarke had at his disposal.
For example, Richards and other current-day centers get fewer opportunities to “cheat” with their feet and body positioning because of the double L-shaped lines in the circle that replaced the former t-shaped ones some years ago. Richards won 49.0% of his faceoffs last year, and has won 49.6% so far this season.
For his part, Betts says that centers get too much credit or blame for faceoff results and that he doesn’t care much about his winning percentage, per se. Like everything else in hockey, it takes a team effort to excel in that aspect of the game.
He says, “I’m going to have good nights and bad nights [statistically]. There will be games where I didn’t think I was doing all that well and the [game stat] sheet says I won most of them, or vice versa. The biggest thing is puck possession.”