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Canes Looking for Faceoff Improvement

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes knew that faceoffs could be an issue this season, but perhaps not to this degree.

Paul Branecky
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After 11 games, the team ranks last in the NHL with a 37.4 percent success rate. That’s six whole percentage points behind the 29th-place Edmonton Oilers. The Canes have yet to win over half of their draws in any single contest thus far, coming closest with a 42 percent showing against the New York Rangers last week.

More than the numbers, the impact has become clear on the ice. Two of the three Philadelphia goals this past Monday came immediately after lost defensive-zone faceoffs, as have others this season.

Despite those stats, the Hurricanes believe that the team’s current centers can improve with some hard work in practice. They’d almost have to, as they’d be flirting with history otherwise. No team has posted a season total lower than 44.1 percent since Tampa Bay back in 1997-98.

“You’ve just got to work at it,” said General Manager Jim Rutherford. “(Tuomo) Ruutu is playing more games at center and he’s getting adjusted, and (Brandon) Sutter and (Eric) Staal are keys that are playing against the other team’s top lines for the most part. They’ve just got to work on it, and as they do they’ll get better.”

Ruutu, who recently made the switch back to center after a roughly seven-year spell on the wing, leads the Hurricanes’ current group with a 44.2 percent success rate and should continue to improve. Staal and Sutter haven’t been as good, as they currently rank 90th and 92nd, respectively, out of the 92 players who have taken enough draws to qualify. Jon Matsumoto won one of five faceoffs in his NHL debut in Philadelphia.

Some of that can be chalked up to slow starts, as Sutter and Staal are traditionally better than this, even if their career marks are still short of 50 percent. The Hurricanes as a whole checked in at 48.1 percent last season, which ranked 25th but was a much more manageable number that fell in line with most NHL teams.

Part of the reason for the decline is the retirement of Rod Brind’Amour, who won a stellar 58.8 percent of his faceoffs despite his declining offensive numbers. Jussi Jokinen, who has the best history of any player currently in the Canes lineup, also played significant time in the middle last season, winning 51.3 percent.

The solution could come through continued video coaching, during which the players see what they could have done differently and also scout the players they’ll be up against. During games, Jokinen could begin taking more draws despite his most recent placement as a top-line winger alongside Staal.

“I think it’s more tempting to have (Jokinen) take more faceoffs on whatever line he’s on, but it’s not tempting to put him back in the middle,” said Rutherford. “I feel that our center ice is pretty strong right now when you look at who we have there. Jussi had a lot of success on the wing last year, and that’s where he should play.”

The Hurricanes will resume their work at the morning skate Wednesday. They did not practice on Tuesday, marking the third consecutive time they’ve rested on days without games. Coach Paul Maurice said that was due to the continuing effects of the team’s difficult first month, which included the trip overseas, the five-game tour of North America and the stretch of seven games in 11 days that they’re in the middle of right now.

“Any of those three things would be a challenge for any team, but putting them together is something else,” said Maurice. “We’d like to practice and work on some things, but there’s just no point.”

“We’re dealing with some guys that aren’t feeling 100 percent – at least a handful of them,” said Rutherford. “We’re just trying to stay as strong as we can so we have enough energy when the games come.”

Rutherford and Maurice said that they were unclear as to the status of defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who left the Flyers game with an upper-body injury following one quick shift to start the third period. While Maurice reported that Pitkanen came to the rink feeling great on Tuesday morning, he’s considered day-to-day and may not play against the New York Islanders on Wednesday.

That would be a blow for the Hurricanes, who would be losing their clear leader in ice time (27:22 per game). Maurice said that the Canes may be better equipped for that possibility now than they have been in previous seasons, but that it would still be tough.

“We’re hoping that guys like (Jamie) McBain that move the puck well can offset it this time, but you don’t take a guy like that out without feeling it,” he said.

In any event, Rutherford said that a defenseman, probably one of Brett Carson, Bryan Rodney or Bobby Sanguinetti, will likely be recalled following tonight’s Checkers game in Charlotte.

Regarding Matsumoto, who was recalled on Sunday, Rutherford said that he could receive a longer look with the Hurricanes as long as Patrick Dywer, who has been impressive this season, stays on one of the top three lines as a wing.

“Patty has played extremely well and deserves to be in the top nine, and as long as he is, I suspect that’s how it’s going to fall,” said Rutherford. “He’s a very smart player with great speed, and if you have those two assets you can play wherever. Based on what we have now, I think that wing is a good spot for him.”

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