It is an aspect of the game that is often overlooked and underemphasized, but those who specialize in it know the importance. Whether it is a key faceoff in the defensive zone in a game’s waning minutes, or simply a routine one to start a period, winning the draw is a vital component of any team’s game plan, especially in the “new NHL” where puck possession plays such a vital role creating offensive opportunities.
“Some people just think it’s a faceoff, but every time you win a faceoff, you get control of the puck,” Predators center Radek Bonk said. “The players and coaches know how important each faceoff is, especially in the offensive and defensive zones. Maybe the common fan doesn’t think it is a big deal, but it is a huge deal.”
Like Bonk, Scott Nichol knows the importance of each and every draw. In fact, he said his success in the face-off circle has been one of the keys to staying in the league so long. Since the National Hockey League starting recording face-off results in 1998-99, the Edmonton, Alberta native has never had less than a 53 percent success rate on draws, and boasts a career rate of more than 57 percent, ranking him among the tops in the league year in and year out.
|Nichol readies for a face-off against Edmonton. |
“I don’t think it would take stats for it if it wasn’t so big,” Nichol said. “If you are chasing the puck all night, and don’t have any possession off the faceoff, you are forechecking all night. It is very important, and that is why guys are signed in part because they are good at them. Yanic Perreault always seems to find a job. You always need a good faceoff guy and a guy who will win the key draws in your own end.”
Perreault, a 20-goal scorer for the Preds in 2005-06, is known throughout the league as the grand master of the faceoff. He has consistently been atop the league in the category the past eight-plus seasons, while teaching up-and-coming centermen like Jerred Smithson.
“Yanic taught different ways to approach different situations – whether your guy is a lefty or a righty, whether he gets low or what not,” Smithson said. “It is stuff you won’t really learn on your own.”
Smithson has put extra time into becoming prolific on the draw, not only working on its intricacies after practice, but even watching scout tape of upcoming opponents, seeing what their tendencies are when the puck is dropped. He credits associate coach Brent Peterson for logging the hours necessary to improve.
“It has been huge to learn from the older guys – just different ways to position yourself or your stick,” he said. “Coach Brent Peterson has been huge in teaching us little tricks – he was real good back when he played. You learn what guys do, and it comes with maturity.”
|Coaches frequently work with skaters on face-off technique and strategy after formal practice is over. |
Added Peterson: “Video coach Robert Bouchard puts tape together to show what different guys do, and Smithson watches it a lot to try to get better. It is an art, a skill, and a competitive situation with you against the other guy and your teammates trying to help you out, especially on tied draws.”
Everyone who has had success in this area admits experience and even reputation are crucial in the face-off department. Longtime veterans Perreault, Rod Brind’Amour and Mike Sillinger have been around the league and have learned what works against different opponents. Since they have earned a reputation as the best, they therefore get a bit more favorable treatment from officials.
“Linesmen usually give the older players a little bit more benefit of the doubt on draws,” Nichol said. “They would never say it, but those guys have earned respect and you just have to get your stick set up and then sneak it up as much as you can.”
Foot positioning and placement of the stick are two fundamentals to winning a draw, and any good center knows even the slightest edge can make a difference. Theoretically, the player’s skates should fit cleanly into the “t” on the ice, and the stick should not be in the red of the face-off dot, but cheating on these aspects are a widespread epidemic, which is why draw men are frequently kicked out of the circle. Peterson said the lines on the ice have squared players up and reduced cheating significantly, but many still have their secrets.
“I think my stick is what I try to get away with the most,” Nichol said. “My feet are always on the lines, but I try to inch my stick up so I can come straight back instead of to the side. Anytime the official looks at my stick, it is in the white, and when he looks at the other guy’s stick I move it up a little bit because more often than not he isn’t going to look back at my stick.”
|Smithson squares off with St. Louis' Trent Whitfield for a draw. |
With both players being the best in the world at why they do – regardless of how much one cheats, the puck is more often than not going to shoot directly to one side or the other. Which team gains possession of the puck therefore falls in the hands of the wingers, who must be fighting for position on the outside.
“I think the biggest part of faceoffs is your winger,” Smithson said. “They can win you half your draws by getting good positioning, and if the puck is bouncing around they can tap it back and the center gets credit for it. It is a huge line effort – the more guys help their centerman, the better his face-off percentage will be.”
Nichol thinks the center’s reliance on his flanks is even higher than that: “Probably 75 percent of the draws go straight sideways and your winger has to jump in front of their winger and knock the puck back. If you have good wingers that do that you are going to be very successful.”
Regardless of how much skill a player has, or the pre-game work he does in the video room, Peterson ultimately said it comes down to scratching, clawing and having the most will to win.
“You just have to get your stick in there, place it in the position where you have the most strength, skill and finesse,” he said. “You have to use everything you know how to do to win the draw because there are a lot of good players in this league who know how to win draws and will use every means necessary to do just that.”