DETROIT – It’s been four years since the Red Wings were as dominant in the faceoff circle as they have been through the first 28 games of the regular season this season.
Entering tonight’s Atlantic Division game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Red Wings are second in the league in the circle, winning 54 percent of their draws, which is second to only Montreal (55.1).
“Obviously, you win draws, you get possession of the puck,” said Riley Sheahan, who gives the Red Wings four centermen, who have won better than 50 percent of their faceoffs. “It’s a lot of help from the wingers. It’s just something we’ve been practicing, spending a little time after practice, doing a little extra research on the other team’s centermen and trying to learn their habits. … We’ve improved a lot.”
For the last decade, the Red Wings have been reliant on Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to get the job done in the circle.
While Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still very strong on the draw, others have stepped up their game. Sheahan and Luke Glendening give the Red Wings considerable depth as they continue to develop their skills at the dot. Their progression allows the Red Wings to be a strong puck-possession team that is in first place in the Eastern Conference with 39 points after 28 games.
Winning faceoffs has always a point of emphasis for Babcock-coached teams in Detroit, though more emphasis is placed on the younger centers to show improvement.
“I never realized coming up through college that faceoffs are as important as they are,” said Sheahan, who played three seasons at Notre Dame. “Since I’ve been here it’s definitely been a focus point. The biggest thing is just getting possession of the puck because that’s how you win games. It’s really been a help for us.”
A cagey veteran, the 36-year-old Datsyuk has always been a faceoff force, winning 54 percent of his 11,865 career draws. Despite earlier injuries this season, he leads the league with a 60.9 road faceoff winning percentage. He also ranks fourth overall among league centers with a 57.6 percent success rate. Only Montreal’s Lars Eller (58 percent) and Manny Malhotra (61.3), and Arizona’s Martin Hanzal (59.8) have better winning percentages than the Wings’ top-line centerman.
Prior to signing as an undrafted free agent two years ago, Glendening was an accomplished, hard-working winger at the University of Michigan. Faceoffs weren’t part of his collegiate repertoire. But it is since coach Mike Babcock moved him over last season.
Now Glendening is among the league’s top 20 players in the face-off dot. He ranks No. 17 with a 54.8 overall winning percentage, and No. 20 at home faceoffs with a 56.7 winning percentage.
“Glenny was a winger and then we made him a center and then we said ‘You got to win all the faceoffs and then we were upset that he didn’t beat (Patrice) Bergeron all the time in the playoffs,” Babcock said. “But Bergeron lit us all up in the playoffs. I think it takes some time is what I’m saying. Helmer hasn’t been around for a couple of years and now he’s back and he’s dominant in the circle. Sheahan’s still got a little ways to go obviously, and Pav and Z need to be reminded, too. It’s tough. Bozak’s a real good faceoff guy, we got to be dialed in tonight.”
The Red Wings, Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes are the only teams with four centers at better than a 50-percent success rate in the faceoff circle this season. Zetterberg is at 52. 4 percent, and Sheahan at 50.1 percent.
The Wings’ young centers have shown significant improvement from last season, which Glendening credits to repetition and experience against some of the league’s best centermen.
“You learn things and I think you start to get a little more respect from the linesmen,” he said. “At first you get kicked out anytime you do anything wrong. I think now you get a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s all a learning process and it will just continue to get better.
“It’s just your patience and your timing. I used to get so frustrated last year. That was partly my fault. It’s just every day learning something new.”