Quick on the draw

No overlooking the value of the humble face-off

Tuesday, 10.20.2009 / 4:37 PM ET / Features
By Eric Marin
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Quick on the draw
Zajac battling another of the NHL's best, Edmonton's Shawn Horcoff.
It happened 42 times during the Devils' home win over Carolina on Saturday and can determine a game's outcome almost as much as scoring chances or shots on goal.

Two players skate into the faceoff circle and lean head to head as a linesman drops the puck between them. Shoulders square, they rely on their quickness and strength to shovel the puck wherever they need it to be: on goal, back to a teammate or safely out of the zone.

Of those 42 draws against the Hurricanes, the Devils won 62%. Twenty-six saves by Martin Brodeur and goals from Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise were enough to cement a 2-0 outcome and the Devils’ first home win of the season.

Though you’ve never seen a “Top 10 Draws of the Week” highlight reel, the humble face-off is indisputably a difference maker in today’s NHL. The more time you spend with the puck, the less time you spend chasing it. In a puck possession game, that can be the difference between winning and losing.

Besides owning a share of the Devils' points lead through seven games (4g-3a), center Travis Zajac is also the club's top faceoff man. He ranked 10th in the NHL with 72 wins entering Tuesday’s games, and leads all Devil pivots with a 55.8 winning percentage.

Extra attention on face-offs is commonplace at Devils practices at AmeriHealth Pavilion.

"A lot of it is working on your timing and reaction," Zajac said recently. "A lot more guys are trying to go after for the puck instead of the stick to tie them up. I think working on that helps."

Zajac has been especially strong on the power play, capturing 21 of 28 (75%) face-offs with the Devils on the man advantage.

"Now that they put the power play in the offensive zone every time, you lose that faceoff and you're losing 30 seconds," Parise said. "If you win it there, you get to set right up. It's less time chasing the puck around and the game is so puck control now that sometimes you might not even touch a puck the whole shift. You have to make sure you win those draws."

Players can spend hours watching game video to break down an opponent’s methods  Zajac, now in his fourth season, relies on his own experience.

"It's knowing what works and what doesn't," Zajac said. "You have to be able to adapt in games when something's not going right. There's different things you can do. There's a time to use strength and there's a time for quickness."

The Devils currently rank 12th overall in face-off percentage (50.4%), something head coach Jacques Lemaire would like to improve upon. In Zajac, though, he has a reliable performer. Zajac led all Devils last season in total face-offs (1,287) and face-offs won (683), and was second in face-off percentage (53.1%). Playing on the Devils' top power-play line, Zajac had 100 more power-play wins than Dainius Zubrus, who was second with 71.

"I think it depends on who's on the other side,” said Lemaire when asked about Zajac’s prowess. “He's strong, but there's a lot of guys that are strong. Maybe he's got a little more finesse with the strength that he has, because Zubie's really strong and he has some nights when he struggles and other nights he's good. I guess it's always the guy that's across that makes the difference."

In the same way that a pitcher can change speeds and arm angles to keep a batter guessing, Zubrus said a good center mixes up his approach every time.

“You never really keep the same pattern going in against the same guy,” Zubrus said. “If he lost a couple in a row, I’m sure he’ll be changing (something), so you have to adjust.  I think, throughout the game, it helps if you’re taking quite a few faceoffs so that you’re kind of in a rhythm and your timing is better. If you haven’t been playing much and you haven’t had too many faceoff attempts, from my experience it helps if you’re out there and you’re taking a lot. That way you get a much better feel of the timing and everything else.”

An 18-year-old Zubrus broke into the League with Philadelphia in 1996, and spent his early part of his career with two players he considered among the best on draws. 

“Joel Otto was really good when I came into the League,” Zubrus said. “(Eric) Lindros was good just because he was so strong, and his hands were actually very quick too. In Washington we had Adam Oates, who was very good with his little toothpick stick. I don’t know how he was doing it, but he was doing it.”

Oates, who retired in 2004, excelled on draws despite using sticks with small blades that he shortened at the ends. He was the exception, proving that simply carrying a big stick isn’t enough. 

“It’s not, but it helps,” Zubrus said.

If possession is important in the offensive zone, it’s critical for killing penalties. Rob Niedermayer was signed as a free agent in September for his two-way play and has been an asset for the Devils on defensive draws. Second on the team with 57 wins and a 52.8 winning percentage overall, Niedermayer has won 15 faceoffs with the Devils shorthanded.

The 16-year vet keeps it simple.

“In the ‘D’ zone, you don’t want to lose it totally clean,” he said. “That’s the big thing. You lose it clean, and you give the other team a pretty good chance.”

The NHL has introduced measures to standardize the face-off procedure to ensure each puck drop is executed fairly. But nothing stops the world’s top players from seeking any advantage – no matter how small.

“Now they’re trying to adjust it in the League where everybody has to have the same technique where the (linesmen) show the puck and then drop it,” Zubrus said. “So I think that’s becoming kind of standard, but still some guys let you get away with a little bit more and actually a big part of it is knowing how much you can cheat before they throw you out of there. You try to get an advantage in everything and everybody tries to; some more and some less but if you go completely how they want you to, chances are the other guy is already cheating so you’ll want to cheat a little more.”

A center looking to cheat a little might angle his shoulders for leverage or lift his stick off the ice a split-second early in anticipation of the drop.

“Everyone’s trying to get an edge,” Niedermayer said. “You’re always trying to get an edge where maybe you’ve got a better angle on the draw. You’re trying to get there where you don’t have your stick all the way down. That’s a pretty fine line between getting kicked out or not.”

Coordinating a draw with linemates can impact which team corrals the puck first. A “clean” win is more the exception than the rule. If two centers tie up, then the supporting wingers battle it out.

“Winning clean is not that easy,” Zubrus said. “I’ll bet you more than half of your face-off wins are by the wingers. If I know the guy is going to try and win this way, if he does, I want to make sure that guy is covered, especially on a power play or something. I want to make sure someone’s jumping in that area to get that loose puck.”

Rod Pelley centers the Devils’ fourth line and has devoted hours to getting better on draws. Back in New Jersey after spending last season in Lowell (AHL), Pelley said he has watched the video from more than a thousand of his own faceoffs in 2008-09.

"Timing, strength and reaction are the three things you have to be pretty good at," Pelley said. "The timing, obviously, watching the puck out of the corner of your eye and knowing when it's going to come down. The strength is just going to be if you end up in a battle for the puck, outmuscling the other centerman. The third being reaction, just having a quick stick, beating the other guy by being slick and quick."

Then there are the modern challenges posed by today's composite sticks.

"Last year in Lowell I was going through a ton of sticks and they were breaking in the same spot from taking the draw and locking up at the same spot," Pelley said. "I was breaking sticks on 5-on-3 penalty kills, crucial times. We almost went to wooden sticks just for draws, but ended up reinforcing the stick and it turned out alright."

Pelley mentioned former NHLer Yanic Perreault, a face-off specialist who often ranked among the League's best. Perreault was one of the last handful of players to use wooden sticks after the arrival of composites.

"If somehow the wood made its way back into the game, I'd be one of the guys using them," Pelley said.