Stricter rule enforcement has more forwards getting ordered out of circle
Defencemen taking faceoffs — welcome to the new NHL,
Jake Gardiner and the other Toronto Maple Leafs defencemen like to think they can hold their own in the faceoff circle.
“Sometimes in practice we’ll just joke around and go against the centremen and tell them we can beat them,” Gardiner said.
Washington Capitals defenceman John Carlson wishes he had that luxury. Angry after he lost a faceoff, he blamed teammate Jay Beagle.
“I used to practice all the time, but the centres don’t let me practice anymore,” Carlson said. “I was 1 for 1 in my career and now I ruined it.”
Such is life for NHL defencemen these days, thrown into the faceoff circle to do something they never figured was in their job description. Like position players taking the mound to pitch in a Major League Baseball game or NFL running backs having to throw a pass, defencemen aren’t accustomed to taking faceoffs and almost never work on it in practice.
But this season, defencemen are in unfamiliar territory more often as officials order forwards out of the circle for failing to follow the protocol.
“I think you go there and you pretend to act like a centreman,” Arizona Coyotes defenceman Luke Schenn said.
Faceoffs are one of the most tactical elements in hockey, a chess match played out over a few seconds between players who have spent much of their lives perfecting their craft to win possession of the puck. Key elements are leverage and fast work with sticks. It’s no place for bigger defencemen with their longer sticks, most of whom are far more comfortable handling the puck once it’s won back to them.
Stricter rule enforcement in the NHL has led to more defencemen taking draws this season and, well, it has been a challenge — even for some of the best players in the world. Schenn called it awkward and unnatural. Sounds about right. “It’s not something you see all the time,” Schenn said. “You see a Dman go in there, you’re probably not going to win too many of them.”
Eleven different defencemen have taken a faceoff so far this season and 64 since 3-on-3 overtime was instituted in 2015-16. No matter how many times it happens or how awkward, it’s on the highlight reel and becomes the subject of ribbing from teammates.
“They’re going to give you a hard time because they know it’s not something you do all the time,” Calgary Flames defenceman Michael Stone said. “If you do win one, it’s pure excitement, I think, from everybody.”
Defencemen have been involved in 92 faceoffs over the past two-plus seasons and have won only about a third of them. Maybe a few of the unlikely victories have come from being underestimated.
“It’s funny that when you get a Dman in, a lot of times those centremen relax and the D-men are allin,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who grew up playing defence. “There’s a lot of cheers that go on when a defenceman goes in there and wins a draw.”
Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is 6-foot-6 and a Norris Trophy finalist as one of the best defencemen in the league. He recently was pressed into faceoff duty on a penalty kill in overtime. No pressure, right?
Hedman put his stick down, beat Columbus centre Nick Foligno and is now a perfect 1 for 1. He was stunned. “The guys were probably as shocked as I was that I actually won it,” Hedman said.
Defencemen face another twist of pressure in addition to trying to a) win the draw and b) avoid taking a faceoff violation penalty trying to do something they aren’t good at.
“For a defenceman, if you lose it you’ve just got to make sure you get into your position right away and make sure you focus on playing D,” Hedman said. “Just make sure that you don’t lose it too clean that they get a scoring opportunity right away. You just try and do as good a job as you possibly can and try and win it obviously, but it’s pretty tough.”