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.”

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