Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Draw: Effort vs. Return

Following Detroit's impressive Stanley Cup victory, much was written about how and why they were able to pull off the trick. Among Habs fans, the talk turned in some corners to how the Canadiens could emulate their Original Six cousins.

On of my more tireless and eloquent peers put together a nice piece on the matter. As I sometimes do, I disagreed with some of his analysis – namely the importance of faceoffs. See JT's conclusion:

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, I think one thing you can safely count on is the Habs improving in the faceoff department. Bob Gainey thinks it's one of the most important factors on a winning hockey team. After watching the Stanley Cup champ Red Wings own the puck from the faceoff and for most of the game, I have to say I agree.

Naturally, I couldn't let this slide and responded with comment of my own to his post, keying in part on the fact that the other Stanley Cup finalist were league worst at faceoffs and still managed to win a lot. I thought our conversation was interesting enough to give a heads up here at LIW. To paraphrase what I said: the result of faceoffs is hugely overrated in this league. I think the fact that it is a recordable stat gives it more air time than say, positioning, because it can be quickly called upon in pre-game, intermissions, those pointless by the numbers screens, etc.

I also suggested that the aftermath of the faceoff may be even more important than the 50:50 drop itself. I truly believe that it is how the players react to the result of a faceoff that is all important.

In my opinion, based on what I hear about NHL practices (which are already too rare for my liking anyway), there is too much emphasis on trying to be slightly better than your opponent at the crap shoot of the faceoff. I would much prefer the coaches be instructing the defencemen to react and adapt quickly to faceoff results (whatever they are), and so the wingers.

In fact, I am not being facetious at all when I say that losing faceoffs is a viable strategy. I think a team could very well lose every faceoff if you have a plan about pressuring the puck man instantly. It would be very much like an American football play from the playbook, where movement following the loss would be choreographed and rehearsed with precision. The fact that most teams still opt for the dump and chase method of crossing the blueline make this strategy even more attractive, as defencemen could get a real head start on puck retrieval 100%. I want to hear about coaches preaching this.

Actually, I think Detroit is all about puck possession and patience (personified by Lidstrom). And, sure it begins with a faceoff, but their 53% faceoff rating doesn't go far enough to explain their dominance. As I mentioned, I hope the Canadiens coaches don't turn too much attention to faceoffs over the summer, but nonetheless study Detroit's strengths (and, hey, why not Pittsburgh's too!). If the coaches here could start getting our defence to show the patience of Detroit's, we'd be on our way – have you ever seen so much backwards passing on a sheet of ice?

As for interesting new tactics, I think losing faceoffs has legs.

Though they lost to Detroit, league faceoff weaklings Pittsburgh had already laid waste to the number two faceoff team, as well as the seventh, only weeks before (NYR and Ottawa). Interestingly, Pittsburgh were not the only team to upset the faceoff pushers' applecart – 7/15 playoff series were taken by the team who lost more faceoffs. If we allow ourselves to make the assumption that Detroit are something special (far beyond faceoff masters) and take them out of the equation, there are 7/11 series.

Add those slight blips from exactly 50:50 proportions to this old tale, and Chipchura's the go-to guy come October:

There's a old story about Mario Lemieux and taking draws. An ex-teammate once said Mario would intentionally concede neutral zone draws throughout a game to soften his opponent up. Thinking Mario was an easy draw, they would let their guard down or go into the face-off expecting the same old weak-wristed tactic he'd been using all game. But when it counted - like an offensive zone draw on a late powerplay - he would stiffen and switch up his strike at the puck taking his opponent by surprise. Not great for the stat sheet, but good for the two points.

I know some of you disagree, so convince me that 4 faceoffs in 60 over a game are the key to getting back to Sherbrooke St. parades.

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