David Steckel already was gone, and Boyd Gordon got his payday with the Phoenix Coyotes. The Washington Capitals needed a fourth-line center and faceoff specialist. Jeff Halpern needed a team.
A one-year deal for $725,000 later, the 35-year-old from Potomac, Md., returned to the team he captained in a specialized role. Halpern's faceoff success and defensive prowess have made him a consistent bright spot this season.
"Jeff's done a tremendous job stepping in. Being that big guy on the penalty kill, he's been out there on some power plays and five-on-five," forward Matt Hendricks said. "He's an all-around player, and he's done tremendous for us in the circle."
Halpern has won 60.5 percent of his faceoffs, best on the team among players who have taken at least 100 draws. That's better than even the impressive 58 percent Gordon put up last season.
This was nothing new under coach Dale Hunter, either.
"He's always been good," Hunter said. "He's got a knack for it."
Halpern credited teammates such as Hendricks, Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault for allowing him to take the faceoffs most advantageous to him.
"I've been happy with it. Playing with Hendy all year is probably the biggest reason because he's been able to take the ones on the left side. He's not just taking them, but his numbers are great, too," Halpern said. "For most of the year I've been able to do that, and even with JoJo [Johansson] and Perry [Perreault], able to have those guys take them on the left side."
Halpern's not a power-play specialist and might not seem like a player to be on the ice in late-game, key situations, but his faceoff ability affords him more ice time than most guys who figure to be fourth-liners. His value is greatest on the penalty kill.
"By winning it, you kill 30 seconds right off the draw, by the time you dump it out and the time you get it back in, if you're successful the first time," Hunter said. "As far as other parts of the game, like the end of the game, he's out there trying to win a draw because you've got to control the puck."
Controlling the puck is the reason what makes Halpern valuable. The likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin always have thrived moving up the ice quickly with the puck, but Hunter's system puts even more of a premium on possession.
"Either you're on the defense or you're on the offense. If you win more draws, you're going to be on the offense more often and then you get more chances to score," Hunter said. "[Halpern is] a big part — he's over 60 percent. He's doing very well. For him, we control the game more by when we get the forecheck instead of playing in our own end."
Halpern is the main reason why the Capitals are in the top 10 in the NHL in faceoffs.
And it's Halpern's consistent game at both ends of the rink that have made him a key cog in Washington's improved play of late.
"He's real good. He's supportive; he works hard," forward Troy Brouwer said. "He plays much bigger than he is. It just makes it easier for guys out there to know where he's going to be on the ice and what he's doing."
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