Jake Gardiner and the other Toronto Maple Leafs defensemen like to think they can hold their own in the faceoff circle.
“Sometimes in practice we’ll just joke around and go against the centermen and tell them we can beat them,” Gardiner said.
Washington Capitals defenseman 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 centers 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 defensemen 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, defensemen aren’t accustomed to taking faceoffs and almost never work on it in practice.
But this season, defensemen 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 centerman,” Arizona Coyotes defenseman 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 defensemen 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 defensemen 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 D-man go in there, you’re probably not going to win too many of them.”
Eleven different defensemen 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 defenseman Michael Stone said. “If you do win one, it’s pure excitement, I think, from everybody.”
Defensemen 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 D-man in, a lot of times those centermen relax and the D-men are all-in,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who grew up playing defense. “There’s a lot of cheers that go on when a defenseman 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 defensemen 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 center 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. “I could probably not do it again. I guess my timing was perfect in that moment.”
Call it perfect timing, call it luck or call it whatever you want. New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk is 3 for 4 in his career, but still remembers losing his first faceoff and getting mad about it.
Of course, Boychuk has put “zero” practice time into it and has a simple, albeit ugly, strategy.
“You just tie up,” Boychuk said. “Try to tie up, at least, and smack it to the wall. Tell the person that you’re going to try to shoot it to.”
Or maybe just lose it intentionally, Jake Gardiner suggested, so everyone on your team knows where the puck is going. Because, c’mon, this is probably not going to end well.
“Centermen are so good at faceoffs now, you’re probably going to lose it anyway,” the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman said. “You’re kind of just going in there and hoping for the best.”
Hedman is no faceoff specialist like Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. And defensemen 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 defenseman, 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.”
In 19 NHL seasons, Islanders coach Doug Weight took thousands of faceoffs. But he hadn’t thought much about asking defensemen to practice faceoffs - until now.
“Later in periods it’s so prevalent getting thrown out now that you want guys that can come in and take a draw,” Weight said. “The only occasion where we’d have a D is if you’re down 4-on-3, 5-on-3. Obviously it’s a huge piece of puck possession.”
Puck possession? Sure, that’d be great, but most defensemen just don’t want to get embarrassed.
“I’m mostly just playing not to get beat clean,” said Stone, who has spent years practicing against brother Mark, a forward for the Ottawa Senators. “I’m not looking to win a faceoff clean, especially on that kind of a play. You just try not to get beat clean, do whatever you can to kind of push that in the direction of your guys.”
Now that Hedman won his first faceoff attempt, he hopes it was his last.
“Hopefully, I don’t have to take any more,” he said, “so I stay 100 percent for the rest of my career.”
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .
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