The Washington Capitals concluded Tuesday’s practice with a faceoff drill. Teammates cheered each other on as players faced off one-on-one, one at a time. From top center Evgeny Kuznetsov to third-pair defenseman Brooks Orpik, most everyone won a draw.
It’s little wonder Todd Reirden built this into the day’s itinerary — the Capitals are 30th in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage.
“Any chance that our team — a skilled team like our team — can have the puck, we want to have it,” Reirden said.
Faceoffs are one of the main issues the Capitals (2-2-1) can address heading into Wednesday’s game against the New York Rangers (1-4-0) at Capital One Arena, where Washington will try to halt a two-game losing streak.
The season is two weeks old, but so far, only Montreal is worse on the draw than Washington. The Capitals have won 137 faceoffs and lost 176 (43.8 percent). For comparison, the New Jersey Devils lead the league at 57.4 percent, and the median is a shade over 50 percent.
Among all Capitals who have taken at least two faceoffs, nobody is averaging better than Nicklas Backstrom’s 50 percent rate on the dot. Kuznetsov, for all the success he is having on offense this year, is winning just 35.8 percent of his draws.
What’s changed between last year, when the Capitals won 50.4 percent of the time, and now? An easy answer would be the departure of Jay Beagle. The longtime Washington centerman was a faceoff specialist, winning a career-best 58.5 percent of his attempts last season. But Chandler Stephenson doesn’t want to view Beagle’s move to Vancouver as an excuse.
“Beags was huge for us last year on faceoffs,” Stephenson said. “That was something he was a master in … but to have Kuzy back and Lars back, they’re up there with the best of them too. It’s not that we’re one of the worst faceoff teams in the league after losing Beags, but he obviously helped us a lot too.”
There are competing opinions about the importance of faceoffs. In one sense, winning them leads to more time possessing the puck, which should lead to more offense. But not all faceoffs are created equal.
“I think sometimes it can be a little overrated, to be honest with you,” Lars Eller said. “Obviously offensive zone and defensive zone are to an extent more important than a neutral zone faceoff, I think. But in key situations, on power plays, very important … You start with the puck instead of going back, and you lose 30 seconds sometimes.”
It’s not up to just the centers to make this correction — Reirden believes all his players need to be more aware and capable. Non-centers come into play in two ways: In special cases like a 3-on-5 penalty kill, blueliners occasionally need to step in if an official kicks the first player off the dot.
But in many cases of regular, even-strength faceoffs, the play is far from over once the puck drops.
“We looked at some clips this morning where it just shows that — especially for the forwards as well — that sometimes it’s a 50-50 battle after the initial faceoff,” Eller said. “And then, you know, you gotta win that one to get the puck.”
“The days with it just being center versus center and a clean draw being won back is a rarity now,” Reirden added.
If you’re keeping score at home, the Rangers are only winning 48.2 percent of their draws, so it could be the right time for Washington to show off what they’ve practiced.
The Capitals, well-rested since their last game Saturday, catch New York on a back-to-back. The Rangers have only mustered 12 goals in five games.