When a team starts play with the puck in the offensive zone, it can lead to really good things. Like goals. That’s why the NHL tweaked its rules over the summer to allow attacking teams to choose the side of the ice on which they’d like to take the draw in four specific situations. And while a very small sample size in a very unscientific study revealed that its impact was negligible on the first night of the season, coaches and players expect it to have an impact.
First, a refresher on the rule change. Attacking teams can now choose which dot to take the faceoff after an icing, at the start of a power play, on a shot taken from outside the red line that is frozen by the goalie and when a defending player unintentionally dislodges the net. The thinking is that centers will be able to choose their ‘strong side’, which gives them a greater chance of winning the draw and gaining possession. On icings, they’ll also be able to put out a fresh center, while the defending team doesn’t get a change.
According to the NHL’s play-by-play statistics, that happened a total of 68 times in the first four games of the season. Surprisingly, the split was exactly 50-50, with the attacking and defending teams winning 34 draws each, none of which directly led to goals. John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs was 4-1 in draws in those situations and Leon Draisaitl, who was a beast in the Edmonton Oilers’ first game of the campaign, actually won four of five on the defensive side. Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals took eight draws in those situations against the St. Louis Blues, winning five and losing three.
As we said, extremely small sample size, but it’s something worth watching. Most players who spoke about it at the NHL’s pre-season media tour think it will have a positive impact on generating offense. “Offensively, it’s great. Offensively, it’s the best rule ever,” said Philadelphia Flyers center Kevin Hayes, who joins the team that was best on faceoffs in the NHL in 2018-19. “Defensively, it sucks.”
Almost all centers in the league prefer to take faceoffs on their backhands and sweep it toward the boards, which means most left-shooting centers will choose the left side of the attacking zones, while right-handed shooters will take the right side. Ken Hitchcock, who sits No. 3 in all-time coaching wins and is a consultant for the Edmonton Oilers, expects the rule will have a huge impact. “I think the biggest thing is now you’ll be setting up with an offensive mindset,” Hitchcock said. “I think it will have a huge impact in creating offense. Guys who are 55 percent in the faceoff dot are probably 65 or 70 percent on their strong side, so that’s huge. I think you’ll see possession numbers change now.”
Another dean of NHL coaches, Maple Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock, is going to wait to see how things play out. “I thought the one they put in a couple of years ago about putting your stick down first was an advantage, but this one I’m not so sure,” Babcock said. “We’ve really tried to hone in on it and do the math on it. (Assistant coach Andrew Brewer) does more math on faceoffs than you could ever believe. I don’t know. We’re going to watch and find out and I’ll know more in 10 games.”
In his five seasons in the NHL, Hayes has progressively improved in the faceoff circle to the point where he now basically wins as many as he loses. Like most players, he’s not sure what the numbers are on his strong side as opposed to his weak side, but he suspects there’s a big variance between the two. As the No. 2 center with the Flyers behind Sean Couturier, he’s likely about to find out. “I think for everyone it’s pretty big, especially if you’re going against a guy on his strong side when I’m not,” Hayes said. “There are times when you tell your wingers, ‘Hey, I’m not even trying to win this. Just come and help me. I’ll try to tie him up.’ ”
With such an emphasis on analytics and teams trying to gain every possible advantage they can, it should be interesting to see how this develops. Even the best faceoff artists in the league may see their numbers take a hit. For example, Ryan O’Reilly of the Blues took four defensive faceoffs in those situations in his first game and lost three of them. Overall, he had a monster night in the dot, winning 13 of his 21 faceoffs.
“It’s going to affect who you’re playing,” O’Reilly said prior to the season. “There might be a guy you try to avoid, but if you can get that draw back and put it (on the tape) of the guys you want to have the puck, it’s definitely an advantage. I don’t really have a preference, but it depends who I’m against. It’ll be nice to be able to pick that and make that adjustment.”
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