EDMONTON – While there’s room for debate about a direct relationship between winning faceoffs and success in the standings, Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney doesn’t have any trouble making the connection.
The Oilers were dominated in the circles in a 5-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday, winning 18 draws and losing 45. As of today, the Oilers sit 29th in NHL faceoff percentage at 40.2.
With Edmonton 2-2 and having played just four games, that faceoff statistic might be easy to shrug off if it wasn’t for last season, when the Oilers were 30th in faceoff percentage and 30th in the standings.
Is there a connection?
“As a coaching staff, we have to place a premium on that every day,” Renney said of improving on the dot. “It’s very disconcerting.
“Whether you’re on the power play, with possession in the offensive zone, it helps that part of your game. If you’re on the penalty kill, and we all know where you’re starting that play, this is very, very dangerous territory.
“For this team, under the circumstances with what we’re trying to do, our faceoff play is not good. It has to improve dramatically.”
Not one of Renney’s four centres has a faceoff percentage of even 45 per cent, let alone the break-even point of 50 per cent.
Colin Fraser sits at 43.5. Shawn Horcoff is 40.8. First-line centre Sam Gagner is 34.0 per cent and Andrew Cogliano sits at 25.9. Winger Gilbert Brule, who has taken 19 faceoffs, is the best of a bad bunch at 68.4.
“The last game was one of those games where we didn’t start with the puck too often and it hurt us,” Gagner said. “We’re making a conscious effort, obviously, to get better at that.
“You look at the best teams in the league last year, they’re obviously great faceoff teams. With the skill we have, if we get started with the puck more often than not, it’s definitely going to help us play the game we want to play.”
Renney’s focus with faceoffs is special teams. Teams that consistently have to regroup on the power play because they lose a draw and an opponent ices the puck, lose valuable seconds of attack time.
When short-handed, consistently losing draws puts the penalty killers under duress, especially with faceoffs being moved to the end of the team that’s just been whistled. The Oilers are 11-31 in short-handed faceoffs.
“It’s not from lack of effort by any means,” Fraser said. “We look at video. We’ve talked about it a lot.
“Me and Cogs personally have talked about different tendencies guys have. It’s one of those things that, bottom line, you have to win them, but I’ll tell you it’s not from lack of effort or lack of battling.”
In 2005-06, when the Oilers went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, they finished second in the league with a percentage of 53.4. Every one of their top four centres—Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, Mike Peca and Marty Reasoner—was above 50 per cent.
Four straight years out of the playoffs have coincided with a drop in faceoff proficiency. The Oilers finished eighth in 2006-07 (51.5), 12th in 2007-08 (50.5), 25th in 2008-09 (47.9) and 30th last season (46.4).
“We know it’s related,” Horcoff said. “Every team in the league knows it’s related. You have to have the puck in order to be successful and we’re no different.
“We’re aggressive. When we have the puck, we’re obviously creating more and we feel like we’re a better team when we’re skating and having it (the puck) and not chasing it.”
Cogliano, in his fourth season, regularly does extra work on faceoffs, but he’s had percentages of 43.0, 37.2 and 39.5 in his first three seasons.
“It’s not just a finesse move,” Renney said. “It’s not just a skill move. It’s a power move. You have to have strong hands, strong forearms.
“You have to have a real frame of mind that, at the very least, they aren’t winning this draw.”
Some players seem to have a knack for faceoffs, others don’t. Many of the same names end up near the top of the stats heap year after year—Manny Malhotra, now with Vancouver, is a good recent example.
Adam Oates was one of the those players. The Oilers signed Oates as a freeagent for the 2003-04 season. At age 41, his percentage was 57.2 in 60 games. He schooled young teammates Horcoff and Stoll.
“One thing he said to us is you have to find what works for you,” Horcoff said of advice he got from Oates. “What works for him doesn’t necessarily work for me.
“Every good faceoff guy in the league, you look at Malhotra or whoever else, they all have one or two moves and they don’t sway from it. They find their strength and they stick to it.”