Ranking the Top 10 Faceoff Artists in the NHL in the 2013-14 Season
The best faceoff man in the league this year, is it Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews or someone else entirely? These days it seems like most teams have at least one player who can consistently win about 60 percent of his faceoffs, giving his team an instant edge that can correlate directly into shots and goals.
How many goals is a faceoff win worth? Not nearly as many as you think. Every 101.6 faceoff wins at even strength is worth a goal, as is every 40.6 faceoff wins on the power play or while shorthanded, according to a 2012 study by Michael Schuckers, Tom Pasquali and Jim Curro.
Using those numbers, a great faceoff artist can help his team by up to five goals a year, which is actually enough for an otherwise replacement-level player like, say, Zenon Konopka to earn a modest cap hit all by itself.
This list will be ranked by that estimate of how many goals of value a player's faceoff prowess has earned his team so far this season. It also includes a look at how that player is trending based on his experience in previous seasons and some brief analysis into his style and reputation.
At the risk of playing spoiler, the two most famous artists are indeed on this list, and right at the top. Now turn over, because it is time to meet the masters of the mise en jeu.
All faceoff statistics are sourced from NHL.com.
10. Zenon Konopka, Buffalo Sabres
Key Stats: 217-123, 63.8 percent
Net Impact: 1.2 goals
The Buffalo Sabres' recent waiver-wire pickup, Zenon Konopka, doesn't take a lot of draws, but he wins them at a higher rate than virtually anyone else.
In the five seasons previous to this, his win-loss record was 1,040-681 at even strength and 262-215 on special teams, which were together good enough to get him into the top 20 in overall net impact despite his relatively low number of faceoffs.
Why can't NHL centers legally win faceoffs anymore by tying up the opponent's stick and hand-passing it to a teammate? Ask Konopka!
Konopka is a tough, gritty player who is known for finding ways to creatively push the boundaries and bend the rules. There are a lot of subtle elements to a legal faceoff, and they're not all easily enforceable by the officials, nor on a consistent basis. Konopka knows these details, along with when and how to stretch them.
Take, for instance, the penalty kill, which is another one of Konopka's specialties. By definition, all penalty kills begin with a defensive zone draw, and winning them helps make him arguably worth his modest sub-million dollar cap hit almost all by itself.
9. Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators
Key Stats: 479-389, 55.2 percent (12th)
Net Impact: 1.4 goals
Jason Spezza is an unheralded faceoff specialist. Over the previous five seasons combined, Spezza is 17th-best overall thanks to his consistent performance in the circle.
Spezza generally doesn't crack the NHL's top 10 in faceoff percentage, but then again, perhaps very few other performers would either if they took as many draws as he did.
Another factor that improves his numbers is all that time with the man advantage. The extra player increases the chances that a fellow Ottawa Senator will be the first to touch the puck after a draw, which is the definition used to measure faceoff wins and losses.
A final small point in Spezza's favor is that he is a right-handed shooter, which is slightly less common, making him (and the other two right-handers on this list) a challenge that most opponents are less accustomed to facing.
8. Manny Malhotra, Carolina Hurricanes
Key Stats: 341-229, 59.8 percent (third)
Net Impact: 1.4 goals
Over the previous five seasons, only those in the top two positions in this list had a greater net impact in the faceoff circle than the Carolina Hurricanes' veteran center.
Manny Malhotra's success on the draw is both well-established and well-deserved. He had the fourth-best faceoff percentage in the NHL in 2011-12 at 58.5 percent, and was second in 2010-11 with 61.7 percent. This is particularly impressive given that so many of his opportunities are in the defensive zone.
Like most faceoff specialists, Malhotra slides his grip way down his stick and gets very wide and very low. The difference is that he goes that extra bit further, often falling down forward during the draw or using his body to tie up his opponent to prevent a clean win.
According to an interview with Michael Smith of NHL.com, it's a style he learned from Mike Modano, Pierre Turgeon and new coach Kirk Muller, and one that remained successful even after the vision in one eye was impaired.
Basketball star Steve Nash's brother-in-law's other secret is experience. According to an interview with Jeff Paterson of Straight.com, Malhotra has learned the tendencies not only of his opponents, but also of the linesmen dropping the puck.
To sum up all these factors into a single concept, Malhotra is simply more dedicated and focused on this aspect of the game than virtually anyone else and has the results to prove it.
7. Boyd Gordon, Edmonton Oilers
Key Stats: 527-378, 58.2 percent (sixth)
Net Impact: 1.5 goals
In terms of faceoff winning percentage, Boyd Gordon is sixth in the NHL this year, was eighth last year (57.3 percent) and seventh in 2011-12 (56.8 percent).
And in terms of net impact, over the previous past five seasons combined, Gordon was the 15th-best faceoff man in the league, mostly because of taking slightly fewer draws than many other centers.
There's nothing complicated about the way Gordon wins faceoffs; it's just a lot of hard work and good fundamentals.
Very hard-working and feisty, Gordon makes strong use of his body, getting very low with a strong stick that's difficult to lift or tie up. He visualizes winning before every draw and always makes that second effort, continuing the battle until the puck is on an Edmonton Oiler stick.
6. Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
Key Stats: 495-393, 55.7 percent (11th)
Net Impact: 1.5 goals
Like Jason Spezza, Mikko Koivu is rarely in the top 10 in faceoff winning percentage but takes a lot of draws. In the five previous seasons combined, Koivu's total net impact was bested by only 11 NHL players, almost all of whom are on this list.
Koivu is a great example of a prototypical faceoff specialist. He possesses all the traits that are so common in the league's best. He's very smart, passionate, determined and competitive.
One of his advantages is that he has the right combination of great instincts and the experience to know the tendencies of opposing players in the faceoff circle.
Koivu is currently out of the lineup for a month for surgery on a fractured right ankle. With Matt Cullen and Zenon Konopka no longer with the Minnesota Wild, the team has quite rapidly gone from one of the stronger and deeper faceoff teams to one that is below-average.
5. Vladimir Sobotka, St. Louis Blues
Key Stats: 305-186, 62.1 percent (first)
Net Impact: 1.6 goals
Vladimir Sobotka is first in faceoff percentage this year and was ninth last year (56.5 percent). However, he takes surprisingly and mysteriously few draws for a man of his talent.
In fact, his lack of draws makes him the only player in this year's top 10 who wasn't in the top 20 five-year leaderboard going into this season. It is actually quite remarkable how predictive that leaderboard was.
Sobotka wins so many faceoffs with his competitiveness and his strong arms, according to what coach Ken Hitchcock told Andy Strickland of Fox Sports Midwest. Apart from the strength training, Sobotka does a lot of homework by watching video clips. He has fast reflexes and always comes to the faceoff circle fully prepared.
Despite this success, he has not yet earned a mainstream reputation as an elite faceoff man, likely because his own team doesn't consistently call his number for key draws. This is his fourth straight season with a winning percentage over 56 percent, and yet there's always at least a couple of St. Louis Blues who take more draws than him. Why doesn't the team use him more frequently?
4. Paul Gaustad, Nashville Predators
Key Stats: 484-335, 59.1 percent (fifth)
Net Impact: 1.7 goals
According to the net impact, Paul Gaustad was the seventh-best faceoff man in the league over the five previous seasons combined. He was behind Jarret Stoll (pictured), David Steckel, Manny Malhotra and the next three players on this list.
He has finished between third and sixth in faceoff percentage four seasons in a row.
At 6'5", one of the obvious keys to Gaustad's faceoff success is leverage and power. Though he does a lot of scouting and homework like most of his fellow specialists, strength is obviously his primary weapon of choice.
Gaustad also spends time setting up his team in the right position and paying particularly close attention to both the linesman and his opponent. He is also one of very few NHL players who can take draws either right-handed or left-handed.
The Nashville Predators are fortunate to have another top faceoff man in Matt Cullen, giving them two elite options from which to choose.
3. Antoine Vermette, Phoenix Coyotes
Key Stats: 602-467, 56.3 percent (10th)
Net Impact: 2.0 goals
Antoine Vermette was the fourth-best faceoff specialist over the previous five seasons combined, based on net impact. He's behind only Malhotra and the two players at the top of this list.
Vermette was sixth in the NHL with a winning percentage of 57.4 percent last year and eighth the year before with 56.6 percent.
Experience and speed are the keys to Vermette's approach. According to what he told Bleacher Report's Mark Brown, Vermette actually studies the speed at which linesmen drop the puck. He also studies the positioning of the opponent's body and adjusts his to give him a greater advantage.
Vermette's contributions are particularly critical for the Phoenix Coyotes since the departure of fellow specialist Boyd Gordon to the Edmonton Oilers via free agency this offseason.
2. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Key Stats: 594-439, 57.5 percent (seventh)
Net Impact: 2.3 goals
Based on total net impact over the past five seasons combined, Jonathan Toews was the league's best faceoff man going into this season. His record was 2,613-2,060 at even strength and 1,063-671 on special teams. That's a net value of 8.4 goals over (almost) five seasons.
Toews had the second-best winning percentage in the NHL with 59.9 percent last year and was first in 2011-12 with 59.4 percent.
There is absolutely no surprise here, as Jonathan Toews is universally regarded as one of the league's best on the draw.
Like most top faceoff men, most of whom tend to be defensive specialists rather than all-around stars like him, Toews does his homework. The difference is his incredible raw talent and how he simply outworks his opponent. He is so good that he is often accused of cheating, most recently by coach Mike Yeo of the Minnesota Wild in last year's playoffs, as reported to Adam Hoge of CBS Chicago.
Whenever exploring the many skills that Toews possesses at the elite level, it always comes down to just how hungry he is to have the puck. That's the common theme, and it applies to his faceoffs as well as any of his other traits.
The only player with a greater net impact in 2013-14, the man coming up next, can be described in much the same way. It is the man who bested even the great Jonathan Toews in last year's Stanley Cup Final—in the faceoff circle, at least.
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Key Stats: 633-418, 60.2 percent (second)
Net Impact: 2.4 goals
Over the past five seasons combined, Patrice Bergeron was second to Jonathan Toews going into this season in terms of overall net impact. He was 2,803-1,904 at even strength, which is much better than Toews, but 871-753 on special teams. That works out to 7.4 goals of value.
Bergeron led the NHL with a faceoff winning percentage of 62.1 percent last year and was second in 2011-12 with 59.3 percent.
Bergeron has the strength, the experience, the communication with his linemates and all the other factors that make a lot of the other faceoff specialists great. He's also got unsurpassed timing on the drop and isn't above chopping at an opponent's stick when he has to.
His real edge is his unpredictability. Bergeron switches it up, according to teammate Chris Kelly, as reported by Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy. He's one of the most creative faceoff men and is particularly difficult to scout and prepare for.
My take? Bergeron is the league's best defensive forward. His commitment to every single facet of goal prevention is never more obvious than in his stubborn refusal to allow his opponents to have possession of the puck. And it all begins with the faceoff!