Watching the Detroit Red Wings dominate the Stanley Cup finals has taught me several things about what the Habs need to do if they're to fulfill Bob Gainey's publicly-expressed desire to emulate the champs' style. They need to develop better puck movement out of their own end for one thing. They need to close the gap between forwards and defence and have everyone moving ahead with speed and precision passing for another. They also need to get better on the boards, coming out with the puck more often than not. But the main thing I concluded after watching Detroit for the last two months is the Habs need to improve on the faceoff. A lot.
Everyone raves about Detroit's puck-possession game. It's true...they do have the puck for well over half the game. They take it off the draw, and their skilled passers and deft stickhandlers are able to hold it seemingly indefinitely. A quick look at the stats seems to bear out the correlation between faceoff win percentage and success in puck possession. Detroit led the league with a team-wide 53.27% during the regular season, compared to Montreal's 48.99%. Interestingly, Pittsburgh was a league-worst 46.11% in the circle. In the playoffs, Detroit once again dominated, with a 54.57% win rate. Half the teams in the post-season were less than fifty percent on faceoffs. Four of them played Detroit, including league-worst Dallas at 46.51%. Montreal improved marginally on its regular season stat, with a 50.48% rate of success. Of course, stats don't tell the whole story, and can be manipulated to show what you want them to show. But, there's no denying that Detroit wins a LOT of faceoffs, and they are able to keep the puck once they win it. It seems logical, doesn't it? Win the puck off the draw, gain control, pass it to attacking teammates, and the other team's going to have a heck of a time scoring on you. Conversely, lose the draw and you're constantly chasing the opponent to get it back. You're wasting more energy skating on defence, you're in more battles on the boards and you spend more time in your own end, giving up potentially dangerous chances on your goalie. There's little coincidence that Detroit was one of only two teams to allow fewer than 2000 shots against over 82 games this year. San Jose was the other, and they were eighth in the league in faceoff wins.
Further evidence to this effect is Bob Gainey's pre-trade deadline review of the team. The one concrete concern he expressed was that the team needs to improve on faceoffs. He issued his centres a challenge to fight for the puck more, and said he would consider a trade to bring in a strong faceoff man if that didn't happen. He even sent Kyle Chipchura, who seemed to be learning on the job pretty well in most areas, back to Hamilton after citing his need to work on the draw as a reason for the decision.
I think the team is making a move to address that deficiency already. The Habs' lone Quebec-born draftee last year, among all the defence with which Trevor Timmins stocked the system, was centre Olivier Fortier. He won the Guy Carbonneau Award as the best defensive forward in the Q this year. His faceoff percentage was a strong 52.5% over the season. I'm expecting Timmins to choose another centre with his first pick this year, and you can bet one of the qualities the team will be looking for is his ability on the draw.
Likewise with the free agent race in a few weeks. If Gainey moves to bring in a "name," I'd expect him to be someone like Sundin, who boasts a very impressive 55.16% faceoff success rate, along with all his other obvious good qualities. With the better-than-average chance that Sundin might choose elsewhere, then Gainey may take his now-traditional "Plan B" route and sign a third-line centre to replace Brian Smolinski. Josef Vasicek, Chris Gratton and Chris Kelly are all well over fifty-percent on the draw, and solid defensive players to boot. Bobby Holik and Eric Christensen in Atlanta are both an awesome 58% on faceoffs.
Whatever happens in the next few weeks, I think one thing you can safely count on is the Habs improving in the faceoff department. Bob Gainey thinks it's one of the most important factors on a winning hockey team. After watching the Stanley Cup champ Red Wings own the puck from the faceoff and for most of the game, I have to say I agree.