Creating a Faceoff Strategy
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about situations that, as coaches, we forget to practice as a team - things like 4 on 3, 3 on 3, etc. I also believe that one aspect of the game that becomes an afterthought is faceoffs - both the skill of winning a draw and what the team is trying to accomplish both on wins and losses of a draw.
Now, to be fair, there is interesting discussion among statisticians that there seems to be no correlation between faceoff success and winning hockey games. Case in point, the Nashville Predators, in the Stanley Cup final game, won an astounding 68% of faceoffs but lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-0. But, to my mind, losing a faceoff at the beginning of a shift probably means not having possession of the puck for anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds depending on the situation. That could mean 35-40% of a regular 40 second shift without the puck. So, although there might be empirical evidence that winning draws doesn’t translate into winning games, I think it is a no brainer that your chances of game success increase with faceoff success.
When it comes to the individual skill of winning faceoffs, there is lots of material available online as to how to win draws. The two key points from almost every source online are: strength and competiveness. There are lots of techniques, lots of philosophies on hand position, forehand and backhand methods but, almost everyone concurs that centers need to be strong, quick and battle hard. There is no question that winning faceoffs will improve with practice. Coaches should take some time to work on faceoff skills and you don’t need to use valuable ice time to do this. Next time you are doing some off ice work, split into groups of three players and have everyone working on their faceoff technique - one player dropping the puck to the other two and switch around.
Most coaches are very keen to learn new set plays off faceoffs in all three zones but in many ways, having set plays at each faceoff dot, with win and loss responsibilities, goes a long way to over complicate the game for athletes. Often it is enough to just try to remember where to go on a regular forecheck without having to remember where to line up and what the responsibilities are in every situation off a draw. When putting together your faceoff strategies, it’s crucial to consider your systems. For example, if you run a 2-1-2 forecheck then your loss of a draw in the offensive zone play should reflect that. If your team wins a draw outside your own blue line then your faceoff strategy should run the same kind of neutral ice regroup that you would use in the course of regular play. Of course you will still have what I would call a set plays off the draw but, when it mirrors your system play it will be a lot easier for your players to remember and execute.
I often leave the offensive zone draws up to the individual lines. They can make up their own plays and run them on wins. But, I make it clear that there needs to be offensive tactics and strategies that we have worked on in mind. Creating east-west movement in the zone is important so, drawing the puck to the board side D and passing across the blue line to the other D creates movement in the zone. Then the puck carrier can look to pass back to a player breaking to the far post.
Screening the goalie and creating lots of traffic at the net is an important offensive tactic for my teams as well so, if we have the puck at the point in the middle of the blue line off a draw I want to see players doing those traffic things we have talked about for regular 5v5 play. Another offensive tactic I teach my players is to make plays from the back of the net. Therefore, having a set play that gets the puck to that area supports those regular themes we try to establish in all of our offensive play.
In an excerpt from my upcoming book, here is how I approach the loss of a draw in the defensive zone - keeping in mind that I my teams almost always play strict man on man coverage in the zone:
Lining up for a faceoff in the defensive zone looks a little odd (and doesn’t translate well in the above diagram). Here is where players should be:
Center taking the draw.
Left defenceman on the net side hash marks opposite the opposing forward.
Left wing lines up outside the left defenceman.
Right wing lines up next to the left defenceman on the circle.
Right defenceman lines up directly between the center and the net.
Responsibilities on the loss of the draw:
Center ties up their center.
Left defenceman ties up their forward lined up next to him.
Left wing goes directly to their middle defenceman.
Right defenceman is responsible for guarding the net if the center loses their center, picks up a loose puck between the dot and the net and will naturally be the retrieval person on a puck going to the near corner. Ultimately, the board side winger will be the right defenceman’s player to cover.
The right winger has three jobs to do on the draw:
Pick up a loose puck sitting around the dot.
Taking away the board side forward if he gets the puck.
Continues on to the board side defenceman.
The key here is to not give up a scoring chance off the loss of the draw. One of the push backs on this formation is that no one is next to the board side forward. I don’t line anyone up over there for a few reasons. First, typically that is not going to be the first option for the opposing center to tap the puck to. They may make an adjustment later in the game but it won’t be a first choice. Second, even if that player gets the puck cleanly off the draw, he isn’t really in a good scoring position and the right defenceman is coming at him one on one – everyone else is covered. Finally, if their set play is to have their board side forward skate the back of the circle then the right winger has a better chance of attacking him from the net side rather than the board side.
Don’t let faceoffs get away from you during your season and practice planning. Although winning faceoffs might not be correlated to winning hockey games, all are in agreement that puck possession does correlate - and winning faceoffs will ultimately create more puck possession.