a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Thursday, 7 July 2011

07/08/11 49.0 Hope For Gagner In Faceoffs

Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano

Once billed as both being future cornerstones, it's likely that only one of the players above will remain with the Edmonton Oilers beyond this season. Management has a decision to make when it comes to which player they should keep. In all likelihood it will be Sam Gagner who stays a part of the organization, with the hope of one day being a top end second line center. Gagner's game is still a work in progress, but he does have the offensive tools to be effective in the NHL. One glaring hole so far has been his ability to win a faceoff - something that he must be able to do in order to stick at center long term.

In today's NHL the centers that are considered elite have a good all-around game, and they can usually win draws at a high rate. Contrary to what seems to be the popular opinion, strength in the dot is not something that comes easily to most players right away. It isn't a skill that can translate as easily from junior hockey, like stickhandling or skating can. Most of the centers that we now think of as elite were not always that way when it comes to taking draws. Here are a few examples.

Ryan Kesler
 Ryan Kesler is the perfect player to start with. Kesler is coming off a regular season in which he scored 41 goals and 32 assists for 73 points in 82 games. In that time, he won 57.4% of the draws he took, and he's considered a fantastic second line center. He's exactly the type of pivot that a championship team has on line number two. Here is how Kesler's faceoff ability progressed over his career:

2003-04: 40.2%, 2005-06: 46.8%, 2006-07: 46.1%, 2007-08: 53.0%, 2008-09: 54.0%, 2009-10: 55.1%, 2010-11: 57.4%

It was only in his fourth season that Kesler won more draws than he lost, and now he is extremely effective in the discipline. In fact, he even took a step back in 2006-07, the season before he won 53% of his draws for the first time. He was actually 23 in his fourth season because of the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

Manny Malhotra
 Long before a puck to the eye would threaten Manny Malhotra's career - requiring him to wear the facial protection pictured above in the playoffs - the New York Rangers selected the centerman 7th overall in 1998. Malhotra is considered one of, if not the best faceoff man in the entire league. This past season he won 61.7% of his draws, and a career high 62.5% the year before that. Here is his career progression in the dot:

1998-99: 43.9%, 1999-00: 44.7%, 2000-01: 44.4%, 2001-02: 45.9%, 2002-03: 47.0%, 2003-04: 57.7%, 2005-06: 56.4%, 2006-07: 55.1%, 2007-08: 59.0%, 2008-09: 58.0%, 2009-10: 62.5%, 2010-11: 61.7%'

In his first five seasons (albeit only 27 games in 1999-00), Malhotra looked as hopeless in the faceoff circle as Sam Gagner looks now. He was 23 years old before he was able to win draws on a consistent basis, and he hasn't looked back since.

The Datsyukian One, seen here making Marty Turco look silly, is another example of a good faceoff man and a very complete player. Last year he won 54.6% of his draws, but in his first two years in the league he was less than 50%; winning 47.7% and 48.2% in 2001-02 and 2002-03. Since then he's been as good on draws as he is at everything else. Datsyuk is a truly special talent, and arguably the best player in the league today. To compare Sam Gagner to Datsyuk is extremely unfair, but the Russian's medioce showing on faceoffs to start his career shows just how difficult it can be to master. Datsyuk was 25 before he was above 50% on draws.

Shawn Horcoff
 Every fan in Oil Country knows that without the current captain, the Oilers would have been sunk when it comes to faceoffs over the last several seasons. Up until Eric Belanger came on board, Horcoff was the team's only option. But even he took some time to find a groove in the faceoff circle.

In his first three years in the league, Horcoff won 41.8%, 46.3%, and 42.9% of the draws he took. He actually took a large step backward right before winning 50.6% in 2003-04. That year started a run of 5 consecutive seasons of 50% or better for Horcoff, but his recent status as the Oilers' only faceoff man has seen his numbers dip to 46.4% and 48.3% over the last two years. Nevertheless, he's another example of a faceoff guy who took a little while to get there. He was 25 years old before he got above 50%.


Sam Gagner is 22 in August and has had career faceoff stats of:

2007-08: 41.8%
2008-09: 42.0%
2009-10: 47.7%
2010-11: 43.8%

Don't let his fall back in faceoff percentage fool you into thinking he'll never get over 50%. As has been shown, even some of the league's better faceoff men have taken steps back before getting over the hump. 

Winning draws is one of the tougher things to do in the NHL. Not only does it require physical strength against men that are much older than a raw rookie, it also takes an enormous amount of desire on the part of the player and some help from his linemates to win the scramble draws.

There's no guarantee that Sam Gagner will ever win more than 50% of the draws he takes on a consistent basis, nor is there any that he'll be a top faceoff man in the league. On the other hand, his numbers to this point aren't necessarily indicative of how good he will eventually be. There's still plenty of time for him to round into a complete NHL centerman.

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