Centres of attention: Offseason faceoff plan paying off

With the departure of Dillon Dube, the collection of Calgary Flames centres got a little bit smaller. (Although the team technically got a little larger in terms of average size.)

The rookie pivot playing out of his natural position on the third line was part of a group that has given the Flames a relatively unique ability in the faceoff dot. They’ve fluctuated a little in the volatile statistical category, but as of Thursday afternoon, ranked eighth in the league winning 51.9% of the battles in the circles.

That doesn’t always translate into success, as the top two teams on that list prove — with the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings playing abysmal hockey and experiencing major organizational personnel changes in the process.

For the Flames, however, the conversion rate has been obvious.

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Among the top few possession teams in the league, they’ve turned their icing of a glut of natural centremen — a remarkable eight of their dozen forwards before Dube’s departure — into a considerable strength.

Only the diminutive and raw Dube was winning less than 40% of his draws at 39.5%. Understandable given his stature and experience level of just 20 NHL contests.

His mentors, however, have benefitted from a circumstantial strategy developed and employed by GM Brad Treliving and head coach Bill Peters: Bring in some right-handed natural centres to work the strong side and take some of the pressure off the incumbent regulars down the middle — Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Mark Jankowski — who all carry left-bladed composites.

The offseason saw them bring in a trio of righty forwards in Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan and Austin Czarnik. All of them versatile enough to play the wing but entering the league as centres.

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Now with their middlemen taking the majority of their faceoffs on their strong side, the Flames are enjoying more success than they have had in a decade on the dot.

Seriously. The last time this team won more than half of its draws in a season was 2008-09 when they finished tied for eighth in the league at 51.3%.

  • 2017-18 — 49.4% (19)
  • 2016-17 — 48.9% (19)
  • 2015-16 — 48.6% (27)
  • 2014-15 — 47.4% (26)
  • 2013-14 — 46.2% (30)
  • 2012-13 — 46.6% (28)
  • 2011-12 — 46.2% (30)
  • 2010-11 — 48.1% (24)
  • 2009-10 — 48.0% (28)
  • 2008-09 — 51.3% (8)

Monahan was enjoying a strong start before a disastrous outing against the Stars on Wednesday night during which he and Backlund were dominated. But even after posting 29% and 23% performances, respectively, Monahan (49.3) and Backlund (49.1) are still hovering right at the 50% mark overall.

Let’s take a quick look at all the numbers for the remaining Flames who have taken more than 20 draws:

  • Left-handed Sam Bennett (25 draws) is thriving at 63.4% albeit in a limited role;
  • Right-handed Lindholm (318) is next at 56.3%, and second only to Backlund in number taken;
  • Left-handed Jankowski (159) is doing well as a sophomore at 54.7%, combining technique with his size and strength;
  • Right-handed Czarnik (24) has been a bit player so far but is successful when in the lineup, winning 54.2%;
  • Right-handed Ryan (190) has been underwhelming offensively but a reliable 53.1% in the circles.

Bennett is really coming into his own, and now that he’s a regular on the second line with Matthew Tkachuk and Backlund, he could receive more opportunities (at least in the offensive zone) despite having the same strong side as Backlund.

Jankowski remains a project with loads of potential, but he’s quietly becoming a player who can be counted on in every area of the ice.

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Czarnik and Ryan are doing those clichéd “little things” right more often than not, contributing in ways not sexy enough statistically to stand out.

And for anyone concerned about the sub-.500 performances by the top two centres, they’re getting it done in critical situations.

Backlund is 10th in the league in shorthanded winning percentage at 56.8% (among those who have won at least 10 draws on the penalty kill).

Monahan and Lindholm, who combined have taken 94 of the team’s 142 faceoffs on the man advantage, are clicking at 52.2% and 52.1% margins respectively.

More games on the wrong side of the ledger can spoil the early returns quickly, but a little more than a quarter of the way though, part of the franchise’s offseason vision is living up to its potential.

  • freethe flames

    BP said when he was hired that he wanted his team to be strong in the dot; having guys who can take face offs on their strong side helps. This of course should help teams to have better possession numbers,

  • buts

    I would love to know what Monahans percentage is starting the PP with that offensive zone face off? Seems he loses way more than wins. Also Backlund seems to win face offs on the PK and loses when he’s on the PP, weird.

    • mrroonie

      I went back to the individual game sheets for all the games and Monahan is 14-14 on the season starting the PP in the offensive zone. He was 4-11 in October but turned it around and is 10-3 so far in November. Lindholm takes a lot more face offs in that situation when they’re on the ice, something I didn’t realize until I was too far into it to go back and count his as well. Monahan is 6-10 on the road (3-1 in November), and 8-4 at home (7-2 in November).

    • canadian1967

      It’s simple. On the PP Backs is more likely to Face-off against an Offensvely focused player who “may not” be as good in the Dot as a guy who lives on the PK and is a Face-off guy.

  • Albertabeef

    “Jankowski remains a project with loads of potential” 6+ years after his draft? Okay. So how come nobody ever says this when talking about Monahan(a whole month younger) or Bennett(2 years younger)?

    • oilcanboyd

      Providence College (2012-16) is not pro hockey ajn not a top 10 draft pick). Besides he is in the NHL. Same draft year as Yakupov, first overall is playing in St Petersburgh, Russia. WOW.

      • Albertabeef

        What has that got to do with it? He was drafted as a “work in progress” and six plus seasons later he is still a work in progress. Doesn’t really matter where those six seasons were played. Should it really matter what spot a player is drafted at and how much time they should get to develop? Before Dube got sent down how many younger draft pick players are with the team? But then Mangiapane is younger and a fourth round pick. If Mony were two weeks younger he would have likely been taken 4th round after way after we picked Jankowski. Just saying people should cut Benny some slack. He’s doing way better than that Yakupov guy.

        • Albertabeef

          Jankowski sits in 47th place for career scoring among his draft year while Yakupov still sits in 11th place. Bennett sits in 10th for his draft
          year 40ish points behind Nylander who’s currenly 9th. Well while I’m at it Johnny is 5th of his draft class, Mony is second to Nate Mac and Linholm is 4th in theirs, and Hanifin is 8th in his. Tkachuky is 3rd behind Matthews and Liane. Cool.

  • oilcanboyd

    Other news….Ferland diagnosed with another concussion, Oilers cherry pick Zykov from waivers….still experimenting with marginal NHL/AHL Right wingers…lol