Kraken center Yanni Gourde admits to evolving his approach to the game within a game known as a hockey faceoff.
Winning puck drops after a stoppage in play — especially inside the circles in the offensive and defensive zones — can sometimes mean the difference between scoring or preventing goals. And with around 60 faceoffs per game, a decisive edge can lead to positive outcomes.
Gourde has won 52.8% of faceoffs this season, second-best among Kraken players taking at least 50. A typical replacement-level player wins about 47%, 55% is considered very good, and 60% is elite.
“I’ve watched a lot of faceoffs since the beginning of my career, and I’ve definitely picked up on certain players — you see how they do things,” said Gourde, whose 8-13-2 Kraken host Edmonton on Friday night at Climate Pledge Arena. “And I’ve had a faceoff coach help me during my career to make sure I was the best I could be at it. So it’s a work in progress.”
Gourde led the Tampa Bay Lightning with 316 faceoff wins last season.
Former NHL veteran Jeff Halpern, a Lightning assistant since 2018-19, worked on faceoffs with Gourde and other centermen. As a player for 976 games with seven teams, Halpern posted a 54.2% career faceoff win percentage.
There has long been debate about strong faceoff success correlating to winning games, with studies failing to find links. But a research paper by staffers from the Sportlogiq data analytics company, presented at the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, concluded that those studies examined the wrong thing.
Rather than linking faceoffs to wins, the paper’s study of 71,000 faceoffs from 2017-18 concluded it’s better to examine correlation between winning them and succeeding in certain situations. Namely, it found value in winning faceoffs, also called draws, cleanly in the offensive zone and directing pucks to high-danger areas.
“When a player wins the draw cleanly,” the study stated, “his team can execute drawn-up set plays with greater ease and will therefore have better chances of catching the defending team off-guard or out of position.”
A clean win in the offensive zone led to a shot or scoring chance 38.6% of the time compared with 30.3% for wins that weren’t clean. Clean wins directed back to the inside of the faceoff circle led to shots 43.6% of the time compared with 32.1% when teammates fought for a loose puck.
Most NHL teams rely on Sportlogiq’s proprietary data.
There’s an art to winning faceoffs cleanly that involves leverage, positioning and knowing opponent tendencies. At 5 feet 9, Gourde isn’t exactly beating opponents with a long reach — which studies show have little bearing on faceoffs.
Instead, skate positioning can provide a huge advantage as players leaning to one side of the faceoff circle gain leverage. That’s why the referee or linesman who drops the puck checks that both players taking the draw have skates pointed straight ahead and planted near, but not over, hash marks within the circle.
Also, sticks must be on the ice, the visiting team player going first. Players must be set within five seconds of the referee’s signal.
Violators get kicked out, and somebody else takes the draw. If the new taker commits a second violation, a delay-of-game penalty is called.
“It makes a lot of difference,” Kraken center Alex Wennberg, averaging 49.8% success this season, said of skirting the rules. “That’s why they try to kick you out all the time. I feel like it happens quite often to me.
“But if you’re not cheating, the other guys do cheat and they get an advantage. So you’ve just got to do the little things that make it happen.”
Also, wingers from both teams must stay outside the faceoff circle with sticks on the ice and avoid making contact with one another beforehand. Violators will get their center kicked out of the faceoff circle.
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said wingers can help determine whether a center wins a faceoff. After all, the “winning” comes from teammates gaining puck possession, and Hakstol said that often entails “wingers being ready and jumping in and helping out on 50-50 pucks.”
Sportlogiq’s study placed a premium on “clean” wins, but scrambles that aren’t clean can have value in the contesting players screening the goalie if the puck finds its way back for a shot.
Kraken center Morgan Geekie, leading the team in faceoff success at 53.3% said everyone plays a part.
“At the end of the day, it’s five guys taking the draw,” he said. “I’m just the one that gets to stand in the middle.”
Gourde lets linemates know ahead of faceoffs where he hopes the puck will go. Much depends on whether he’s facing a right-handed or left-handed shooter. Also, whether he’s planning to use his forehand or backhand. Or direct the puck to his strong- or weak-handed side.
“There are a lot of components that go into it,” Gourde said.
The most natural motion for players is taking a faceoff on their backhand. So a right-handed shot taking a faceoff in the right circle will try to backhand the draw toward the corner to a waiting shooter.
But a left-handed shooter such as Gourde taking a faceoff in the right circle won’t necessarily want to backhand he puck toward the middle of the ice on his strong side — where an opponent can steal it for a scoring chance.
So he might use his forehand and tie up the opponent’s stick with his own until teammates jump in.
In the offensive zone, as per Sportlogiq’s study, centers often aggressively try to win faceoffs cleanly back to a teammate. But in the defensive zone, a center might tie up an opponent’s stick to prevent a clean win.
Wennberg said he has improved on faceoffs by getting physically stronger and fine-tuning hand placement on his stick. A lower grip can provide more leverage.
He firmly believes winning faceoffs comes down to his own mental preparation rather than worrying about opponents.
“It’s a one-on-one battle, but at the end of the day a lot of the battle is against yourself,” said Wennberg, who won a team-best 13 of 16 (79%) faceoffs in a victory Saturday over Florida. “What am I doing on this draw? What am I thinking? What do I want to achieve from it? So, there are a lot of mind games but also a lot of determination.”
Still, players taking faceoffs try to know opponents’ tendencies.
Gourde said Geekie does much the scouting on opposing centers for both of them. Things such as whether the opponent leans heavy on his stick or hangs back.
Geekie won 86 of 163 (52.8%) faceoffs in Carolina over parts of the previous two seasons. He has improved on that even with increased NHL playing time, going 114-for-214 (53.3%) this season.
“Honestly, it’s just a lot of repetition,” Geekie said. “I think you see a lot of the older guys in the league are really good at faceoffs. So you kind of look to older players for help on things like that, and then it’s just getting the reps.”