One of the most overlooked losses the Capitals suffered in the offseason is prowess in the face-off circle. Eric Fehr took more face-offs than anyone else on the team other than Nicklas Backstrom. Throw in Troy Brouwer and the Capitals lost two of their top four players in number of face-offs taken. Joel Ward makes three of the top eight. Any way you look at it, someone is going to have to take those draws and with Fehr pulling 52.0%, Brouwer 56.9% and Ward 47.2%, those are real losses. Between them they accounted for 1,431 face-offs last season.
Probably the best way to look at this is by line, and the first line shouldn’t be a problem. Backstrom won 53.6% of 1,609 draws. By far the most draws taken on the team. Fehr had 863 for second place by comparison. Whichever line Jay Beagle ends up on is set as well with Beagle winning 56.5% of 384 draws. Lets assume he’s on the 4th line; that leaves the 2nd and 3rd line to consider.
On the second line Evgeny Kuznetsov will be taking most of the face-offs. His 44.6% in 681 attempts isn’t great, but he did get better as the season progressed. In the playoffs for instance he was 48.2% on 166 face-off attempts. He’s been in DC most of the summer and working hard, so we can hope (and expect) he continues to improve. If Andre Burakovsky ends up on the left-wing he brings a 44.3% winning percentage in 167 face-offs. Not a huge sample size but as a young player we can assume he can improve on those numbers. Marcus Johansson, the other possibility at left-wing, is no better at 43.8% on just 16 face-offs taken. The difference being Johansson is a veteran and so much less likely to show huge improvements. Justin Williams was at 50.0% in LA last season but with only 6 opportunities. In the previous season he was just 20% in the regular season but 60% in the playoffs (winning the Conn Smyth). In both cases, very small sample size. It’s fair to assume that unless coach Trotz sees something that Sutter didn’t in LA, Williams won’t be a primary face-off option for the Caps. Obviously Kuznetsov will have to be the guy. It’s obvious that Trotz relies heavily on Backstrom and the 1st line for face-offs, but the second line needs to step up and give him more options.
The 3rd line is the line where the losses are seen most acutely. Unless Beagle plays on the 3rd line there is no one ready to step in with 50% or better in the circle. Jason Chimera was at 56.6% on 76 attempts last season but there doesn’t seem to be a place for him on that 3rd line. Likewise Michael Latta at 47.8% on 335 draws would be an option but barring injury or greatly improved play, it’s hard to see him getting 3rd line minutes. Most likely it’s Wilson on the right-wing and the loser of the Johansson vs Burakovsky competition for the 2nd line left-wing. Wilson was just 18.2% on 18 face-offs so baring a miracle, he won’t be the 3rd line face-off answer. We’ve already covered Johansson and Burakovsky who certainly aren’t the obvious answer. Looking at the center position right now it would seem to be either Brooks Laich or Derek Roy (if he makes the team). Neither is particularly good in the circle with Laich at 43.9% on 198 attempts and Roy at 44.8% on 909 attempts. Roy has seen the heavier workload and against better competition than Laich however. If the 3rd line is a bit sheltered as many expect, it might not be as big of a problem as it seems.
Any way you look at it we do have some questions to answer in the face-off circle on at least two lines. It’s not a reason to panic but it bears watching.
By Ernie Mudd