As a whole, the Canucks are mediocre on faceoffs. When the ref drops the puck, it might as well be a coin flip for the Canucks, as their team winning percentage is 49.7%, placing them 20th in the NHL.
There’s one exception: on defensive zone faceoffs, the Canucks are one of the best teams in the league. They win 53.5% of all faceoffs in the defensive zone, good for 6th in the NHL.
There’s a pretty simple reason for that: almost all of the Canucks’ defensive zone faceoffs are taken by their two best faceoff guys, Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter. The two have each taken over 200 defensive zone faceoff. No other player on the Canucks has taken more than 50.
In fact, the rest of the Canucks combined have taken 153 faceoffs in the defensive zone in all situations. Travis Green does his absolute best to avoid putting any centre other than Horvat or Sutter on the ice for defensive zone faceoffs.
Both Horvat and Sutter have a better faceoff percentage in the defensive zone than they do elsewhere. This stands out as centres in the defensive zone have to put their sticks down first for faceoffs, which is seen as a disadvantage. Part of the reason they’ve been more successful in the defensive zone is because of their handedness: Horvat is a lefty and Sutter is a righty.
“I’ve played with Travis for a while, so he usually does that on strong sides,” says Brendan Gaunce. “He’ll bring out the lefty on his strong side and obviously on the strong side for a righty, he’ll bring out a righty.”
Particularly on defensive zone faceoffs, centres prefer to win the faceoff towards the boards, where there is less chance of something going wrong. Since it’s easiest to win a faceoff on the backhand, where you can just pull the puck back instead of trying to pivot your whole body to do so on the backhand, that gives each centre a strong side and a weak side.
For a righty, the strong side is on the right; for a lefty, it’s on the left. The fact that the Canucks’ two best faceoff guys have separate strong sides helps them win a higher percentage of defensive zone draws.
The problem, however, is that Sutter is injured and will remain out of the lineup for at least another week. With Sutter out, Horvat’s faceoff responsibilities have increased significantly.
Horvat took 23 faceoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The rest of the Canucks took 35 combined. It was even more extreme against the Nashville Predators, when he took 28 faceoffs to 29 for the rest of the team.
The big difference was defensive zone faceoffs: Horvat took 13 against the Leafs and 11 against the Predators. It was particularly noticeable against the Leafs, when Horvat double-shifted with Brendan Gaunce and Markus Granlund in place of Jake Virtanen for defensive zone faceoffs.
“He wants me to take those draws,” said Horvat, “and as soon as it gets out of the zone, change right away and get ready for the next shift with my line. It is a challenge, but at the same time, I want to be out there, I want to take those draws, I want to be the guy that’s being relied on.”
Gaunce and Granlund combined to take five defensive zone faceoffs against the Leafs: four of them were after an icing, when they couldn’t make a line change. That means Green only allowed that line to take one defensive zone faceoff for themselves.
It was a similar story against the Predators: Gaunce took two defensive zone faceoffs: one was on the penalty kill, the other after an icing. Granlund took three, with one after an icing. He lost all three faceoffs.
“I don’t have trouble trusting any of our players,” said Green, “but certain guys’ faceoff percentages are higher than others.”
That’s definitely the case for Granlund and Gaunce. Both have played at centre at times during their hockey careers, but have more commonly lined up on the wing. Granlund and Gaunce have the worst faceoff percentages on the Canucks at 41.3% and 33.3%, respectively.
That means putting Horvat on the ice with their line just for the faceoff, a role that Manny Malhotra used to play with the Canucks. With Malhotra now an assistant coach, Horvat has been able to pick his brain, with the rest of the team benefitting as well.
“He was one of the best in the league at faceoffs,” said Horvat. “I talk to him and he talks to me all the time about what different guys do and what I should be thinking about. He gives me little tips and pointers here and there, so he’s been a huge help.”
Likewise, Granlund and Gaunce have worked with Malhotra to improve that area of their game.
“I’m usually working with him doing some faceoffs after practices,” said Granlund. “I’ve been practicing it. Obviously, it’s tough sometimes, I have to get better.”
Gaunce, despite his struggles in the circle this season, still feels good about stepping in when needed.
“I feel confident in myself taking draws anywhere on the ice,” said Gaunce. “I think if Granny’s struggling or if I need to go in for a draw, I feel very confident that I have a good chance of winning the draw. For me, I’ve always known I could take draws and I do practice them. Manny will usually have some faceoff prep before the game. He’s been big for the guys on the team.”
Defensive zone faceoffs matter more than most, particularly this season. Tyler Dellow at The Athletic has pointed out that scoring after offensive zone faceoff wins is way up this season, with teams tallying goals at an accelerated clip, likely because of improvements in tactics and set plays off of faceoffs.
That makes Horvat’s prowess on faceoffs particularly important, but is getting him on the ice for so many defensive zone faceoffs sustainable? With Sutter out, it’s harder to get Horvat on his strong side for defensive zone faceoffs, with only Sam Gagner available as a righty centre. Gagner isn’t the most reliable option defensively, so that is far from ideal.
It also makes it a little more difficult to deploy the line of Gaunce, Granlund, and Virtanen, which has looked good over the last few games. Some have even suggested that they could fill the role as a shutdown line with Sutter out of the lineup, but without a reliable faceoff option, Green’s options are little more limited.
“I’ve tried to fit them in a little bit as a semi-matching line,” said Green. “Not having Sutts and Dorse, there is a hole there, especially when you get late in games and you have a lead… You need lines late in the game that can play well in their own zone. You need more than one line, you need two or three.”
Can Gaunce, Granlund, and Virtanen become a shutdown line that can regularly match up against the best players on the opposition? Not unless one of Gaunce or Granlund can start regularly winning defensive zone faceoffs.
Until then, expect to see Horvat on the ice for as many defensive zone faceoffs as possible.
“Coach wants me to be the guy that he relies on late in games or taking important faceoffs,” said Horvat. “I’ve got to step up to that challenge.”