When the Toronto Maple Leafs traded for Dave Steckel, they were trading for a player who is slightly below average at moving the puck forward, a good face-off guy, and generally, a better defensive option than Tyler Bozak who may have otherwise been slotted in to take important faceoffs.
Really, there’s nothing quite like a good depth centreman. Steckel has impressed early on—he’s led the team in hits and blocked shots, and he’s won more draws than any other player in the NHL thus far in the early season. At 68.6%, he’s doing everything his team has expected of him thus far.
There’s something about the guy who digs in corners, wins draws, and looks good in a minimalist role on the ice, particularly the one who doesn’t have any observable offensive attributes. A player like David Steckel shows a lot more effort on the ice because he’s a player who has to work harder to stay in the NHL. The game is fast and isn’t easy for him, and these depth players become folk heroes and it’s always sad to see them go. Ask any Leafs fan what he or she thinks of Tim Brent in a Hurricanes sweater, or even worse, what a Pittsburgh fan sees in Maxime Talbot with the Flyers.
Steckel is a Brian Burke guy, with the proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence, but that isn’t what matters here. What matters is the faceoffs, specifically, two draws from the Toronto and Ottawa game Saturday night.
Late in the game with the Leafs leading 5-3, having just conceded a goal and still down a man, coach Ron Wilson sends out Steckel, Philippe Dupuis, John-Michael Liles and Carl Gunnarsson. Steckel won the draw to his right , Ottawa recovered, and earned an offside, with a faceoff just off the blue line.
Take two. David Steckel wins the faceoff, but Dupuis is tied up by Daniel Alfredsson and his clear attempt goes right to Erik Karlsson. Dupuis, having fallen over, has lost his man Alfredsson, who was set up beautifully in front for a re-direct. You just need to see Steckel’s reaction to know what the result of the play was. He throws his hands up in frustration. He’s won two faceoffs in the last eight seconds, but his team has given up a goal to draw the score to within 5-4.
When Steckel wins a high rate of faceoffs, oftentimes a coach or a fan may get blind and fail to grip exactly what happens when a player wins a faceoff: his team has control for the brief moment teams are lined up onside before the ensuing chaos. As soon as that puck leaves the dot, the centreman has no more advantage for a win or disadvantage for a loss. The puck must still be advanced, and the defending team must still defend the other team from advancing. No faceoff win will set a team up in a fine shooting position without a glaring hole in coverage off the draw. The play between the whistles, after the faceoffs, is more determinant into which team will get the shots and get the goals.
Faceoffs is just a means to an end, if the end is creating shots for your team and preventing shots against. It’s an attribute like speed. We’ve seen Alexander Ovechkin use his speed to create goals, but not every speedskater who makes the NHL is going to be able to do the same things. Toronto was 15th in faceoffs last season, yet 23rd in the league in wins with 37. The Florida Panthers last season won 30 games but were tied for third in the NHL in faceoffs. There are a number of different examples of teams doing better or worse with winning percentage than their faceoff percentage.
It doesn’t mean faceoffs aren’t important, but if a team wants to get better at goal prevention, they can’t simply look at a mediocre faceoff record and say “let’s add David Steckel”. You need to look at the players around him. Can Dupuis, or Colby Armstrong, win that first puck battle and bring the puck forward? Is winning the faceoff worth having Steckel out against a top offensive player that could eat possession out of Steckel? These are questions that the Leafs will have to answer. Steckel was certainly capable in shot prevention last season but he faced relatively easy competition. Losing 35% of your draws to Alexander Burmistrov will hurt you a lot less than losing 35% of your draws to Jason Spezza, but, at the same time, winning those draws against the better offensive player and keeping them away from the puck counts for every bit as well.
It’s probably more useful to take the puck away from the Spezzas than the Burmistrovs, so I like how Steckel has been deployed early on, if not for how the players have reacted around him. Despite the fact he’s been on the ice for three goals against so far this campaign, most of that misfortune has come from the fact that goaltender James Reimer can’t seem to make a save when he’s on the ice. If Dupuis collects that puck in the Ottawa game and clears it, the Leafs are absolved of the scoring chance and the play wastes 20 seconds off of the powerplay.
In this case, it’s Xs and Os, and no hockey team can accept a free clear just because their teammate has won the faceoff. There is still a lot more that has to be done. When Spezza beat Steckel on a powerplay draw with seven seconds to go and needing a goal to tie, Steckel tied up his man, Karlsson couldn’t make a good pass around Dupuis, and Steckel poked the puck north. Even when the faceoff specialist couldn’t win the draw, he did his job, and the Leafs held on to win a 6-5 thriller Saturday night.