The Canucks led the NHL in a great many categories last season, but perhaps the least appreciated was their league-best faceoff winning percentage. The offseason signing of Manny Malhotra gave the team three elite faceoff men, and Alain Vigneault exploited this personnel advantage beautifully: Malhotra became a defensive zone specialist, enabling Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin to start more shifts in the offensive zone, where they were likelier to score.
Malhotra’s late-season injury was more than just a minor loss, then, as his absence forced both Kesler and Sedin to start outside their opponents’ blueline more often.
Luckily, the Canucks had acquired Maxim Lapierre for depth at centre, and eventually, he proved his mettle in the faceoff circle and restored the balance somewhat. The serviceable job he did in Malhotra’s stead convinced the Canucks to retain him, and he was re-signed through 2012-13.
Once Ryan Kesler returns, with Lapierre retained and Malhotra back to full health this season, the Canucks will be four-deep at centre for the next two years. But actually, they may be five-deep, because Cody Hodgson is beginning to prove that he’s not too bad in the circle either.
In a 2008-09 coaches’ poll, Hodgson was voted the best faceoff man in the OHL, but his prowess in the circle didn’t translate immediately to the bigs. Last season, Hodgson won only 16 of the 42 draws he took, good for an abysmal 38.1 percentage.
This season, however, Hodgson is sitting at 52.0 through two games, and while this is an incredibly small sample size, he was also an identical 52.0 through seven preseason games, where he won 60 of 116 draws. Clearly, this is something he worked on over the summer.
And clearly, Alain Vigneault has noticed. Though the Canucks’ coach is incredibly stingy with defensive zone deployment, especially in tight games, Hodgson was tasked with five defensive zone faceoffs versus Pittsburgh and another four versus Columbus, both of which were decided by one goal. Cody won six of the nine.
Hodgson’s improved faceoff skill paid immediate dividends offensively, too. His first goal of the season came on a won faceoff after Kevin Bieksa called a play as the players lined up. From Jason Botchford:
Hodgson won the faceoff, then kicked the puck to Hamhuis who was racing down the wall. As Hodgson circled back toward the net, Hamhuis hit him with a slap pass, which he redirected into the net.
“I called the play. Dan and I had gone over some plays before the game,” Bieksa said. “We were talking about if we were going to be with Cody out there on faceoffs, especially on his backhand side, we’re going to start making some offensive plays.
“The twins have their plays they do every time. We know what to do when we’re out with them. With Cody, he’s new and we’re trying to get familiar with him. So, I called that play and it worked out perfectly, didn’t it?”
Indeed. Here’s the goal, if you want to relive it.
Hodgson has been the best member of his line through two games, which gives one hope that he’ll be kept there once Ryan Kesler returns. Will he be moved to the wing? Perhaps. But his faceoff ability will still be very helpful.
Hodgson will continue to be the centreman on the second unit powerplay, a group that played last season without a centre and, as a result, spent much of their time with the man advantage retrieving the puck from their own end and carrying it up ice.
Furthermore, if the Canucks move Hodgson to Ryan Kesler’s wing, he’ll be there as insurance if Kesler gets waived out. Mason Raymond was a 40% faceoff man last season. Kesler will be able to be even more aggressive in the circle if he knows that, if waved out, Hodgson is capable of winning the draw in his place.
In short, if Hodgson can keep this up, the best faceoff team in the NHL will be better this season.