Back in October, I wrote about Cody Hodgson’s faceoff prowess and how the young centre’s injection into the Vancouver lineup gave the Canucks 5 quality options in the circle. At the time, Hodgson was winning 52.0% of his draws, and while it was quite early in the season, he had posted an identical win rate in the preseason as well. It didn’t seem far-fetched to assume he could maintain these numbers.
Turns out it was. Through 30 games, Hodgson has won only 74 of 177 faceoffs, or 41.8%. To put this into perspective: the other four Canuck centres all have winning percentages above 50. Hodgson is the team’s worst faceoff option by far.
There are, of course, only four lines. This means that, to make room for Hodgson to centre one of them, the Canucks are going to lose ground in the faceoff circle. And before you say, “Shift Hodgson to the wing,” rest assured that it’s been tried.
Recall that the Canucks played Hodgson at left wing when Ryan Kesler returned from offseason surgery. There was some concern over this move, but Cody said all the right things and the team explained that wing and centre were basically interchangeable in the Vancouver system. It was going to be fine.
Then, after a few games of it being less than fine, all involved declared that Hodgson was better at centre and he was restored to his natural position.
Alain Vigneault likes Hodgson as the third line centre. He’s given the Canucks “three lines that can score”, as Mike Gillis boasted recently on the Team 1040. What’s more, he’s reliable defensively, and he’s nicely sheltered behind two of the game’s best centres in Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin, which is ideal for his development: Hodgson’s game is neither 100% power like Kesler’s or 100% guile like Henrik’s, so he’s in a perfect position to study both of them.
And study he will, because he’s a huge nerd.
But Vigneault can’t like Hodgson’s faceoff problems. This is a man who so meticulously deployed his top three centres last season that Henrik Sedin’s offensive-zone start percentage spiked to the very top of the league, and Manny Malhotra’s fell to the very bottom. While Cody has far more offensive skill than Manny Malhotra, the move swapped one of the league’s best faceoff men for one of the league’s worst.
Vigneault’s solution to this problem, of late, has been to mitigate the damage by pairing Hodgson with Malhotra, allowing Malhotra to step in and take faceoffs before peeling off to the wing.
It’s not a new plan. Rookies often struggle with faceoffs (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, for instance, has an insane 38.3 win rate), and the Canucks forecasted Hodgson’s issues. Malhotra was signed as a free agent only after agreeing that he’d be comfortable shifting to the wing and mentoring “a young centre”. This always meant Hodgson.
You learn through experience, after all. Malhotra said as much himself a week ago:
The big thing is that as you become more and more veteran, you play more games and take more faceoffs, you learn what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. You learn situational draws and where you are on the ice, the setups of other teams, and you also get a book on other guys you have to go up against every night.
While Hodgson is developing this skillset, Alain Vigneault is ensuring that his on-the-job training remains in the neutral zone, where it hurts the Canucks the least. What you’re witnessing is a full-on apprenticeship.
In Montreal, for instance, Hodgson took 5 faceoffs, with only one in the defensive zone. Malhotra, his winger, took 15, 12 of which were inside the Canucks’ blueline. In the 6-0 win over Colorado, Hodgson was given 6 opportunities, but not a single one took place in the Vancouver zone. Malhotra took 7 defensive zone draws. Versus Nashville on December 1, Hodgson took only 3 faceoffs. Malhotra took 12, 8 of which were in the defensive zone.
Note: some of Malhotra’s defensive zone draws came on the penalty kill.
The only issue with Malhotra on the third line wing is that he hasn’t been playing all that well this season. And thus, on Tuesday in Columbus, Alain Vigneault swapped him out for Maxim Lapierre.
The same strategy remained: Hodgson took four draws, winning only one of them, and he only took one defensive zone faceoff, which he lost. Lapierre, on the other hand, took five faceoffs, winning four of them, including all three he took in the defensive zone.
This strategy has gone unnoticed by most because of the Canucks’ injury troubles in the forward corps. I think the assumption has been that Malhotra and/or Lapierre have been playing third line wing because of injuries. But that’s not it. Alain Vigneault is more than comfortable moving Dale Weise up to the third line instead. The problem with that is Weise can’t take faceoffs, and until Hodgson is ready, you need someone on that line who can.Cody Hodgson's faceoff apprenticeship, Tags: Faceoffs, Hodgson