Rangers can no longer ignore their face-off problem

Derek Stepan has to improve on face-offs (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Derek Stepan has to improve on face-offs (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

When you are winning hockey games like the Rangers have been, it is easy to overlook the little things. One of those little things is actually a big issue going back to last season, particularly in the Stanley Cup Final, face-offs. They rank 29th out of 30 teams today on draws.

The Rangers came up short against the L.A. Kings in 5 games. Although it was a short series, 3 of those games were decided in double OT indicating it was a lot closer. Unfortunately for the Rangers, they couldn’t compete with the Kings big centers down the middle. This was most evident in the face-off circle where they dominated the Rangers with a 54% winning percentage.

Before you dismiss it as small factor, realize that there were a mind-blowing 353 draws in that series. That’s an average of 70 face-offs a game (about 20-30 more than usual). That meant that more often than not the Kings were going to control the puck after a stoppage in play. They could even use that as a strategy, especially if the Rangers were buzzing offensively. All Jonathan Quick had to do was cover the puck and get a stoppage.

L.A. Times reporter David Wharton captured this important little fact during last year’s Cup final. Darryl Sutter explained the importance of face-offs by saying they’re “something that everybody in the league really pays attention to.”

The argument of late made by those who subscribe to fancy stats is that the impact of a face-off is only a matter of seconds. Many quantify it as a “puck battle” but is it really? Winning a draw clean in the offensive zone on the power-play immediately can set up a scoring chance. A puck battle along the boards can simply be to get the puck out of your zone.

Wharton made it clear that just looking at face-offs in general isn’t the right approach, but more so when you win key draws. Winning an offensive draw late in a game can lead to a quick shot and a goal. In the defensive zone, it could be the key factor in killing time off the clock, especially when killing a penalty.

Brian Boyle took his face-off skills to Tampa ( (Photo:Francois Lacasse/ Getty Images)

Brian Boyle took his face-off skills to Tampa ( (Photo:Francois Lacasse/ Getty Images)

This face-off issue is not a new problem for the Rangers either. Alain Vigneault stated that during the finals, “They’ve got a real strong group down the middle. A lot of their plays start with faceoffs.” Yet, the Rangers let Brian Boyle leave for Tampa Bay in the UFA market along with his 53% face-off winning percentage. Even Brad Richards was close to even at 49.7%.

In their place the Rangers have forced a winger to play center in Kevin Hayes. It’s hard to get on the kid, but his 33% on draws is absolutely killing the Rangers. Dominic Moore who is the best face-off man they have at 55% can’t take them all.

As for Brassard and Stepan, last year Brassard was at 48% which is where he’s at today. Stepan on the other hand was bad and is only getting worse. Derek finished the regular season at 45% in 2013/14, and is now sporting an ugly 42%.

The implications this has on a team, especially when the puck isn’t going in for them like the last 2 games is huge. Both the Islanders and Bruins dominated the Rangers in the circle to the tune of 54% in both games.

Glen Sather and Alain Vigneault can no longer ignore this underlying problem. Especially since Alain Vigneault’s entire offensive system is based on having puck control and using speed.

Winning face-offs is an art. L.A. Kings Jarret Stoll who dominated the Rangers in the Finals at 57% has his coach drop pucks for him after every practice. Maybe, we should be hearing about that more from the practice facility in Greenburgh.

Anthony Scultore has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL since 2014. His work also appears at... More about Anthony Scultore

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