Manny Malhotra on Faceoffs

The faceoff circle is a place where the Vancouver Canucks can boast a lot more talent than the typical NHL team. The Canucks are presently the NHL’s third-best faceoff team after leading the league in that department one season ago.

And on the Canucks, nobody is better than veteran checking center Manny Malhotra.

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The Vancouver Sun’s Kevin Mio sat down with Malhotra to discuss his prowess in the faceoff circle, and while the Canucks’ forward didn’t go into detail on exactly what it is that sets him apart from other NHL centers, he did provide some interesting insight into the craft. The full piece is here (and Malhotra also discusses whether visor-wearing should be mandatory and being married to Steve Nash’s sister), but I thought a few lines deserved a little more attention.

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.

The first point I take from this quote – on situational draws, location of the faceoff, and the different setups of various teams – is something that doesn’t typically get a lot of attention. Because we tend to focus on the center and the center alone when it comes to awarding credit for faceoffs, it’s easy to forget that how teams line up for the draw can have an impact, as can the experience of the wingers. Sometimes a draw is won or lost cleanly, but often wingers jump into the circle and can have a decisive impact on which team walks away with the puck.

Given the Canucks’ proficiency at set plays, one imagines that Vigneault’s faceoff alignments are probably among the best in the game, and while it’s hardly conclusive it is worth noting that the Canucks went from 27th in the league at faceoffs in 2005-06 to 19th in Vigneault’s first season with the club.

The second point – that Malhotra studies the opposition – is something that hadn’t occurred to me but that makes good sense. He’s been in the league for years, and undoubtedly taken numerous faceoffs against the best in the game. Additionally, playing divisional rivals as often as Vancouver does, one imagines that there’s a definite familiarity between combatants in the faceoff circle.

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Q. Is there a player who you modelled you faceoff technique after, or have you just learned on your own? A. I always keep telling people that my first year in New York, Craig MacTavish was one of the assistants. Obviously, that was his bread and butter when he played. I learned a lot of the basics that I still use today from him. Being strong in the circle, leading hands, knowing where you are on the ice – that type of thing. Just getting tricks in your bag to work off of. Then going from team to team, you just learn different things – what works against a lefty, what works against a righty. You keep picking up things, and if you are open to learning you are able to pick up these things along the way.

The immediate point that jumps out is the credit that Malhotra gives Craig MacTavish for helping him with his game in the circle. MacTavish went from the Rangers to the Oilers, and now finds himself coaching the Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Chicago, so one can only hope he’s doing the same sort of work with the Canucks’ best prospects that he did with Malhotra.

Beyond that, the distinction between a left- and right-handed opponent in the circle makes sense. The NHL doesn’t track success against left- and right-handed opponents, but that doesn’t mean individual teams don’t – and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out that on pivotal draws coaches match faceoff men based not just on where the faceoff is located but also on which way the opponent shoots.

The headline on this piece was “Manny’s mum on faceoff secrets” but while Malhotra didn’t divulge exactly what it is that he does in the circle, he did give us some useful information on the tactics involved and what coaches and players think about when there’s a faceoff to be taken.