Some say faceoff statistics are overrated. Hockey people will tell you otherwise.
“If you start with the puck, the game is easier. If you’re chasing the puck around trying to get it back, it’s a hard way to play,” Predators head coach Barry Trotz said.
No matter what your view is, for a team to have an individual that can win key faceoffs is invaluable – and newly-acquired Paul Gaustad’s faceoff success is invaluable to the Predators.
League-wide, Gaustad has consistently been one of the best in the faceoff dot this season. He currently ranks seventh in the NHL among faceoff leaders, winning 57.3 percent of his draws this year.
“When we had the opportunity to fix that element to our game,” Trotz said of faceoffs, referring to the trade of Jerred Smithson, “Gaustad was the right fit for us. So we went out and acquired him. He’s been really effective for us.”
Smithson led the Predators in faceoffs when the organization traded him before the trade deadline. Gaustad was viewed as his replacement. Frankly, he’s an upgrade.
Despite missing five-plus games, Gaustad has been everything the Predators hoped they would be getting. In 11 games with his new team, Gaustad has won 58.9 percent of his draws. While being one of the best in the NHL, Gaustad has an unconventional way of winning faceoffs.
“Every once in a while I’ll switch it up and go right-handed,” said the left-handed Gaustad, who mentioned he was one of the first in the NHL to do so. “In hockey your weak side is considered your forehand side, so I’ve done that to help out my draws.”
Gaustad has been good in the faceoff dot throughout his career, but his percentages in recent years – 59.8% in 2010-11, 57.4% in 2009-10 – have made him one of the league’s elite. It’s not a coincidence that he improved once he started taking (and winning) faceoffs both left- and right-handed.
“It’s something I’ve learned in the last couple years in figuring out how to beat guys,” he said. “You have to change your style a little bit.”
The 30-year-old has come through in the clutch for the Predators in his first month with his new team. Gaustad has won 60 percent of the faceoffs he’s taken in the defensive zone. In a 3-2 win against Detroit on March 10, Gaustad won seven of his last eight faceoffs to close the game.
“It’s huge. It’s huge,” Trotz said of having a reliable faceoff winner for late-game situations. “When you have a chance to start with the puck, you have a chance to get it out late in the game. On the penalty kill you have a chance to get it out of the zone. It’s so critical in key moments of the game. It’s one of those things that is overlooked by the casual fan who says he doesn’t have many points or doesn’t do this [or that] well.”
Some centers are only good at faceoffs in certain areas of the ice. Gaustad can win faceoffs anywhere.
“It’s a part of a niche that I’ve found for myself,” he said. “It’s expected of me to win draws here. … The staff let me know that I’d be the one taking a lot of draws for them, so it’s something I have to take pride in and be good at.”
Gaustad puts in a lot of time working at his craft of faceoffs, whether it’s practicing on a daily basis or watching video of opponents.
“I pre-scout everyone’s draws from the previous game just to see what they do,” he said. “If I see something I just say this is the style I want to do against them. That’s kind of how I approach it.”
His work ethic in a specific area like faceoffs is something that has caught the eye of fellow center Nick Spaling, who is 23 years old and has won 50.8 percent of his draws this season.
“He’s taught me a lot of things that I’m trying to work on, and I’m trying to learn from him. He helps a lot with giving me tendencies of other players and preparing me,” said Spaling. “Before every game we have a discussion about their centermen and their tendencies, watch videos and stuff like that. He’s pretty focused and detailed when it comes to faceoffs.”
Gaustad’s versatility in the faceoff dot has also impressed Spaling, who believes the man they call ‘Goose’ will carry importance in the looming playoffs.
“He’s strong on both sides, which is pretty tough for a centerman,” Spaling said. “That’s a great skill to have. He’s put a lot of practice into it and it’s definitely paying off for him.
“He’s been huge for us. He’s only going to get better going forward and he’s going to be a huge part of our success.”