Claude Giroux and Flyers formidable in faceoff circle

Flyers center Claude Giroux takes a faceoff against Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews. Giroux is one of the NHL’s best.

Claude Giroux’s faceoff move was so good, Rod Brind’Amour gave it a name.

“Skate block, I call it,” the Carolina Hurricanes assistant coach said the other day. “It’s a unique move that he’s kind of patented, really. He doesn’t just use his stick — he gets his skate in there, tries to block the other guy. It’s a move that looks simple, but you don’t just make that up. That’s practice. That’s years of experience to get the timing of that. That’s why he’s elite at it.

“I don’t even teach it, because I can’t do it.”

There’s another good reason.  “I mean,  you can’t really use it anymore,” Giroux said. “So …”

… On to the next thing. And the one after that. “Guys who are really good can do two or three or several different things in there,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “I don’t think you can be a one-trick pony and be one of the best in the league.”

Despite rule changes that narrow the wiggle room, winning faceoffs is something the Flyers have done better than any other NHL team this season except for the one coached by Brind’Amour, the former Flyers captain, whose 58.7 career winning percentage — in 18,774 faceoffs during a 21-year career — is third all time.

The Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes entered Thursday night’s games tied at the top in faceoff proficiency (53.7 percent). Carolina’s Derek Ryan, Jordan Staal, and Victor Rask all land among the top 15 percentage players, but the Flyers’ strength is in their numbers. Giroux began Thursday’s game in third with a 59.2 percent win rate among players who have taken regular faceoffs, and both Sean Couturier (53.7) and Val Filppula (52.3) are among the league’s top 30. And Jori Lehtera, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Raffl, and Scott Laughton all win more than they lose.

Even 19-year-old rookie Nolan Patrick is better than 50 percent.

“You can’t help but get better being around a guy like Giroux,” Brind’Amour said. “The pattern is set. If Patrick came in and your captain was a 40 percent guy, I don’t think his numbers would be where they are today. That’s another part of leadership.”

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
The Flyers’ Travis Konecny, Wayne Simmonds and Shayne Gostisbehere (from left) during a faceoff against the Flames in November 2016.

Wingers contribute, too

There’s another reason: The use of video to perfect your technique, and get a read on that night’s opponent. Patrick’s mark is impressive for a slew of reasons: He has not competed much against those in the circle with him. He is unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of NHL linesmen, and lacks the rapport veterans build that translate into little advantages. All of these factor into faceoff proficiency, and are often the difference between a sub-50-percent guy and one who lands above.

“I think the wingers are really important in faceoffs,” Giroux said. “If you jump in quick, you win that battle mostly. Most faceoffs are 50-50, but when the wingers jump in quick, they can decide who wins the faceoff.”

In a league played on the margins, and particularly for a team like the Flyers that lives and dies nightly on a play or two, faceoff wins are often critical. Opponents’ power plays can be disarmed  through decisive wins. Three wins for a shorthanded team can translate into three icings, forcing the power play to retrieve and reset, cutting the time of that man advantage in half, allowing fresh legs onto the ice.

Win those faceoffs on the power play, and the exact opposite occurs.

The Flyers have won games with faceoff wins this season — and occasionally lost them too. As they emerged from a losing streak with a 4-2 victory over Toronto in mid-December, Couturier twice gained points via clean faceoff wins.

Once in the offensive zone. Once in the defensive zone.

Overall, they won 14 of 19 faceoffs in that game.

“There’s so much parity,” Brind’Amour said. “And the margin for error is so small. When we played the Rangers we actually gave up three faceoff goals:  Where we lost the draw and then something immediately happened. And we actually scored one off a direct faceoff win.

Camera icon Karl B DeBlaker / AP
Rod Brind’Amour talks with Marcus Kruger (16) on the Carolina bench.

“So yeah they are important. And there’s a whole ‘nother level as to how the head coach wants it. Are they running plays and diving in all the time, not as worried about the 50-50 pucks as they are the win? The system helps and hurts those percentages a lot too. We could get into it forever. But at the end of the day, generally the guys who are good, they’re very competitive. They want to win every draw they go at.”

Said Couturier, “I think every faceoff is pretty important. If you start with the puck most of the game, it gets tiring for the other team, and you create a lot more things, too, when you have the puck.”

Consistent with his career arc, Couturier didn’t always feel that way. He won less than 50 percent of his draws in each of his first six seasons, sinking  as low as 43.9 percent in his second, trying season as a pro. No surprise, it was the only season he finished with a minus rating (minus-8).

Over the last two, though, he’s been well over 50 percent, and this year he has combined with Giroux as a dynamic first-line duo.

What changed? “I put in the necessary effort in the offseasons and tried to get stronger the last few years,” he said. “These last two years that seemed to help a lot.”

Strength matters

Giroux also lost more than he won in his first two seasons with the Flyers (48.7 percent). Although that number has mostly risen steadily since, it dipped a few points last season after his return from extensive core muscle surgery, when strength and thus leverage were compromised.

Those are the most valuable assets in winning faceoffs. The ideal guy, said Brind’Amour, weighs 200 pounds and stands 6 feet tall, a pretty close description of the Flyers captain.

“Strong but not too tall,” said Brind’Amour, who was listed at 6-1, 205. “So he can get down and under. I think those guys fit the mold better than your taller guys.”

Hockey history, however,  has plenty of big, big winners on faceoffs, including two others who wore the “C” for the Orange and Black.  Eric Lindros, 6-4 and 240 pounds, and Keith Primeau, 6-5 and 220, both finished well over 50 percent after the NHL began compiling faceoff statistics in the 1997-98 season.

“There’s strategy involved,” said Primeau. “There’s not one type of taking a faceoff that guarantees you’re going to be a good centerman. I was in the faceoff circle because I knew my strengths. Which was my strength. The strength of Joe Nieuwendyk was eye-hand coordination. Adam Oates was quickness and intellect.

“When guys used their strongest attributes, that’s when they were successful.”

Until this season, a certain level of  “cheating” was tolerated. Now, two strikes and you’re in the penalty box. That’s why Giroux doesn’t use his skate as much, and it’s why the league’s best faceoff percentages now hover around 60 percent rather than the mid-50s.

But it hasn’t flipped the equation. If anything, it has enhanced the effect of a cleanly won draw. More than ever, games have been won and lost on the dot, which could bode well for the Flyers as they try to hold onto a playoff berth over these final two weeks.

“At the end of the day, there’s really no great secrets,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s a matter of, ‘I want it more than the other guy.’ Establish that, and over the course of an 82-game schedule that margin is going to be in your favor.”