When you look at the centres who took the most defensive zone faceoffs last season, a few names immediately jump out. Of the five centres who took the most defensive zone faceoffs per game at even-strength last season, two are Canucks: Brandon Sutter and Bo Horvat. A couple names down the list at 7th is new Canuck Jay Beagle.
Canucks head coach Travis Green put a big focus on winning defensive zone faceoffs, using Sutter and Horvat as much as possible. The two combined to take 728 defensive zone faceoffs at 5-on-5. The rest of the team combined took 562. When you consider that Sutter and Horvat missed a combined 39 games due to injury, that’s remarkable.
Then you add the 266 defensive zone faceoffs that Sutter and Horvat took on the penalty kill and it becomes even more skewed.
When you look at the Canucks’ other centres, it makes sense. The Canucks that took the most total faceoffs after Sutter and Horvat were Henrik Sedin, Sam Gagner, Nic Dowd, Alexander Burmistrov, Markus Granlund, and Brendan Gaunce. Henrik was given sheltered offensive zone starts, Gagner is a disaster defensively, and all of those centres apart from Dowd finished under 50% on faceoffs.
It’s understandable, then, that Green would want someone like Beagle, a faceoff specialist who was one of the few NHL forwards deployed in a similar fashion to Sutter last season. Elliotte Friedman, on the the 31 Thoughts podcast, speculated that it was Green who asked for Beagle and Roussel.
“Those, to me, are Travis Green signings,” said Friedman. “That’s Travis Green saying, ‘I need these guys.’ You know, Benning’s taking the hit for all of them.”
“You know what, good on Benning, he gets up there, he knows he’s going to get killed, and he just goes out and does it,” he continued. “I think that’s a Travis Green wish… They knew they could walk away from those guys and they decided not to. And I think the reason is that their coach really wanted them and they decided, okay, we’ve made this guy our coach and we’re going to support him. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what I think the decision is.”
Here’s the thing: of course Benning is going to take the hit for the contracts he signed. Even if Beagle and Roussel were players that Green wanted — which makes sense given the way Green has defended the signings — Green isn’t the GM. It isn’t his job to sign players. Benning is responsible for the contracts and he could have said no to Green or walked away and looked for similar players when the money and term got to be too much.
If Green loved Sutter last season, he’s going to adore Beagle, who soaks up defensive zone faceoffs without complaint. Not only that, Beagle wins those faceoffs too. Only Ryan O’Reilly won a higher percentage of defensive zone faceoffs last season. O’Reilly also led the NHL in total defensive zone faceoffs.
The question is, how will Green divvy up the faceoffs and zone starts next season?
The most obvious answer is that Beagle and Sutter will split defensive zone faceoffs, freeing up Horvat for more offensive zone draws, but there’s just one issue: Beagle is a right-hand shot.
Why does that matter? Because Green likes his centres to take faceoffs in the defensive zone on their strong side. One of the reasons why Sutter and Horvat were so good on faceoffs in the defensive zone is that Sutter is right-handed and Horvat is left-handed, so they could each take faceoffs on their strong side while avoiding those on their weak side.
“I’ve played with Travis for a while, so he usually does that on strong sides,” said Brendan Gaunce last season. “He’ll bring out the lefty on his strong side and obviously on the strong side for a righty, he’ll bring out a righty.”
If Green wants to continue that, then he won’t depend solely on Sutter and Beagle on defensive zone faceoffs, as both are right-hand shots. For faceoffs on the left side of the ice, Horvat will likely still get the call.
So, instead of Horvat being freed up for more offensive zone faceoffs, Sutter could see the benefit instead.
Then there’s a question of ice time. Sutter was third among Canucks forwards in average ice time last season, behind only Horvat and Brock Boeser. That’s because he was used in a hard-matching role, playing regularly against the opponents’ top lines.
Will Beagle take over that hard-matching, checking-line role? If he does, he’ll end up playing more minutes than he ever has in his career. Beagle has been a fourth-line centre throughout his career, but he feels like he can do more.
Beagle : "I want to help the penalty kill, that's a huge part of my game. I can play bigger minutes, 2nd - 3rd line and 4th line role." #Canucks— Rick Dhaliwal (@DhaliwalSports) July 1, 2018
So, how much will Beagle play? Will he take ice time away from Sutter or Horvat or both? If both Sutter and Beagle are used in a shutdown role, will that take up ice time that could go to a young, more skilled forward?
That is one of the risks of line matching: if you’re hard-matching a checking line against the opponents’ first line, that checking line could easily get more minutes than your own first line. It also allows your opponent to somewhat dictate the ice time you give to your forwards.
“That’s going to happen when another team has a bona fide number one line that’s very, very dangerous,” said Green when I asked him about this last season. “I think it would be foolish to just not look at that.”
“I think our offensive guys get between 14 and 17 minutes,” he added. “I think we’ve been honest… we’re not sitting here saying we have a number one line that is going to play 18-20 minutes every night. Edmonton has that kind of line, lots of teams have that kind of situation.”
Hard-matching with a defence-only checking line is a little like punting on every possession in football. Sure, you might prevent the other team from scoring for a while, but you’re not giving your own offence a chance to outplay the opposition.
Green’s line-matching with Sutter took a lot of ice time away from the Sedins last season. Their minutes were still sheltered, giving them a lot of offensive zone starts and easier competition, but you have to wonder what the overall effect was on the team.
There’s plenty of time for speculation over the next couple months, but ultimately we won’t see how this plays out until the season starts. Until then, consider this.
The only other team that deployed two centres in the defensive zone as much as the Canucks last season was the Florida Panthers. Sutter and Horvat were third and fifth in defensive zone faceoffs per game at 5-on-5: Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck of the Panthers were second and fourth.
The difference for the Panthers, however, is that Barkov and Trocheck are their top two scorers. They take all the defensive zone faceoffs because the Panthers trust them to transition the puck out of the defensive zone and create offence.
Sutter, on the other hand, wasn’t expected to created offence, scoring just 11 goals and 26 points. That simply wasn’t his role. The same is true of Beagle, who had 7 goals and 22 points.
Using players in well-defined roles makes sense, but there’s something to be said for just getting your best players on the ice as much as possible. If the addition of Beagle costs Horvat and Boeser ice time because they get fewer defensive zone faceoffs, you have to wonder if the tradeoff is worth it.