Why faceoff beast Dominic Moore won’t go unsigned

Dominic Moore joins Andrew Walker in studio to get us ready for the 5th annual Smashfest tournament, and to give an NHL players’ perspective on the huge trade that shocked the hockey world.

TORONTO — Steve Guiney was his name, and he was The Man in Aurora, Ont., circa 1997-98. The Junior A Tigers’ top-line centre wasn’t born the most gifted skater and at 5-foot-10 he didn’t have the size to wow scouts, but he more than got by on his superior smarts and work ethic. One hundred and one points in 49 games commands respect, even if your career abruptly ends in junior.

So when the Tigers captain pulled rookie pivot Dominic Moore aside to share faceoff tips, the 16-year-old was all ears.

“It was a real eye-opener. I had literally not thought anything beyond: Just swat at the puck when it gets dropped. He started teaching me about trying to figure out what the other guy is doing and countering that, taught me ways to approach the draw from different angles. I’d never thought about any of that,” Moore told Sportsnet in a sit-down Wednesday. “You build into your routine getting better at all skills. Faceoffs is obviously a big part of that. By doing them daily, you get better automatically.” Ten thousand hours and all that.

Lessons paid forward and two seasons later, Moore was the new Steve Guiney in town. Thirty-four goals, 87 points, and a hockey scholarship to Harvard, where his two older brothers already played.

That mentality of working on basic skills 365 stuck with Moore through college and into a 765-game NHL career that has seen him wear the uniform of nine different franchises, win a Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, and reach a Stanley Cup Final with the New York Rangers — the club that took a third-round flyer on Steve Moore’s kid brother in 2000 and liked him enough to bring him back in 2013.

Now, the Rangers appear to have moved on.

At 26, depth centre Josh Jooris is nine years younger than Moore. At $600,000 on a two-way deal, the former Calgary Flame’s contract in the Big Apple was easier for the cap-tight Rangers to swallow than the $1.5 million per season they paid Moore the last two years.

READ MORE: Why Dominic Moore’s Smashfest is hockey’s best charity party

So, it’s July 21 — the day of his massively successful charity ping-pong tournament Smashfest — and Moore is out of work.

“I actually can’t believe he’s unsigned at this point, but there’s still a lot of good players unsigned out there,” says friend and former teammate Cam Talbot. “Hopefully Dom gets a job somewhere because he definitely deserves it.”

Points-wise, Moore peaked in 2008-09, when he put up 41 with the Toronto Maple Leafs; he had just 15 with the Blueshirts last season, down from 27 the year prior.

Offensive production is a bonus, but that’s not his role. Moore has consistently led all New York forwards in penalty-killing time, topping more than 170 minutes with the man disadvantage in each of the last two seasons. He has also been the Rangers’ best faceoff man three years running, improving to 55.3 per cent in 2015-16.

Perhaps that’s why he’s not sweating his job security. Offers are on the table, he says. He’s just waiting for the right one.

“I’ve been around for long enough and I think my track record speaks for itself in terms of what I’ve accomplished in the league and what I would bring to a team, so I’m fairly comfortable with that,” says Moore.

Despite being beloved by teammates, this is a guy who needs both hands to count the times he’s been traded. He’s been snatched off waivers, demoted, recalled and fined. He’s scored in Game 7 and has nearly 100 playoff games under his belt. He sat out a whole season to tend to his first wife, Katie, who succumbed to a nine-month battle with a rare form of liver cancer in 2013. This is his fourth time turning UFA. We’d be fazed if he was fazed.

“The free agency period goes in fits and starts. Things open up and close along the way. You just try to be proactive but patient. You also don’t want to put yourself in the wrong spot, so you wait to find the right fit, the right role,” Moore explains.

“You want to be on a good team that has a great chance to win but you also want to have a responsibility, some value on that team. It’s about marrying all of those factors and making the best decision.”

For four years at Harvard, Moore scored above a point-per-game pace and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist. But upon joining a 2000 Rangers organization stacked at centre, blocking shots instead of snapping them was the only way he’d survive.

“I grew up idolizing Doug Gilmour, and he was known for his two-way game, so I always took pride in that, and faceoffs is part of that. As a pro, drafted by the Rangers, you’ve got Eric Lindros as the fourth-line centre. You had Lindros, [Petr] Nedved, Bobby Holik and [Mark] Messier. So you’re trying to break into that lineup, you better offer something,” Moore says.

“It was a good thing I’d taken pride in being a well-rounded player because I broke into the league as a penalty killer and a defensive player and a grinder. My versatility is one of my strengths. I try to play as well-rounded as I can be.”

So the 35-year-old forever student studies tendencies of linesmen and his faceoff opponents. He keeps analyzing situational play and shooting lanes. He adapts his draw technique according to zone, score, time left on the clock, and the handedness of his foe.

“The league is always getting better, so you have to stay ahead of it. They changed the rules on us last year, so you have to adjust to that. If you don’t adapt, then you die. That’s all part of the fun of it,” says Moore. “I play ping pong—that definitely helps. Your reaction time and hand-eye coordination is a big part of faceoffs for sure. Timing. You could talk for hours about faceoff strategy and what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Sustaining a career faceoff winning percentage of 53.2 doesn’t sound like much, but when the very best can’t sniff 60 per cent over such a prolonged time, it’s a remarkable number.

An example: Much was made of Sidney Crosby’s faceoff prowess this spring. The superstar has won 51.7 per cent of his career draws.

“The stats can be very misleading for faceoffs. You have just general percentages, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” says Moore, who can’t help but look at the FO boxscore after a game. “It can be wrong a lot, so I try not to put too much stock in it. Faceoffs are fun. You have to enjoy them to be good at them.”

The hard numbers don’t give context to different players’ motivations for that puck drop, the importance of a particular draw, the area on the ice in which it occurs, or if it’s lefty versus righty.

“Defensively, he’s one of the better faceoff guys. You always know there’s a pretty good chance of him winning the draw when he’s out there. Even when he doesn’t, he battles hard. If he loses it clean, he’s the first one out to that point to block that shot, too,” says the Oilers’ Talbot, a former Rangers goalie.

“You can always count on Dom when he’s out there.”

And you can count on a 10th team signing Moore this summer. He’ll be happy to do the dirty work.

One-Timers with Dominic Moore

On the scariest power plays to defend: “Power plays become intimidating not because of one guy but because the unit as a whole works well together. They have different vantage points that are equally dangerous so it’s hard to cover off them all. As a penalty killer, you have to give up something at some point, but you try not to give up anything. The units that move the puck well, that can pass and can attack from different angles, they’re effective. As a penalty killer you try to be aggressive and take those things away.”

On the Washington Capitals being hockey’s Golden State Warriors: “Washington does an incredible job on their power play. They fit that bill bluntly [with an East-best 21.9 per cent success rate]. They’ve got Ovechkin. Take that away, you’re opening something else up. Same as in basketball. If you take away Steph Curry, they’ve got the triangle, and there’ll be an opening if you double team. Speed and intelligence helps. Taking away angles, taking away passing lanes. By playing smart, you try to create an extra guy—that’s your job as a penalty killer.”

On his toughest faceoff opponent: “There’s not just one guy. Patrice Bergeron is really strong and has been for years. He doesn’t do anything special; he’s consistent with what he does, but he’s good at it. To be the best of the best in the league in faceoffs, you’re still only at 59 or 60 per cent. It goes to show you there’s a lot of guys doing a good job, but those margins make a big difference.”

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