ST. PAUL, Minn. — For almost a decade, there was nobody better than Yanic Perreault the moment the puck fell from the official’s hand.
Funny thing was, people didn’t care as much.
“I think faceoffs have become bigger and bigger,” says Perreault. “It really wasn’t until the late 1990s that people really started keeping stats, and then there was more talk about it.
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“Now, every play is analyzed. And a lot of teams are trying to get better on faceoffs.”
Count the Chicago Blackhawks as one of those teams. They hired Perreault as a faceoff consultant/development coach three years ago, and have gone from an average faceoff team to the fifth best in the league.
While jumping ahead of the Minnesota Wild three games to none in their Western Conference second round series, the Hawks have dominated in the circles, particularly in registering a 1-0 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday night when they captured 63 percent of the draws.
In particular, youngsters Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger have become decidedly more proficient on draws under Perreault’s tutelage, and in the dying moments of Game 3, both were on the ice at different times with Chicago wanting to keep two good faceoff men on the ice as often as possible.
“Since Yanic came in, I think everybody has gotten better,” says Kruger. “We work on it daily and talk about it. A lot.”
How good was Perreault? For eight years, he was best in the business, well over 60 percent on draws every year. These days, anything beyond 50 percent is considered good, 55 percent excellent.
“I’ve always believed the biggest thing was competing,” he says. “I wanted to win every faceoff.”
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Hawks didn’t make it to the final in the next two seasons, and began looking for specific areas in which they could improve. One of those was on faceoffs, where only captain Jonathan Toews was better than 50 percent.
So they brought in Perreault, who had played his last NHL campaign for the Hawks in 2007-08, winning more than 64 percent of his draws that season. Perreault had actually played with Hawks coach Joel Quenneville during his final season as player-coach with the AHL St. John’s Maple Leafs in the 1991-92 season.
Finding a particular skill was Perreault’s way of staying in the NHL, and he became one of the very best in NHL history.
“I remember when I left the Toronto organization the first time around, I hadn’t played that much, so when I went to L.A. I started to watch tapes and started to pay more attention to faceoffs,” said Perreault. “I started to look at what the best faceoff guys around the league were doing.”
With the Hawks, Toews was already a strong faceoff man, but it was the younger Chicago centres, particularly Shaw, Kruger and Ben Smith who were statistically weak.
When Perreault came in, Shaw was a 44 percent faceoff man, while Kruger was not much better at 46.2 percent.
This year, for the first time Shaw and Kruger joined Toews at over 50 percent. Throw in veterans Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette, both acquired this season, and it’s an area in which Chicago has shown demonstrable improvement since Perreault joined the organization.
“He was one of the best. That’ll keep you in the league longer than some other things,” said Shaw. “For me, it took a few years. I was below average. Last year I was 46 percent. It looks bad. It’s tough to get over 50 percent, but this year I made it.
“It sucks chasing pucks down. So you learn to take pride in winning those faceoffs. You get those offensive chances, or you win those defensive draws, and the coach is going to give you more responsibility.”
Kruger, 24, didn’t come to the NHL from Sweden on a full-time basis until the 2011-12 season, and had to readjust his thinking when it came to faceoffs.
“When I came over here, I didn’t really pay much attention to it,” he says. “Here, it’s a big part of the game. Coming over here was an eye-opener in that aspect.”
Perreault now lives in the Chicago area with his wife and four children, two of whom are involved in former NHLer Gino Cavallini’s well-respected Mission AAA organization.
Perreault works with young players throughout the Hawks organization on a variety of skills, but faceoffs remain his specialty.
“There are so many details when you take a faceoff,” he says. “I didn’t want to put too much stuff in their heads at first. So you go step by step, work on all the details. Positioning, timing, working with the linesman, the way you approach the circle, knowing opponents, whether it’s offensive zone or defensive zone.
“But I always believed you’ve got to compete. You’ve got to be ready. That’s the first step.”
Perreault also teaches variety, the necessity of being able to win faceoffs in different ways.
“So you’re not always doing the same thing,” he says. “I could go backhand, forehand, use my feet. I was not cheating. One thing I was doing well was anticipating, my timing was good.”
His toughest opponent? Not an opposing centre.
“The toughest guy for me was that linesman, Mike Cvik,” he says of the 6-foot-9 veteran official. “He was always holding the puck so high, I couldn’t see it, I had to turn my head up almost to the roof of the arena, so my timing was off. I always tried to be low and strong, and every time I knew with him it was going to be tough.”
Perreault points out that next season, with new rules coming in that will force the defending player to put his stick down first, faceoffs will likely be emphasized even more. With his disciples in the Chicago organization getting better – Shaw’s numbers have actually improved in these playoffs from the regular season – the Hawks are a team prepared for that future.