Captain Jonathan Toews can glance at the linesmen assigned to a Blackhawks game on any given night and make a pretty accurate prediction about how good his faceoff numbers will be.
As much as the NHL rulebook attempts to standardize faceoffs and fans perceive faceoff success (or lack thereof) as purely talent based, there’s a side to it that requires as much schmooze as a college fundraiser.
‘‘It’s huge,’’ Toews said Wednesday. ‘‘[I’ve] probably burned a few bridges there over the years, but I’m trying my best to be friendly. . . . A big thing is talking to those guys and figuring out what their approach is for the game.’’
Of the 34 full-time linesmen employed by the NHL Officials Association, some follow the league rules to a fault and others employ their own standards.
And even the rules contain some gray area: Players, for example, are supposed to stand about one stick-length apart. Not only are all sticks not the same length, but referee perception of that varies even more.
After 894 career games and 17,547 career faceoffs, Toews knows all the ins and outs of the game within the game, and his relationships with the NHL’s longer-tenured linesmen run deep.
But when he spots a fresh face, it becomes time for a convenient pre-faceoff chat.
‘‘Nothing against the officials, but there are some young linesmen that you’ve never seen before, and sometimes they’re by-the-book,’’ Toews said. ‘‘I get a little frustrated when they’re letting the other team get the edge and cheat on draws a little bit more. So you’ve just got to find ways to know what to expect and what he’s going to do and when he’s going to drop the puck.’’
Young Dylan Strome, who has played in 127 games and taken 1,387 faceoffs at this point in his career, doesn’t have that same advantage.
‘‘If the ref likes you, he’s probably not going to back you up [from the dot] as much,’’ Strome said. ‘‘The closer you get to the dot, the better you’re going to be. So if a guy that’s a little bit older and mature can talk to the ref, that’s the way it goes.
‘‘A young ref is probably not going to tell [Toews] to back up too much, and he can get in there. That’s why he’s successful. He knows how to play the game.’’
The Hawks have struggled on faceoffs for years, with Toews often their lone center in the black.
General manager Stan Bowman brought in Ryan Carpenter, Zack Smith and Andrew Shaw during the offseason to help in that regard. But Smith and Shaw have underperformed substantially at the dot, and Carpenter’s success has varied by zone.
David Kampf probably never will be a strong draw-taking center, either. And Strome’s faceoff rate is most alarming of all: He sits at a lowly 41.7 percent and admitted Wednesday he knows he must ‘‘find a way to get that up.’’
At least the Hawks’ faceoff problems this season are concentrated in the offensive zone, where their .469 winning percentage ranks 28th. That the main factor in their overall rank of 26th.
‘‘We could be creating a lot more if we could win more [offensive-zone faceoffs],’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘But [in the] defensive zone, we’ve done quite a good job, and hopefully that continues. Doesn’t mean we’re satisfied with it, and we’re going to continue to work at it.’’