At the tail end of most morning skates, Jonathan Toews and several other Blackhawks forwards will crowd around one of the neutral-zone dots and start working on faceoffs. An assistant coach will play the part of linesman, throwing down puck after puck. And typically, Toews wins draw after draw.
It’d be funny if it weren’t so problematic.
Toews is one of the best faceoff men in the league, winning draws at a terrific 57.4 percent clip this season. The problem is, he has been the only guy on the team above water at the dot. Artem Anisimov is at a respectable 47 percent. Tommy Wingels, a winger by trade, is at 45.9 percent. Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza, natural wingers who have spent time at center this season, are 45.1 and 44.8 percent, respectively. And Nick Schmaltz, the Hawks’ No. 2 center, is at a dreadful 40.1 percent. Even with Toews, the Hawks are 20th in the league at the dot at 49.5 percent.
RELATED STORIES What now? Stan Bowman has tough decisions to make in Corey Crawford’s absence Sources: Blackhawks fear Corey Crawford might be out for the season
“We’re a puck-possession team, so that’s a huge piece of it,” Schmaltz said. “You’ve got to bear down. I’m definitely working on that. The more we can boost that percentage up, that’ll help our team game and help us have the puck more.”
It has gotten to the point where Toews frequently starts a penalty-kill shift in his own zone just to take the faceoff, then immediately scampers back to the bench for a change once the Hawks have possession.
“He really keeps us in the mix with his efficiency,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Outside of him, Vinnie hasn’t really taken a lot of faceoffs in his career. Arty’s never been in that area where he’s been above [50 percent]. And Tommy hasn’t been a center. It’s what it is.”
Rookie David Kampf has helped, winning 52.5 percent of his draws in his 10 games as the third-line center. But the Hawks’ inability to win key draws — particularly offensive-zone draws on the power play and defensive-zone draws on the penalty kill — has been an issue throughout the season.
It has been a bad year to have so many wingers and first-year centers in the mix, given the league’s crackdown on faceoff violations. Toews sometimes gets thrown out of the faceoff circle a half-dozen times in a game. So winger Brandon Saad has taken 66 draws, losing 40. Alex DeBrincat, John Hayden and Lance Bouma have taken at least 22 faceoffs each, despite never playing in the middle.
The crackdown has focused on keeping players’ skates behind the hashmarks, forcing them to be square and preventing them from “cheating” for little advantages with an early stick or gliding into a draw with some momentum.
“Some games you get away with stuff, and other games you don’t,” Schmaltz said. “You can cheat a little more with certain refs. And you can try to cheat a little bit more in the neutral zone, where there aren’t those lines, then deal with the rules in the offensive and defensive zones.”
Getting to know the linesmen — what they allow, how quick their hooks are, how they throw the puck — is key, too.
“Some linesmen let a little bit go, and some are so stiff they throw you out right away,” Anisimov said. “Some games it’s easy, some games it’s harder. And sometimes in the same game, you have two very different linesmen.”
The Hawks regularly work with faceoff specialist Yanic Perreault, but Toews plays a similar role, working with younger players and natural wingers and teaching them the game within the game.
“We try to pick each other’s brains, and we ask [Toews] all the time what he does because he’s really good there,” Wingels said. “Just because it’s not our natural position doesn’t mean we can’t be elite in that area. So we’re working on it as much as we can. It’s an area we have to get better in.”
Follow me on Twitter