By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; D01
Most hockey fans and highlight reels tend to overlook the humble faceoff, and a teenaged David Steckel was no different. He didn't focus on the skill, never imagining it might one day become his professional calling card.
That changed after Steckel failed to execute a faceoff to the satisfaction of Bob Mancini, his coach in USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. The mistake led to a raised-voice lecture from Mancini about never overlooking a single draw - "I got yelled at," as the Washington Capitals center put it. And that conversation permanently altered his approach.
"I remember that," Mancini said this week, when asked about that decade-old incident. "I even remember talking to him about finding something he could do better than everybody else."
Through Wednesday, Steckel has won 64.5 percent of his faceoffs, the best rate in the NHL. No one has finished a season with a faceoff percentage that high since the NHL lockout in 2004-05.
"It's an underrated part of hockey, and I don't think he gets enough credit for what he does," Capitals winger Brooks Laich said. "Night in, night out, he's finishing 15-5. . . . If you're gonna mention the top centers in the league on faceoffs, you can't do it without saying Dave Steckel."
And while Steckel scoffs at such praise - "there's really not much to talk about," he said when asked about the skill - teammates and coaches said the 28-year-old is devoted to his craft. He requests video footage of particular opponents during intermissions, asks assistant coach Dean Evason for advice if he loses more than a couple draws in a row, and jokes about having a "black book" of scouting reports in his head.
His faceoff dominance and strong penalty-killing have given Steckel a more prominent role than his offensive statistics would suggest. The fourth-line center has just four goals and five assists in 49 games, leaving him tied for 11th in points among Capitals forwards. But Steckel still averages 18 shifts a game, more than such players as Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Marcus Johansson.
"In baseball you could have a shortstop that doesn't hit well, but if he has a .998 fielding percentage he's gonna take more pride in that, and practice that, and study that, because that's what he wants to be best at," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I think Dave's the same way."
This season has marked the highest point in Steckel's steady climb up the NHL's ranks. In his first full season, his 56.3 percent faceoff rate ranked seventh in the league. Two years ago he was fifth, and last season his career-best 59.2 percentage was second. Steckel is one of only two players above 60 percent this season, and at Verizon Center - where Steckel enjoys the advantage in stick placement afforded home players - he's winning 69 percent of his draws.
What makes Steckel so dominant, teammates and coaches said, is a combination of strength, technique and study. Unlike many centers, Steckel's motion is nearly identical on either side of the ice, a powerful downward movement that sends the puck straight back between his legs rather than to the side, eliminating concerns about putting the puck toward his own net. While, at 6 feet 5, he is often taller than his opponents, Steckel can get low to the ice without sacrificing balance or power, which is generated from the legs, back and abdomen.
Some coaches urge players to use a standard grip during faceoffs so they're prepared to play the puck immediately, but the left-handed Steckel increases his power by using overhand grips with both hands. And while some centers may direct the puck at angles to create scoring chances in the offensive zone, Steckel is almost always aiming to place the puck directly behind him.
"It's just being stronger on your stick than the other guy and kind of taking it personally that this guy's not gonna beat me," Steckel said, declining to go into more specifics. "If I gave away my techniques then everyone else would know. So those are the techniques that I'm telling you."
When Boudreau and Evason played professionally, looser rules made it easier for centers to "cheat" on draws, shifting their feet or sticks to improve their leverage. "We would butt heads like two rams, trying to get head position to get over the circle [to the point] where they couldn't even drop the puck," Boudreau said with a laugh. "When I played, they didn't have the lines, so you could cheat like a bastard," Evason added.
In an era of tighter rules, the coaches talk to their centers about establishing a rapport with linesmen, learning their tendencies and personalities enough to get the occasional break. And just as veteran pitchers are granted a larger strike zone, Evason said Steckel has developed enough of a reputation to get the benefit of the doubt from officials, allowing him to occasionally bend the rules on skate and stick placement.
Steckel also frequently reviews his form with Evason, a devotee who extended his own career by embracing penalty killing and faceoffs. Evason - who has a video library of faceoff clips on his laptop - also works with Boyd Gordon, whose 58.8 faceoff percentage would rank fourth in the NHL if he had enough attempts.
"It's an area that I'm really familiar with, and it's an area that I'm passionate about," Evason said this week. "It's a major, major part of the game."
And while several Capitals agreed with Evason, Steckel was more modest, saying faceoffs "are not my end-all, be-all," and laughing when asked if he was the best in the world at that skill.
"It's very simple," he insisted. "I just do it better than other people right now."