Without all those hours spent cramming and crouching and creating an enduring belief that the Washington Capitals’ best chance to get the puck is off his stick, Jay Beagle probably wouldn’t have been on the ice with 17 seconds left in a tie game against the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this month.
But he was, taking a defensive-zone faceoff against Hurricanes center Victor Rask. All the Capitals wanted from Beagle, their fourth-line center and one of the NHL’s most-reliable faceoff men, was possession. He ended up scoring, too, delivering the puck and then a win with 1.3 seconds left on the clock.
“It’s pretty simple,” Beagle said Friday. “Would you rather start with the puck or not start with the puck? That’s what my job is.”
If the goal is simple, the nuances aren’t. Beagle’s faceoff success doesn’t start when he bends over the dot, stick hovering above his knees, or when he twitches into motion as the linesman drops the puck. That is only the result of careful game-day preparation that includes looping videos of the opponent’s top faceoff men and practicing against teammates who can mimic the night’s challenge. That is when Beagle creates a mental catalogue of the opposing centers’ tendencies, making him ready for the game’s first faceoffs and whatever adjustments come next.
Heading into the Capitals’ 12:30 p.m. clash with the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, the website PuckBase has Beagle ranked fourth in the league with a 57.6 faceoff winning percentage. He is behind the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly (61.2), Anaheim Ducks’ Antoine Vermette (59.7) and Flyers forward Claude Giroux (57.9), whom he will likely be studying Sunday morning.
As advanced statistical analysis has grown more prominent in the NHL in recent seasons, faceoffs have been increasingly examined and specialized in, players said. Beagle does not consider himself an analytics person or particularly tech-savvy. Former teammate Karl Alzner joked that “it’s funny to watch Jay try to work a computer or iPad.” Yet Beagle has dived into faceoff videos and analysis since becoming an NHL regular in 2010, and carved out an important role to go along with his two-way play. He played in a career-high 81 games last year and has been in the Capitals’ lineup for every game so far this season.
“He studies it. I mean, that’s his craft,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s one of the best in the league. He studies it. He works on a daily basis.”
Vermette, 35 and in his 14th NHL season, said it wasn’t always like this.
He broke into the NHL in 2003 and, with his strength and swinging approach in the circle, quickly became a go-to faceoff man. But he never studied faceoffs away from the ice and never thought others did much, either. But as he grew into one of the league’s top faceoff men — he finished last season with the league’s second-best winning percentage at 62.3 — Vermette noticed faceoffs coming up more in meetings and video sessions. He also saw players like Beagle, put in for a defensive-zone draw and then skating right off, functioning as a faceoff specialist of sorts.
“You can sense through meetings, set plays, things of that nature, all that wasn’t as present when I started my career,” Vermette, who still doesn’t do any intricate preparation, said in a recent phone interview. “I’m sure the coaching staffs were always paying attention, but it seems like more and more now that the league, and the game, is going through a lot of stats like puck possession and all kind of data.”
Beagle isn’t driven by numbers, but more a will to win as many faceoffs as possible. He came upon the faceoff circle naturally, as a kid center whose dad, a former defenseman, taught defensive values that Beagle can still rattle off. Play two ways. Value each and every possession.
So maybe that is why Beagle, a 32-year-old who has scored 49 goals in 439 career games, is so keen on giving possession to his team. Or maybe he’s just too competitive to approach it any other way, as teammates suggest. There are so many uncontrollable variables in the faceoff circle — how the linesman drops the puck, the adjustments an opponent makes, how the puck bounces after the draw — that Beagle hedges it with mental repetition.
If he is going to face left-handed centers, Beagle will often take draws against teammate Chandler Stephenson on game day. If the upcoming opponent has a right-handed center, like him, he will practice against Capitals winger T.J. Oshie. Then he watches the opposing centers’ recent draws on repeat, looking to see if a given player likes to go straight for the puck, sit back for a moment and use stick skill to flick it away, or swing straight through the dot like Vermette and a handful of other players.
From there, Beagle calls faceoffs a “chess match” within the game as adjustments are made throughout. Beagle is the Capitals’ only right-handed center, so Trotz often uses him for defensive-zone faceoffs on his strong side.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to see what their tendencies are,” said Beagle, who has noted in the past that he likes to go straight for the puck. “There are a few looks you can give, so I just go ahead and see what their go-to is and what they are familiar with so I can be ready.”
That naturally funnels into the biggest questions for the player who spends each game day picking apart opposing centers’ faceoff habits: What are Beagle’s biggest strengths in the faceoff circle? What is his approach?
“I’ll never tell,” he said, laughing and bending back at the waist. “Never.”
Beagle spends so much time gaining the smallest edges. Why would he give one back?
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