Jay Beagle started frantically knocking on his wooden dressing room stall after he had just been told he was statistically the NHL’s best player on faceoffs.
“Oh, no. Why would you say that?” Beagle said Tuesday. “I didn’t know that. I don’t look at the computer or stuff like that, so I would not find that out.”
The Washington Capitals center had won 63.7 percent of his draws entering Wednesday night’s game, ranked first in the league, according to faceoffs.net. Beagle’s faceoff prowess has always been a point of pride, from when his father’s friends would teach him tricks for draws to the fist bump he unleashed after a series of faceoffs against Chandler Stephenson in practice Wednesday, clearly the winner.
Perhaps his superstition was warranted. A few hours after discussing faceoffs at length with a reporter Wednesday, Beagle had his worst game in the dot that night, winning just 35 percent of his draws against the Pittsburgh Penguins, dropping him to 59.3 percent overall and from first to fifth in the league.
The importance of faceoffs was reinforced after the 3-1 loss to the Penguins, a game in which the Capitals won just 45 percent of the draws. Even after one bad performance — in which he was often pitted against Pittsburgh’s top faceoff players in centers Nick Bonino and Sidney Crosby — Beagle is Washington’s most reliable player in the circle.
“I’ve always been pretty good at faceoffs,” Beagle said. “It’s just something you get better at throughout the years. It’s just something [I] continually worked on, and it’s something that helped me get in the NHL.”
As one of the only players who consistently takes right-handed draws, Beagle’s favorable percentages have contributed to him averaging 14 minutes 41 seconds of ice time through eight games, a noticeable jump from 12:49 per game last season.
Winning a faceoff means Washington gets possession of the puck, but for Beagle, who anchors the third line, the goal is also to prevent the opposition’s top line from getting opportunities. Beagle has won at least 50 percent of draws against top centers such as Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Carolina’s Eric Staal.
Against Crosby on Wednesday night, Beagle was 2 for 7, and against Bonino, he was 1 for 6.
“They were winning faceoffs that were going in their end,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said of the Penguins. “That cleanly. That’s not good.”
Beagle’s appreciation for faceoffs were a result of wanting to be a center, just like his favorite player, former Detroit Red Wings star Steve Yzerman. He just thought they were fun at first, but he didn’t start to hone his craft until he wanted to get on a good Canadian youth hockey team. Some of his father’s friends told him to turn his hand over like professional players, which gave him more strength on his stick.
In the playoffs last season, Beagle’s faceoff wins rose to 63.8 percent, which also contributed to him averaging three minutes more per game in the postseason.
Beagle prefers to go against left-handed centers in practice, so it’s his strong side against another player’s strong side, though he occasionally will mix in taking draws against a right-hander; “they can pick your stick,” he said. On game days, Beagle will call out to winger Jason Chimera and just say, “Chimmer, I need ya,” and the teammates will take draws against each other.
“He’s got one of the strongest sticks, so I feel if I can practice against him and feel strong against him, I’ll feel good that day,” Beagle said.
“It’s just like his personality; he’s a bull in there,” Chimera said. “He’s a very tenacious person and doesn’t want to lose anything.”
Beagle rarely loses in the offensive zone; he has won 77.4 percent of his draws there, well above the league average of 51.1 percent, according to faceoffs.net.
But his numbers are below the league average in the defensive zone, where he’s winning 44.4 percent of the time, because a rule change to generate more offense now requires the defensive player to put his stick down first, giving the advantage to the offensive player.
But Beagle is determined to win those draws, too, already trying new tricks that could give him an advantage — even though he’s not intended to have one.
“There’s a lot of timing and speed and strength involved,” Beagle said. “It’s a lot more to it than a lot of people think.”