If you're looking for reasons that the Ottawa Senators are hovering around .500 instead of the basement, look no further than the play of their top line, most notably centre Jason Spezza, whose 15 points have him tied for ninth in league scoring.
But Spezza isn't just leading the Senators in terms of offensive production (or double zees). He's also the league's most frequent visitor to the faceoff circle, and one of its most frequent winners. Through 15 games, Spezza has taken a whopping 342 draws, 26 more than the next guy, Eric Staal, and twice as many as the next Senator, Zack Smith. Spezza's won 56.4% of the time, good for 10th in the league.
Those 342 faceoffs, by the way, are 38.3% percent of his team's overall faceoffs taken, which is, again the highest percentage in the league.
The Senators' centre is on pace for 1870 draws. To put that in perspective, Eric Staal led the NHL last season with 1750. Spezza, meanwhile, took 1210 in 2010-11. This is a drastic increase, both for him and in general.
How to explain Spezza's sudden transformation from Ottawa's top faceoff guy to a bona fide faceoff specialist? Merit, to be certain, but also necessity.
Two seasons ago, despite being the team's number one centre, Spezza was the third option on faceoffs behind Matt Cullen and Mike Fisher, who both took more and won more. These guys have since moved on, however, and Spezza, now the go-to guy in the circle, has worked on being more reliable there. From the Ottawa Sun:
"It's just something I try to (take) pride in," said Spezza.
"I want to be out there taking big faceoffs. It's something I've worked on quite a bit in the last three years and I feel it's something that I've been able to get a lot better at.
"When I came here, I don't think I was as good. It's one of those things where if you work at them, you can get better at them. I've put a lot of time in trying to work on them."
Spezza has put in the time, but don't think that Ottawa is using him more often this season simply because he's earned the reps. He's winning draws at the exact same percentage as last season. The increase in usage is mainly about necessity.
Zenon Konopka, signed in the offseason not just for his grit but for his faceoff prowess (dude was 4th in the league in the category last season), hasn't been good enough to stay in the lineup. He's been a healthy scratch six times in his first fifteen games in Ottawa.
And yet he still leads the league in PIM. Never change, Zenon.
Centers Jesse Winchester and Peter Regin, respectively second and fourth last season in faceoffs taken for the Senators, have both missed time with shoulder injuries. And, while Winchester's back in the lineup, coach Paul Maclean is using him sparingly in the circle, no doubt because of the the strain faceoffs can put on shoulders, especially shoulders that are still tender.
These injuries up the middle have made room for rookie centre Stephane da Costa, who has impressed in a lot of areas, but the faceoff circle is most definitely not among them. As it stands, he's only winning 40.5%. But he's a kid, and kids get better at drawing as they get older. Soon he'll be colouring inside the lines and everything.
In the meantime, it makes sense to get him on the ice during play rather than stoppages. He's got a much better chance of touching the puck that way.
In short, the Senators don't really have a choice but to use Spezza as much as possible. All credit to him for preventing this from becoming a problem.