Even David Steckel admits he’s no offensive dynamo.
The newest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs rarely scores, rarely gets an assist and rarely shoots the puck. Heck, he gets excited when he’s sent out to play in the offensive zone.
But what he does do is win faceoffs.
Steckel has taken 3,682 draws the last four seasons in the NHL and won 2,168 – nearly 60 per cent. He is the only player in the league to finish in the top 10 in the category all four years.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson used those talents as often as he could in Thursday’s 2-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens, sending the 6-foot-6 Steckel over the boards to take defensive zone faceoffs and then calling him quickly off the ice.
In his first game with the Leafs, Steckel took more than 40 per cent of the draws and won 72 per cent. In the defensive zone, he took 57 per cent of the 30 faceoffs and won all but four of them.
The coach loved what he saw and plans to use him the same way again and again.
“I haven’t had that as my career as a coach,” Wilson said. “Where we had one guy where you knew he was going to win at least 60 or 65 per cent.”
Steckel’s faceoff ability makes him a specialist, perhaps more so than any other player in the league. But given he earns $1.1-million (U.S.) and, aside from killing penalties, has limited other value, how important is his unique talent?
First consider that NHL teams take an average of slightly less than 60 faceoffs a game, and over his career, Steckel has averaged roughly 13 draws a game.
Wilson’s strategy could see him take 20 or more on many nights, and since he wins 10 to 12 per cent more draws than the average player, the Leafs would gain possession of the puck an extra two or three times a night.
According to hockey statistician Gabriel Desjardins, that small difference adds up over a full season.
“I’m convinced that teams have long paid too little attention to faceoff-taking,” Desjardins writes at behindthenet.ca. “Maybe individual faceoffs don’t seem that valuable but having a high winning percentage can be worth several wins in the standings.”
The Maple Leafs sat in the middle pack in faceoff wins last season, but Steckel taking one-third of their draws and winning at the rate he did a year ago (62.3 per cent) could increase their win percentage to as high as 54 per cent.
That may not sound like much, but Desjardins believes Steckel’s contributions are undervalued and make him worth $1.5-million to $2-million a year.
That 4-per-cent jump in faceoff percentage for the team, meanwhile, is worth roughly another point or two in the standings, statistically speaking.
“Every year, it’s the same guys who are at the top of the list for winning faceoffs,” Wilson said. “We’re lucky that David was available. In the past, when you were playing Carolina, you knew you weren’t going to beat Rod Brind’Amour. He was going to win. And it had nothing to do with coaching.”
Steckel said Friday he’s been strong on faceoffs since learning from coach Bob Mancini on the U.S. national junior team as a teen. He plays coy when asked about why, exactly, he wins so many draws, saying he believes he’s simply able to out muscle others.
A lefty, Steckel admits he has a harder time against right-handed players and he sometimes uses video to scout ahead.
“There’s no secret to what I’m doing,” he said of his technique. “I do the same thing. I’m just outbattling the other guy.”
Making his faceoff prowess even more remarkable is the fact the index finger on his right hand is a bit of a mess. Steckel broke it in 2008 blocking a shot, had the pins removed to play in the postseason and then wasn’t able to bend the finger for a full season.
The injury developed a staph infection, and he came close to losing a few fingers – something that would have ended his faceoff-taking days for good.
These days, the knuckle on his finger is so badly disfigured he compares it to his big toe.
But it doesn’t keep him from doing the thing that makes him more valuable on the ice.
“Now, I can bend it around a stick,” Steckel said. “That’s all I need it to do.”