Faceoffs in hockey happen so often that their importance begins to blur. There is a draw, on average, once every minute in an NHL game. Every play starts with one. This season, more than 45,000 pucks have been dropped.
The battle for the puck is likened to an art or a chess match by its best practitioners but, from the outside, it often looks like a rugby scrum. One retired linesman said it's like throwing raw meat to wolves.
With hockey's growing focus on puck possession, faceoffs are viewed as increasingly important. It's the reason the Vancouver Canucks brought Manny Malhotra back to the organization; Malhotra, a recently retired journeyman centre who sustained a lengthy NHL career with his ability to win draws and play strong defence, joined the Canucks as a development coach in September.
"It's a big one – every faceoff," said Henrik Sedin, the team's long-time No. 1 centre. "You want to gain puck possession. That's [Malhotra's] main message."
While his title suggests a broader role, Malhotra's top job has been as a faceoff sage. Stung by injuries and inexperience, the Canucks' 45.4 faceoff percentage in 2015-16 was dead last in the league and among the worst since faceoff stats were first kept in 1997-98.
This season the team is healthier, with more experienced centres, and boasts a faceoff percentage of 51.9 – fifth in the NHL and the biggest season-to-season gain ever, according to research by The Globe and Mail and Elias Sports Bureau.
In part, it has helped propel the Canucks out of the league basement. After finishing 13th in the Western Conference last season, the team is currently in the playoff hunt, one of six teams vying for the two wild-card spots.
A veteran of 16 NHL seasons and 11,988 faceoffs, Malhotra's expert counsel begins at practice and continues before games.
He delivers a detailed scouting report on opponents. Occasionally he'll drop by the locker room between periods and offer a specific adjustment.
"He knows right away if you're doing something that's not working," said Brandon Sutter, who in his ninth season is now among the best faceoff men in the league, with a 55.2 percentage. His previous full-season best was 50.6.
Bo Horvat, in his third season, has improved his mark to 52.6, while Sedin, who was hurting last year, has rebounded to 49.4, above his 48.9 career average. Michael Chaput, a fourth liner in his fourth season, has taken more draws than he ever had before and is winning more than he loses for the first time with his 51.3 percentage.
But Malhotra, who played for Vancouver for three seasons late in his career, wasn't always a master in the circle. He was taken in the first round – seventh overall – in the 1998 draft by the New York Rangers, who expected they were landing a scoring centre. He was eventually traded to Dallas and then waived. Columbus picked him up in 2003, and it was with the Blue Jackets in the 2005-06 season that he established himself as an elite faceoff force.
He flourished as he refined his technique and forged his distinctive ultra-low, wide-legged stance. Winning faceoffs put him on the ice in key situations – on the penalty kill and late in periods.
"It was about how I could be on the ice more," Malhotra said. "You want to be the guy."
Success in the faceoff circle is hard to achieve. Winning 52 or 53 per cent is considered good. Elite status starts at 55 per cent, and superelite is reserved for 60-plus. Since stats were first tallied, only 12 centres who took at least 600 draws in a season have cracked 60 per cent.
Malhotra twice reached 60 per cent, and his 56.4 career percentage ranks him ninth among centres with at least 10,000 draws.
While Vancouver's position in the playoff hunt can't be attributed solely to its faceoff proficiency, research suggests that enough faceoff wins can give a team a minor bump. For that, Malhotra can take credit.