It’s easy to see the Red Deer Rebels’ success this season through a simple cursory look at the WHL standings.
What isn’t as obvious, is what lies underneath the hood of that success. And it starts, at least on a lot of nights, in the faceoff circle.
With just 16 games left in the regular season, Red Deer has been the WHL’s best team in that aspect winning 54.7 per cent of their faceoffs.
Some of the teams’ best have been Jayden Grubbe (57.8 per cent), Ollie Josephson (56.4), Kai Uchacz (55.5), and Ben King (53.6).
Uchacz told The Advocate competing in the faceoff circle is something they take pride in.
“We work on it every week in practice,” he said. “Down the middle, we have guys that are solid in the draw and take pride in winning draws. The more we win the more we start off with the puck at the start of each play.”
The 20-year-old said individual work from the offseason to now putting on more muscle and building strength has helped a lot.
“Coming into this year I had a goal set to be above that 50 per cent mark and try to push for 60. It’s been something in the back of my mind,” he added.
So far Uchacz has cleared his goal with flying colours but how does he do it?
When approaching the faceoff circle Uchacz has one of two go-to moves on his mind but it all depends on who he’s up against.
The majority of the time he will try to outmuscle his opponent or will use more techniques such as knocking the other player’s stick out of the way and snapping his stick back fast.
“I’d say about 95 per cent of the time I’m going on my backhand even if it’s on my forehand side. I usually try to win it with my backhand just because of comfort,” he added.
Skills coach Erik Lodge has been a big part of the teams’ faceoff success but Uchacz explained they got some help from former Red Deer Rebel and NHLer Brandon Sutter.
“He was out in practice with us for a bit and he’s won a bunch of faceoffs in the NHL. He gave us a bunch of tips and just gave us some confidence in there,” he added.
Josephson has statistically been the second-best on the team in his rookie season in the WHL.
He explained faceoffs are a skill the whole team takes seriously.
“It’s not just the centers that win the draws it’s 50-50 pucks your wingers grabbing for you behind the defence,” he said. “It’s definitely more of a team stat.”
To be an effective two-way center he said it’s important to be good at draws. That motivated Josephson to continue to work at faceoffs after he struggled in the preseason.
“I’ve worked with Lodge and he’s helped me quite a bit. I’m pretty happy with how I’ve been doing them so far,” he said.
“When I was in midget I was a bit stronger than most guys so I could overpower them. Bigger league this year and I wasn’t overpowering anyone so I had to go with more quickness and technique.”
He prefers to use his backhand but depending on the situation whether it’s an offensive or defensive zone draw his technique changes. In the offensive zone, the centreman will most likely try to knock it out to one of the forwards or defencemen for a quick shot.
Coincidentally, the second-best team in the faceoff circle in the WHL is the Kamloops Blazers at 54.1 per cent, who will visit the Peavey Mart Centrium Friday night at 7 p.m.
“It’ll be really fun,” Josephson said. “It’s a good test for our group. They’re a really good team and we’re a really good team. I’m looking forward to it.”
Uchacz echoed Josephson’s comments.
“I saw we were just above them but they’ll be pretty good in that category so we’ll really have to focus in on that Friday,” Uchacz added.