WASHINGTON, D.C. — Antoine Vermette is apologizing. He wishes a better story existed to explain his faceoff dominance. Maybe some sepia-toned childhood memory, drilling draw after draw on the frozen backyard pond in small-town Quebec. Or the tutelage of a gray-bearded guru whose ancient secrets still fuel him today. Myths, the Ducks center figures, sound better than the truth: He never watches film, never studies scouting reports, never prepares much beyond crouching down at the dot. “There’s no big secret,” Vermette says, almost bashful in his explanation. “I don’t really practice.”
Two hours before Washington hosts Anaheim, Vermette stops outside the visiting locker room on his way into Capital One Arena. Wearing an overcoat and a beanie for the winter chill, Vermette stops outside the visiting locker room to demonstrate his unique form. Hinging at the waist, he hikes his right elbow to shoulder height, holding high a coffee cup that for now serves as a stick. His bottom hand hovers around his left knee. From this position he swipes at the puck, hard, the same way every time. “I take a lot of pride,” Vermette says. “But I just trust that things will take care of themselves.”
These days things have handled themselves quite well. Last season Vermette narrowly ranked second in faceoff win rate (62.3%) behind Colorado’s Matt Duchene (62.6%), and trailed just Buffalo’s Ryan O’Reilly in ‘17-18 through Tuesday (61.5% to 60.0%). Maintaining this current pace would vault Vermette into special company for this specialized skill, albeit with an asterisk: since ‘07-08, the earliest date stats are available on puckbase.com, only Manny Malhotra has posted back-to-back 60% campaigns.
But perhaps the laissez-faire approach by such a master at hands-on practice speaks to the flukiness of faceoffs themselves. They are often cited on broadcasts as an easy-to-digest, mono e mono metric, but percentages hinge on a variety outside factors, such as teammates winning 50-50 battles along the boards or the whims of in-house scorekeepers. And besides, while puck possession matters more than ever in today’s NHL, no significant correlation has been made between faceoff success and offensive production; one 2012 study calculated that it takes 76.5 faceoff victories to yield a single expected goal.
So what makes Vermette successful? Power and quick-twitch muscles mostly, if not relentless work ethic or dutiful preparation. “He’s just really strong on his stick,” says Blackhawks center and former teammate Jonathan Toews. “He sweeps in there. It’s tough for you to pick the puck off, or out-muscle him.”
“It’s almost like a baseball swing,” says Washington’s Jay Beagle. “He does that hard sweep and comes from his hip, which his hard to beat. It takes a pretty special person to be able to do that. If he misses, or if the puck hops over his stick, his hands are up by his head and the dot’s wide open. It’s really risky. That’s why not too many centermen do it. You have to have great timing, and his is one of the best in the league.”
Beagle, who ranks fifth in the NHL at 58.3% this season, falls on the opposite end of the preparedness spectrum. He scours film for tendencies of upcoming opponents, creates a mental catalogue of past matchups, considers which linesmen will be working that night and how each drops pucks. Vermette operates more on pure instinct, reading pre-draw setups by both teams and then letting ‘er fly. “I try to impose what I’m trying to do,” he says,. “Usually I have that strategy of ‘Make it work and have them try to adjust.’”
Perhaps Vermette deserves more credit than he allows himself. He entered the NHL two lockouts ago, a second-round pick with the Ottawa Senators, and reached 1,000 games earlier this season in Anaheim. No doubt his technique has evolved with so much experience, more tricks added to his draw-taking toolbox over time, though he cannot pinpoint precisely how. “Within seasons, within games, you’ve got to adjust,” he says. “You’ve got to find a better angle on guys, a different approach.”
The workload wavers too; playing on a line with the right-handed Ryan Getzlaf, Vermette took the majority of his draws on his strong side in ‘16-17, but he hasn’t missed a beat when injuries to Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler upped Vermette’s attempt rate by 2.3 per game this season. Not even the rampant preseason crackdown on faceoff violations —which Vermette likens to when the league emerged from the ‘04-05 lockout hellbent on reducing its clutch-and-grab culture—stopped him. “It was a weird situation for everybody at the beginning, even the linesmen,” Vermette says. “Way different than what it used to be. But I think everything is smoother that way on both sides.”
If anything has changed at all, Vermette observes, it’s how colleagues treat his craft. “Every detail of the game has been magnified, analyzed,” he says. “You’re seeing coaches looking specifically at faceoffs, trying to implement different strategies. I don’t remember that being so important when I started. Faceoffs weren’t been talked as much, from what I remember. But now it’s like anything else.”
Off the ice, Vermette is a soft-spoken 35-year-old who has only once recorded more than 60 penalty minutes in a single season, whose mild manners belie his aggressive approach in the circle. The only thing that doesn’t square is last Valentine’s Day. Frustrated that rookie linesman Shandor Alphonso had dropped the puck on a neutral-zone faceoff when he wasn’t ready, Vermette voiced his displeasure by slapping his stick against Alphonso’s legs, which earned a 10-game suspension for “abuse of officials.” Vermette appealed the decision, citing a clean disciplinary record, but eventually decided to serve his punishment without objection. Asked about the incident 10 months later, Vermette only notes that he apologized to Alphonso when their paths next crossed. “Show some respect, it goes a long way,” he says.
Otherwise he’s happy to talk about faceoffs. He just wishes there was more to say: “If I’m watching a game and some guy’s having success, I try to see what he’s going to accomplish. But it’s not part of my routine. Maybe in playoffs when you’re going to face some guys more. But in-season, I usually don’t spend too much time doing all that.
“It’s not that cool story where I’m watching videos and practicing all offseason. I just try to bear down, work hard, try to get on the right side. It’s been working pretty good so far.”