ST. LOUIS — Ken Hitchcock calls Vladimir Sobotka his jack-of-all-trades. He does a little bit of everything for the St. Louis Blues, and for the most part does all of them very well.
This includes taking faceoffs, where Sobotka is the current NHL leader at 64.5 percent. He is winning 82.4 percent of his draws on the power play while winning 62.2 percent at even strength. He’s also 61.5 percent on the penalty kill.
“He’s really competitive,” Hitchcock says. “He has such strong arms, he pulls harder than anyone he goes up against.”
That strength is no accident. Sobotka takes the job he does in the faceoff circle very seriously, and it’s a big part of his off-season training in the Czech Republic.
Over the summer, Sobotka practices for an hour at a time improving his shoulder and abdominal strength for faceoff work. He uses a rope connected to a wall at one end and to a hockey stick at the other, producing resistance that builds strength. He spends an even amount of time working on his backhand, forehand and going between his legs.
Besides strength, winning faceoffs requires superb timing and a significant level of strategy.
“On the left side, I try to win it clean on my backhand,” says Sobotka, 26, who is quick to credit his wingers for the job they do either tying up or winning 50-50 pucks. “On the right side, I’ll try and tie up and use my skate to win it back.”
Sobotka also does plenty of homework on faceoffs. He looks at five or six video clips with assistant coach Ray Bennett before
games to study opponents’ tendencies in the faceoff circle.
Puck possession is the name of the game in hockey, and winning faceoffs is a big part of having the puck. The Blues are fifth overall in the NHL, winning 52.9 percent.
Clearly, Sobotka isn’t the only Blue doing well on face-offs. Fellow center Maxim Lapierre, also known for his ability to win faceoff draws, has raised his percentage to 52 percent after winning just 11.1 percent against Nashville in the season opener. Lapierre has won at least 50 percent in every game since and at least 57 percent in five of the seven games he’s played this season in which he’s taken a faceoff.
Count Lapierre among those noticing what Sobotka is doing.
“His strength is incredible,” Lapierre says. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
Captain David Backes leads the Blues in faceoffs taken with 204, and he also has enjoyed success. He’s won 52.9 percent, including 60 percent against Calgary on Thursday night.
Left wings improving
Brenden Morrow appears to be very close to returning from an upper-body injury suffered Oct. 29 vs. Winnipeg. He’s taking contact and could return as soon as early next week.
Magnus Paajarvi is also making strides from his upper-body injury but is probably a few days behind Morrow.
Kevin Shattenkirk is now in the top 10 in scoring (ninth) among all NHL defensemen with 11 points in 14 games. All of his points have come on assists, including eight in his last seven games. Shattenkirk owns the longest assist streak (seven games) in the NHL.
You can follow Andy Strickland on Twitter at @andystrickland or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes about the Blues and the NHL at truehockey.com.