The National Hockey League’s faceoff leaders are a pretty wide-ranging group. Typical names at the top include established stars like Patrice Bergeron and Joe Thornton, while lesser household names like Paul Gaustad and Boyd Gordon are also mainstays. But most of the players near the top of the list tend to be veterans, which is why 22-year-old Islanders center Casey Cizikas stands out.
Cizikas ranks fourth in the league on draws at 60.2-percent, behind only Gaustad, Gordon and Antoine Vermette, three players with 10 years of experience apiece who have each finished in the top-10 the past two campaigns.
Islanders head coach Jack Capuano credits the centerman’s success to his willingness to bring his lunch pail to the rink every day.
“We’ve got some pretty good faceoff guys, but he’s gotten much better,” Capuano said. “He takes pride in it. He’s practicing it. He’s a work horse for us. We get the numbers during the game and see which centermen are doing well against others. In the last game, he was beating everybody, so we used him quite a bit in crucial situations.”
Cizikas has won at least 50-percent of his draws in seven of the Islanders eight games this season, including a 7-of-9 effort Saturday vs. Carolina. The third-year NHLer, never satisfied with past performances, says the numbers so far might be due to a small sample size.
“I’m getting those lucky bounces, where sometimes it goes off a referee’s skate or something,” Cizikas said. “They’re just going my way right now, but it’s something I’ve worked on and will continue to work hard at.”
Cizikas wasn’t the Islanders most reliable faceoff man a season ago, in his first full NHL campaign. While he won more than he lost, his results were inconsistent from game to game, depending on how experienced the opposing centerman was. This time around, Cizikas has the confidence that he can win an important draw against any center in the league.
“Last year I learned a lot of tricks and watched what other guys did,” Cizikas said. “I might have gotten worried if I was going up against a big guy who was stronger than me. I’d over-think my approach. Now, I’m not really too worried about what they’re doing. I have a good idea of my strengths, and what I’m going to do every time.”
Capuano added that Cizikas’ improvements have expanded beyond the faceoff circle.
“He did get beat a lot when he first came in, not only in the faceoff circle, but as a centerman down low against bigger bodies,” Capuano said. “He’s learned now how to defend, what his positioning needs to be and he’s picked up a couple of tricks of the trade.”
Cizikas leads Islanders forwards in ice time on the penalty kill and has taken more draws in the defensive zone than anywhere else on the ice. He’s won 27-of-45 defensive zone draws (60-percent). Those wins on the penalty kill usually result in a quick clear of the puck, making life easier on the PK unit.
Matt Martin, who typically flanks Cizikas on the left side, says he’s not surprised by the Toronto, ON native’s ability to take on big responsibilities with relatively little experience in the league.
“I played against him in junior and he was the same kind of player,” Martin said. “They relied on him a lot. He’s going to work hard and be reliable. Our line has gained that credibility from our coaches, and they trust in us to be out there in those key situations and not make a big mistake.”
The “energy line” of Cizikas, Martin and Colin McDonald will undoubtedly face challenging matchups in the Islanders next game against the high-powered Vancouver Canucks offense. Game time Tuesday is at 7:00 p.m.
Cizikas was told as a teenager with the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors what he would have to do to make an impact at the NHL level. While he had the ability to be a goal-scoring threat in the junior ranks, his coaches didn’t see that in his long-term future.
“When I first got drafted into the OHL, a lot of people thought that I’d be that skill player, that offensive-dominant threat,” Cizikas said. “But right from the get-go, my coach there, Dave Cameron, made it pretty clear what kind of player he wanted me to be and how I’d have to play to become a pro. That’s a big reason why I’m the player I am today.”
Cizikas says those talks and finding a different focus was a big reason why he was able to make his NHL debut at 20, and become an NHL regular at 21, rather than spending several years in the American Hockey League learning how to change his game and take on the checking-line role.
“I found out pretty early that I wasn’t going to be that 40, 50-goal scorer,” Cizikas said. “I’m happy in the role I’m in. I like being that shutdown, energy-type of guy who plays the PK. That’s something I’m very proud of and something I take really seriously. It’s something I want to keep doing and getting better at.”
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