Philadelphia Waterdogs faceoff specialist Alex Stathakis

What Waterdogs’ surprise roster decision means for Philly’s faceoff strategy

By Wyatt Miller | May 31, 2024

Trevor Baptiste overpowered James Reilly at the stripe in the third game of 2023, winning six of the first eight faceoffs, including five straight. In the second quarter, then-head coach and general manager Andy Copelan had to make a change. 

He put defenseman Eli Gobrecht at faceoff, who pestered Baptiste with his long pole for the rest of the game, helping the Waterdogs come back from a seven-point first-half deficit. Ever since the addition of a 32-second shot clock after faceoffs, Copelan had considered not dressing a specialist and discussed the matter extensively with assistants, including Louie DeDonatis. So, when it came time for action, they had a plan ready to convey to Gobrecht and the wings. 

Once that move was made, it was far from final. Each week, Copelan and his staff poured over stats and film to see whether they should dress a faceoff specialist. DeDonatis in particular was involved in analyzing things like 32- and 52-second efficiencies, total possessions, total shots, possession time and more. They didn’t dress another specialist for the rest of the year, relying on Gobrecht and Zach Currier to wreak post-clamp havoc.

“The PLL provides us with a ton of data points,” DeDonatis said. “So we took everything into account and tried to make the best decision possible (each week).”

Bill Tierney is now the top man for Philadelphia and DeDonatis is officially on the staff, but long poles are no longer allowed at the stripe. Still, the Waterdogs have plenty of faceoff options. 

Both Currier and Ryan Conrad are capable of winning faceoffs. And while rookie specialist Alec Stathakis was cut from the roster because he had to return to Denver to finish earning his Master’s degree, Tierney said “you’ll see him in a Waterdog uniform sometime this year.” When that happens, this squad can be unpredictable, making faceoff decisions based on the matchup.

“We’ve got to talk about the strategies of it all, who we’ll use a faceoff guy against, who we won’t,” Tierney said. “It just depends on how (Stathakis) is doing and who he’s going up against. The strategy of it all is kind of funky as you know, and we’ve got to figure it out, but that will take a little while.”

Tierney has tons of trust in Stathakis, a former top recruit of his at Denver, but knows the strategy at the stripe will be an important weekly decision. That’s part of the reason DeDonatis’ analytical insight and command of the substitution box stood out to Tierney during the hiring process. 

With two weeks remaining in Stathakis’ Master’s program, the Waterdogs will be without a faceoff man for at least that long. Tierney doesn’t want to run any of his stars into the ground, though. So, during Thursday’s practice, he had all the defensive midfielders take some faceoffs. That included Jake Richard, Christian Scarpello, Charlie Hayes, Matt Whitcher and Gobrecht (working with a short stick).

“What you get out of Zach Currier is everything,” Tierney said. “But if he faces off 30 times in a game, I don’t care if he’s Superman, that’s going to have an effect on all the other things he does that he does so well.”

Given the Waterdogs’ history of diversity at the stripe, Tierney didn’t need to take a chance on an unknown player in the draft. Retaining the team’s unselfish, winning culture was the most important consideration when adding to this roster, and he knew they could grab a great fit for the Dogs in the player pool. Stathakis is clearly part of this team’s plan going forward.

“I liked to get him up here for the scrimmage, and I think he proved he has a lot of potential to play in this league,” Tierney said.

When Copelan drafted Jack Hannah in the second round of the 2022 draft, Tierney told him Hannah was “the most competitive person I’ve ever met.” 

“But if there’s a second,” Tierney added earlier this month, “it’s Alec Stathakis.”

At 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, Stathakis was the strongest person in the weight room at Denver, and he also ran the mile in 5:30. After his first PLL practice, DeDonatis could tell he’s “an absolute animal of an athlete.” 

Stathakis’ athleticism is absurd – it’s like if Browns running back Nick Chubb (5-foot-11, 227 pounds) strapped on a lacrosse helmet and learned how to clamp. Both have incredible strength and speed for their size, and can outlift the biggest players on their respective squads. The Waterdogs haven’t had someone that imposing at the faceoff stripe since Jake Withers.

The Northville, Mich., native has a similar stature to Baptiste (5-foot-10, 225 pounds), the most dominant faceoff man in the world and a fellow Denver alum, and both were coached by Tierney. Stathakis certainly has the physical makings of a successful specialist in the pros, and Philly’s slew of midfielders have the defensive acumen to overwhelm opposing specialists when he doesn’t dress. 

If all that continues to be true, the Waterdogs would add an element of surprise to their weekly matchups. Teams won’t know what faceoff strategy to prepare for until 19-man rosters are announced.