Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Bloggers Face Off on Face-offs

Face-offs are a topic that most people think of in simple terms:

“Winning Face-offs is GOOD! Good teams win lots of face-offs!”

The mainstream media, colour commentators, and your father all told you that one of the keys to winning hockey games was to win face-offs.

Well, it’s time to dispel that myth and poke holes in that theory.

I started questioning the status quo when I first had a gander at Daryl Shilling’s Ultimate Standings from 2004.

The #1 and #2 face-off teams? Anaheim and Carolina, finished in the bottom half of the NHL. While we can see less successful face-off teams tended to finish lower in 2004, past results, and current results, indicate that face-off wins don’t correlate strongly with overall success. Ottawa finished 4th worst in face-off win% in 2004 yet had no trouble winning games.

James Mirtle recently had a post about this season’s face-off winning percentages. I had a look and you can see that the top teams in the real standings are all over the place in that ranking. Therefore, winning face-offs isn’t exactly correlating to success this season, either.

Eric Cartman over at The Puck Stops Here decided to delve into this topic further in this post. He makes a great observation about the basic statistics and how unimportant face-off wins just may be.

If we look at the statistics James Mirtle quotes 29 of 30 teams are well within 4% of the 50% success rate which is average. Four percent is one in 25 faceoffs. The difference between a good faceoff team and an average one is winning one in 25 extra faceoffs. The difference between a bad faceoff team and an average one is losing less than one in 25 extra faceoffs. That is not very much at all. The lone exception to that is the Edmonton Oilers who have a 56.2% faceoff success rate. The difference between the best team on faceoffs (and the one outlying point) is winning slightly over one in sixteen extra faceoffs. This is why there is little correlation between faceoff wins and winning hockey games. There is little difference between the faceoff success rate of the best and worst teams in the league.

While it is a good thing to have a player or two who is very good on faceoffs, as it will earn your team a few more puck possessions, I would not be too concerned about it. You could just as easily find players who do not giveaway the puck or frequently take the puck from the opposition to more than make up this difference.

Now, cranky Tom Benjamin took Eric to task for his, and mainstream media land’s assertion that hockey is a game of puck possession in this recent post.

This is a relatively new piece of conventional wisdom, something that came along at about the same time that hockey announcers were handed the new statistic to deliver up to fans. "Hockey is a game of puck possession," declared every colour analyst, "And puck possession starts with the faceoff..."

Offense in hockey is about finding (or creating) open ice and moving the puck through it to the opponent's goal. Give any NHL player open ice and he will carry or pass or shoot the puck through it. Defense in hockey is about denying open ice to the offense. The key is the ice - open or not - not puck possession. If the ice is open, the puck is moving through it, and if the ice is not open the puck is usually going to get turned over. The position of the faceoff is more important than who wins it. The puck marks the amount of the ice controlled by one side or the other, much like the football marks the amount of territory controlled by football teams.

I have to agree with Tom, cranky as he is. Hockey has far more turnovers and changes of possession than any of the other major sports. Systems such as the “Left Wing Lock” and the “Neutral Zone Trap” are based on positioning players and angling the opposition into certain areas rather that ‘what do we do with the puck once we got it’. As Tom notes, teams willingly give up possession of the puck when they dump the puck into the corner and clear the puck down the ice. You would never see a team do that in any other major sport.

The major hole in the face-off statistic is that it isn’t broken up in any meaningful way. If we could show face-off wins and losses by zone, situation, and other factors, we could analyze this statistic and see if they are teams and players that are genuinely better at winning ‘key’ face-offs. There are plenty of face-offs in the neutral zone that are rather meaningless, yet winning a draw deep in the offensive or defensive zone could be important.

On the other hand, the %'s might be rather similar overall and will be spread out so much that we can't read anything meaningful from them. Until we can see such stats, we'll never know.

Now, I do believe that there is an advantage to having an ace face-off artist like Rod Brind’Amour for key situations, as long as that player doesn’t suck at other aspects of the game (Hello, Mr. Jason Bonsignore), but the team should not overpay for such an ability. If you are protecting a 3-2 lead late in the game, you want to win face-offs and it can be important. Of course, getting the 3-2 lead depends on many other factors more important than winning draws :)

Still, I can think of two real-life examples where the team won a key draw and ended up ‘losing’.

1. The Atlanta Thrashers win a draw deep in their defensive zone to defenseman Gord Murphy. Lubos Bartecko immediately jumps on Murphy (Figuratively speaking), steals the puck, and fires a quick goal. So, the Blues score a quick goal from a key face-off loss.

2. The Florida Panthers win an offensive zone face-off deep in the Blues’ zone back to defenseman Jaroslav Spacek. Spacek fires a shot which is blocked by a charging Pavol Demitra. Demitra is sprung on a very wide-open breakaway and scores roof-daddy on Sean Burke. Another face-off loss and another quick goal for the Blues. (If I had bandwidth, I’d upload the video evidence).

So, in the end, I do believe face-off wins, as they are calculated now, are rather worthless for predicting success. They are a nice showy stat, and can perhaps tell more about an individual player than an entire team, but they aren’t as useful as the mainstream mediots would have you believe. Leave it to Bloggers to open up a can of reality for you.

there are big faces offs and normal ones, first thing would be to split the two apart.

what are big face-offs? in the circle, in a close game in one of the following situations:

power play

last minute of period

last two minutes of game.

TEAMS know this, as do coaches, the rest of the time? pah!

and why do i know coaches have the big face off figured out?

they make a point of putting their best face off player on the ice, even if it means he winshe has to swap out immediately. they will also often put a secondary face off man out there in case of a throw out. you think at the blue line in the second period they do that?

i don't see most teams or coaches worried any extra about 90% of the faceoffs.

if a team has a 60% face-off man, that is actually a significant upgrade. and even something as slim as generating 1 extra shot every oh 8 games would make 10 goals a season (scored or stopped) :0)and those in the tight games.

a plus ten is a good thing ;)
It's awesome that your examples are so old. It doesn't disprove your point, which I happen to agree with, but I had to check to see when Gord Murphy last played for the Thrashers. 2000-2001.

A faceoff win means nothing if it goes to a defenseman who can't hadle or pass the puck.
goes to coaching, and THAT isn't statted, i've seen the great ones plan for the 3 or 4 face-offs a game that matter, i've seen the pathetic ones pair his TWO WORSE D-MEN on the ice with 15 seconds left and end up paying for it.

once agin though it isn't the faceoff that is important. it is the fact that it CAN generate or take away an important scoring chance.

when someone stats that, i'll pay attention..
Third situation:

I remember a game, probably five years ago, where Joe Nieuwendyk (with Dallas) won a faceoff straight back towards and past his goalie (Manny Fernandez, if memory serves) and into the net.

But hey, at least he won it cleanly.
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