How Important are Faceoffs? The Mike Babcock Story

    The Mike Babcock Story

    Mike Babcock loves winning faceoffs.

    I’m not sure what happened to him as a kid, but he must have been involved in some devastating faceoff incident that made him determined to win every draw possible.

    Every night, he employs the backup goalie as the certified faceoff statistician, making sure he can keep real-time tabs on how each of his centres perform in the circle.

    Why?

    “If I’m the goalie and I’m winning the game, I want the coach to have the right people on (for a faceoff). The way you do that is when you’re not playing, you make sure you know.”

    I guess that makes sense?

    How about comments post game? Well, Babcock regularly refers to a player’s faceoff results when commenting on their performance.

    “How do you think Auston handled the night and the moment?” (0:39)

    Mike Babcock post-game video

    Sure, Matthews was arguably the most noticeable player on the ice, but let’s not forget that he was weak in the faceoff circle.

    Now, I am not saying that faceoffs are not important; of course they are. Every 50/50 puck battle is. Faceoffs give you the opportunity to possess the puck and control play, but Babcock’s attention to the detail implies faceoffs may have a greater role in the outcome of a game than other aspects.

    Does it?

    How Important are Faceoffs?

    Well, let’s look at the four Leafs centres who’ve played the most this year, how they’ve fared in the faceoff circle, and how their performance at the dot impacts more important statistics.

    *As of February 9th

    Center Faceoff % Corsi % GF %
    Auston Matthews 45.30% 51.50% 53.10%
    Nazem Kadri 46.30% 50.60% 46.00%
    Tyler Bozak 56.40% 52.40% 52.80%
    Ben Smith 51.80% 41.50% 38.90%

    Not too much correlation here. Matthews is the worst at winning faceoffs, yet he has good  possession and goal percentage numbers. Ben Smith is the second most effective center at taking faceoffs, yet he has terrible possession and goals for percentages.

    Looking at the importance of faceoffs under this scope is not necessarily fair. For one, some players are sheltered more than others. For example, Auston Matthews takes the majority of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, giving him more of an opportunity to shoot. Smith and Kadri take many more defensive zone faceoffs; for Kadri, this is often because he is matched against the opposition’s top line. In these situations, the two are more likely to be exposed to shots against.

    Not exactly a level playing field.

    To have a more complete look at the impact of winning faceoffs, let’s analyze all faceoff wins during the 2015/2016 season.

    To make things as simple as possible, the charts below show correlation based on NHL rank. This means if there was a perfect correlation between winning faceoffs and winning games, the Maple Leafs would have finished last in faceoffs because they finished last in the league during the 2015/2016 season.

    Do team’s that win more faceoffs have stronger possession numbers?

    Let’s start off with a reasonable, high-level correlation. Teams that  win more faceoffs frequently start with the puck and, as a result, have better possession numbers.

    Do teams that win more faceoffs possess the puck more?

    How important are faceoffs to possessionÉ

    Here, we see a weak positive correlation (R2=0.27) between winning faceoffs and having positive possession numbers. Essentially, this means that winning more faceoffs can increase a team’s possession numbers but the correlation is too weak to be conclusive. Just last year, the Arizona Coyotes finished 1st in faceoff winning percentage, but 28th in possession (corsi percentage).  

    Again, possession is a high level stat to be finding a correlation with FO winning percentage. If every year, the team with the highest FO winning percentage also had the highest percentage shot attempts, well, Yanic Perreault, the best faceoff man of the last twenty years, should’ve been the highest paid player in the league.

    Does winning faceoffs significantly help with special teams?

    Perhaps a more appropriate scenario is how winning faceoffs can impact the effectiveness of a team’s  special teams.

    It is reasonable to think winning or losing a draw would have more of an effect within the two-minute window of a power play or penalty kill. The rule change that brings the faceoff into the zone of the penalized team puts a higher priority on gaining possession.

    Hawerchuck from Arctic Ice Hockey did an interesting piece on the impact of winning offensive zone faceoffs. Essentially, a team that wins an offensive zone faceoff has a higher shot rate for about 15 seconds following the draw.This would be significant in a 2 minute window like a power play.


    How important are faceoffs to the powerplay?How important are faceoffs to the penalty kill?
     

    Surprisingly, there was even weaker correlation between winning faceoffs and success on special teams than there was with winning faceoffs and possession %.

    Winning draws on the penalty kill and being successful at killing penalties had a weak positive correlation (R2=0.12). winning draws on the power play and being successful on the power play had a weak correlation (R2=0.19).

    This is another scenario that has too many elements to significantly impact faceoff winning percentage. For example, a team could be very efficient at winning draws and generating chances, however, have a low shooting percentage because of a lack of skill (hint, Maple Leafs last year).

    Does winning faceoffs help with shot production on the powerplay and shot reduction on the penalty kill?

    To eliminate some of the variables mentioned above, let’s take a look at how winning faceoffs can help generate shots on the power play and prevent shots on the penalty kill.


    How important are faceoffs to PP shot generation?How important are faceoffs to PK shot prevention?

    The left chart shows that there is little correlation (R2=0.18) between winning faceoffs and generating shots on the power play. The other shows a more significant correlation (R2=0.37) between winning faceoffs and preventing shots on the penalty kill.

    The more significant correlation between winning faceoffs on the penalty kill and preventing shots makes sense since you can essentially condense the time on the power play by clearing the puck immediately. However, neither chart confidently attributes shot generation and prevention to winning faceoffs.

    Conclusion: How important are faceoffs?

    The fact is I am just not sure there is the appropriate data to prove how significant faceoffs really are. I also believe that there is not enough difference between each team’s faceoff efficiency to show whether they help or hurt . Last year, there was a 9.3% faceoff winning percentage difference between the best and worst faceoff teams, with the majority of teams winning percentages falling between 49% and 51%. These numbers are just too close to have a significant impact on the outcome of the game. Perhaps, if a team was winning 80% of their faceoffs, winning draws would have more impact.

    However, that is not to say that any one faceoff can’t be a crucial and have a significant impact on the game. Tuesday against the Dallas Stars, Ben Smith lost a draw cleanly that resulted in an immediate goal from Tyler Seguin.

    via GIPHY

     

    It is situations like this where you can empathize with Babcock’s obsession to win draws. In fact, the first three goals of this game came immediately following offensive zone faceoff wins. 

    So, how important are faceoffs? The fact is that over an 82-game season, there is not a large enough difference between team’s faceoff capabilities to have an impact on the standings (from statistics we have available to us). However, situations like the one above represent how important any one draw can be over the course of a game. And it is this conflict that makes it unclear how team’s should approach draws in today’s NHL.