Faceoff Winning %: A Misleading Stat?

I imagine that this statement might be met with some snickers from the readers, possibly some questions about my knowledge of hockey even. But rest assured; I always have some numbers to back my position.

I realize what winning a faceoff means; it gives that team possession of the puck. Possession of the puck is usually the first and most necessary requirement for scoring goals. The team that scores more goals in a hockey game wins. Therefore, wouldn’t it make sense that teams that win the faceoff battle would then win more games than their counterparts?

It would but the numbers don’t seem to back up that sentiment. Take these numbers for example; what I’ve done is take the top 10 teams in faceoff winning percentage for each of the last three full seasons.

2008-09 (X = playoff team)

X Detroit          55.1%
X San Jose       53.8%
Nashville          52.2%
Los Angeles      52.0%
X Vancouver     51.9%
Ottawa             51.8%
X Washington   51.7%
X Carolina        51.3%
X New Jersey    51.3%
X Calgary          51.3%

2007-08

X Detroit          53.3%
Chicago           52.3%
X NYR              52.3%
Columbus         52.3%
St. Louis           51.8%
Atlanta             51.8%
X Ottawa          51.7%
X San Jose        51.2%
X Washington    51.2%
NYI                   51.0%

2006-07

X Detroit          53.3%
X Atlanta         52.9%
Phoenix           52.7%
Carolina          52.3%
Toronto           51.9%
X Anaheim       51.8%
NYI                  51.6%
Edmonton        51.5%
X Buffalo          51.4%
St. Louis          51.1%

So in 2008-09 seven of the 10 best faceoff teams also made the playoffs. In 2007-08 the number was 5 and the year before only four teams that finished in the top 10 made the playoffs. That’s 16 out of 30 over a three year period or only 53.3%. The only team that has finished in the top 10 in all three seasons and also qualified for the playoffs in each season is the Detroit Red Wings, who also finished first in faceoff % all three years.

That’s fewer than I expected. As a fan that watches a couple hundred games (or more if my fiancée is telling it) a season, I entered this research with the impression that faceoff success would lead to more on-ice success than what these numbers seem to show. In fact, here’s something that is even more surprising.

The team that was the lowest rated of the 16 playoff teams in faceoff percentage in each of the last three seasons:

2006-07 – Pittsburgh – 47.0% (30th in the NHL)

2007-08 – Pittsburgh – 46.1% (30th in the NHL)

2008-09 – Chicago – 48.1% (23rd in the NHL)

That’s a team that lost in the Western Conference Final last year, a Stanley Cup finalist in 2007-08 and a team that recorded 105 points in 2006-07. These numbers would certainly back up the probability that faceoff winning % is an overvalued statistic.

While those numbers point to how team faceoff success rate may be overvalued, my original premise for this article was to argue that it is also misleading in regards to individuals. Let’s look at different game situations to examine this argument.

How many times does the Center or whoever is taking the draw win the faceoff “CLEAN?” Clean as in drawing it straight to a teammate uncontested. Maybe one in five? Or one in ten?

I don’t happen to know those numbers or where I might find them or even if they are available anywhere. But all of us are fans that watch many games throughout the year and we would probably all agree that few faceoff wins are truly “clean” by most definitions.

Often, the two faceoff guys neutralize each other up on the draw and it takes the effort of another teammate or two to control the draw. The “win” goes to the faceoff guy whose team controls the draw. While his teammates do a majority of the work, it’s the Center (or faceoff guy) who earns the positive individual stat.

On many other occasions this season, I’ve seen the Center win a draw in the offensive zone “cleanly”, only to see the puck split the defensemen and end up in the neutral zone or even that team’s defensive zone before they can gain possession. The advantage that would have been gained had the winning faceoff team controlled the puck in the offensive zone vanishes as the players have to retreat from the offensive zone until the puck is controlled and then another entry into the offensive zone has to be navigated.

Another reason that I question whether faceoff % is critical to on-ice success is that many of the advanced player statistics do not factor that stat in their formulations; including Puck Prospectus’ GVT rating nor any of Behind the Net’s (www.behindthenet.ca) advanced statistics. This omission may be just an oversight but I doubt that given the importance so many others place on the stat. I find it difficult to believe that any self-respecting stat geek would overlook something so obvious without good reason.

Look, it is still important to know which players have the most success in the faceoff circle; I have always thought that the other players on the ice play as much or more of a role in winning a lot of those faceoffs and deserve some of that credit. Maybe a faceoff +/- rating or something like that is needed.

Thoughts or ideas Inside Hockey Readers? Email me at gmiller@insidehockey.com.

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