With the new interest in delving deeper into statistics, the one most frequently brought up on broadcasts is faceoff win percentage. While it is important to win draws, the reasoning behind it is often explained incorrectly.
Many times, the broadcast discusses face offs as a win/loss scenario, with no context as to what happens after the draw. I cannot tell you how many times “This goal happened because they won/lost the draw,” is said on a broadcast when there were 10+ passes made and 30 seconds of game time played after the puck dropped.
So, let’s get to the actual purpose of a face off: win possession of the puck. As we know from other analysis, the team that possesses the puck generally dictates the game.
Now that we’ve agreed the purpose of winning a draw is to gain possession, let’s look at the current state of the draws. It is becoming rarer nowadays to see a clean win back for possession. Often, we are seeing tie-ups with wingers battling to see who “wins” the draw. At that point, is it really fair to hang a face off percentage on the centre if the winger wins or loses the battle?
Either way, it is possible for a centre to knock the puck back to his “side,” meaning a technical win. However, if the opposing winger jumps through and grabs the puck, the team that just won the draw has lost possession.
In looking to analyze possession off the draw, coaching staff and fans should understand face-offs as a scenario with 4 possible outcomes: win draw-win possession, win draw-lose possession, lose draw-win possession, lose draw-lose possession.
This allows us to analyze a couple of things. First, who is winning or losing draws. Second, how often the team retains or loses possession on wins, and how often puck possession is recovered on lost draws. This focuses on how the winger performed, rather than the centres. Third, if you have this data for every faceoff dot on the ice, it enables the team to see the splits in the three zones, as well as which side of the ice certain players were more successful on.
For the 2016-17 season, data was collected for a specific team that used 3 centres consistently, each taking over 875 draws. The “checking” pivot leads the team with 60%. The “two-way” centre owns a 53%, with the “skilled” centre at 51%.
However, I am more concerned with looking at how often the team retains possession off the draw, as opposed to actual win percentage.
The graph shows the data for the 2016-17 season with the splits of possession off the draw. This is important to know for important draws throughout the game, especially in the final minutes.
Of note, the two-way wins the most draws, but loses possession more than skilled & checking centres. Further, the two-way centre’s teammates win the puck only 2.3% of the time, less than half of the other centres. This discrepancy is related to winger assistance, meaning a coach can work on “winger wins” to capitalize on two-way’s success in the face off circle.
The checking centre’s wingers assist in winning the puck 6.4% of the time he loses a draw and only lose possession 3.7% of the time he wins. This means the checking centre gets the most possession assistance from his teammates. When taking possession into account, checking line wins the puck 62.7% of the time, the two-way at 51.3% and the skilled at 50.7%.
The skilled and two-way centres see a reduction in their possession success, while the checking centre sees an increase. If the two-way centre’s wingers increased the amount of time they won the puck by 1% on both wins and losses, the team would retain the puck on 18 more draws (on 875 draws).
On a larger scale, winning possession in the offensive and defensive zones is imperative to team success. Coaches at junior and pro levels look for edges in both zones as the game can change.
With all power plays starting in the offensive zone, retaining possession off the draw is more important than the winning of the actual draw. Yes, a clean win can lead to a direct shot. However, if possession is retained (on a win) or recovered (on a loss), it gives the attacking team a chance to set-up, increasing the likelihood of a scoring chance.
From a defensive standpoint, a team up a goal in the final minutes is more focused on retaining possession (“if we have the puck, they can’t score” mentality). Therefore, you may use your best faceoff man for the draw and your most effective possession wingers to give your team the best chance of winning the puck. In this case, load up the checking line.
The defensive zone is interesting and shows why possession should be considered over win percentage. The skilled centre is the most successful pivot in the defensive zone, but the checking centre’s line wins possession the most.
Of note, the checking centre is 57% on the left and 49% on the right, while the skilled centre is 54% on the right and 56% on the right. Therefore, it would be wise to use the checking centre on the left and skilled centre on the right should an important draw arise.
With both centres, using the checking centres’s wingers for possession assistance should be considered. The two way centre’s low win percentage can be due to a number of factors such as inexperience and having to put your stick down first on defensive draws. Younger centres often struggle on defensive zone face offs.
It is very interesting to note that the skilled centre’s wingers win possession of the puck more in the offensive zone. This is the only zone where the wingers win possession more than the centre wins draws. In fact, puck possession jumps almost 4%, not a negligible percentage.
If this data holds true over a full season, it would be fair to assume the wingers are capable of winning possession, and are more motivated to do so in this zone. This is a coachable tendency, one that can be improved over the course of the season.
Faceoffs are no doubt, a key part of hockey. However, merely winning a draw does not lead to success. Three of the top 5 NHL faceoff teams are out of the playoffs, with two (COL/DET) in the basement of their conferences. While this sort of data is in the infancy stage, as more becomes available to teams and the public, it will be easier to analyze if possession off the draw leads directly to zone exits and shot suppression in the defensive zone, and scoring chances in the offensive zone.
The purpose of winning a draw is to own possession of the puck and dictate the game through it. Losing possession after winning a draw undoes the positive impact of winning the draw. This is the case vice-versa, as well. If a player is weak on the draws, having wingers that can win possession on lost draws go a long way to preventing scoring chances and dictating pace of the game.
If faceoff data is important to coaches and fans, it is important to put the focus on the purpose of the draw: to win possession of the puck.