Illustrated Review: Searching for a link between face-off wins and longterm success

It seems like, in an ever-changing conversation about hockey that quickly turns argument, there's always a topic du jour.

We're in an information era where elements of the game that have been institutions for so long can be logically, mathematically taken to task.

The latest item being filibustered is face-offs, with the question being asked of “Are they actually important?”

But that's a broad query whose answer can't be painted with a single stroke. There are lots of different scopes one can view face-offs under, but all can also logically be brought into focus.

  • How do face-offs impact long-term performance?
  • How do face-offs impact single-game performance?
  • How do face-offs impact individual performance?

The answer to the first question seems to be rather unanimous, and for good reason. Nothing has indicated there is any meaningful statistical correlation in large sample sizes between winnings face-offs, and winning hockey games.

No team has won more hockey games than the Pittsburgh Penguins since 2010, with 267 victories and a .659 points-percentage. The Penguins have lost more face-offs than they've won over that span.

The New York Rangers, fifth in the NHL in points earned since 2010, have been one of the worst franchises in terms of winning face-offs, at 48.6 percent. The Washington Capitals, the third-best franchise over this timeline by points-percentage, was under 50 percent on face-offs earlier this week for the same sample, and have hovered around the 50 percent-mark.

Two teams have won at least 52 percent of their face-offs the past seven seasons: The Boston Bruins (52.8 percent) seventh in points-percentage, and the San Jose Sharks (52.1 percent), eighth. The next-best franchise has been the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes (51.6 percent), who rank dead last in the NHL.

One of the underlying factors of this is parity on face-offs. Much like no team has solved shot quality, no team has figured out a trick to winning appreciably more face-offs than their opponents.

But if a team could find a way to consistently win the face-off battle by a wide margin, the jury is still out on how it would impact performance, juxtaposed to how it does so under single-game samples.

Some hedging should be done here. Single-game samples are incredibly small and unreliable in terms of influencing long-term outcomes (the important stuff). Teams get out-attempted badly in single-game samples and win, yet we know that shot-attempts very much impact long-term success.

But the information we have also shows that winning more face-offs than your opponent by a wide margin over 60-to-65 minutes also does not portend winning said game.

Since the start of the 2012 season, there have been 910 single-game instances of a team winning at least 60 percent of face-offs (there have been 10,616 total games, so teams have gone 60 percent on face-offs or better 8.57 percent of the time). Of those 910 instances, the team that won at least 60 percent of face-offs won 476 times, or 52.3 percent.

That winning percentage has shrunk more recently. Since the start of the 2014 season, there have been 580 instances of teams going 60 percent or better on draws, resulting in 295 victories, or 50.86 percent.

Neither of these numbers are dominant or that good. Taking the higher of the two figures, there have been zero teams over that same sample size to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a winning percentage of .523 or worse.

Then there's the question individual performance. If face-offs create puck possession (true), and puck possession is good (also true) would a center with poor face-off numbers transitively have poor puck possession numbers?

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov has taken 755 face-offs this year, and has won 46.9 of them, while sporting a Corsi-for percentage over 56. Five centers in the NHL have taken at least 500 face-offs and have better possession numbers than Barkov.

Ranking a few spots below him in terms of possession is Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller, with a Corsi-for percentage of 55.83. Eller has won 303 face-offs against 347 lost, a 46.6 percentage.

And the list goes on. Behind Eller in terms of puck possession and centers is Riley Nash of the Boston Bruins: A Corsi rating of 55.26 percent, with 209 face-offs won, and 212 lost. Down a few spots sits Ottawa Senators center Derick Brassard, another possession driver and more-often-than-not face-off loser.

Somehow, it appears these players are managing to maintain puck possession over large swaths while also losing face-offs.

There's also the other end of this spectrum, a center like Steve Ott, who has won 58 percent of his face-offs, and has a Corsi rating below 45 percent. Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche has won over 62 percent of his face-offs this year, with a 48.57 Corsi-for percentage to go along with that. And the Anaheim Ducks' Antoine Vermette has also won over 62 percent of his face-offs, and also has had a negative puck possession impact.

The last wrinkle to this would be to specifically look at offensive zone face-offs and the impact they could have on goal scoring.

This is a topic Craig Tabita explored in 2015 for Hockey Prospectus and, the results did not help to increase the significance of face-offs.

His findings said that, from the start of the 2009 season through January 2015, a goal was scored within 10 seconds of an even-strength face-off in about one in every 120 said face-offs, or once in every four games.

The odd goal scored following a face-off could undoubtedly influence that game, but these events are too few and far between to be considered a serious, long-term impact on winning hockey games.

What winning an offensive-zone can do is put the wheels in motion for a sequence that takes advantage of layered screens or creating distance and spacing for shooters.

On this Fillip Forsberg goal, Jeremy Smith gets a piece of a shot he never sees because he has to look through three skaters.

Forsberg is in a shooter's position atop the face-off circle, with defenseman Yannick Weber occupying his spot along the near boards. Forward Viktor Arvidsson is to the right of the circle, and when the puck is won back, can skate into the shooting lane to both naturally interfere with Colorado skaters, and provide another screen.

On the reverse angle, you can see what Smith does at the point of Forsberg's release. There's three players screening, and all Smith can do is hold his glove in the right position and hope to make contact.

Though this goal by Tyler Seguin occurs on the power play, the Dallas Stars use the cushion a face-off creates to allow Seguin time to get the puck and shoot.

This play hinges on Cody Eakin not only winning the face-off, but winning it back diagonally to Seguin. A right-handed shot, Seguin can walk into the path of the face-off on this side of the ice.

Also important to this play is Jamie Benn. When the play begins, Benn will swim inside, doing two things: he plays a decoy role, forcing Leo Komarov to notice him and delaying his path to Seguin by a tick, and also goes toward the net for a possible rebound.

Skaters lined up adjacent to the face-off have to stay outside of the hash. Though goaltender Frederik Andersen isn't screened on the play, the separation created between Komarov and Seguin by the parameters of the face-off, and Benn, give Seguin all the time he needs.

Goaltenders in today's NHL are incredibly talented, arguably as talented as they've ever been. It's difficult to score without some kind of screen or deflection. It's a topic Steve Valiquette has addressed at length and something he terms as a “clear sight shot.” Take away the goalies eyes, and it becomes much more difficult to stop the puck.

On a face-off, this happens naturally. Like a loose puck in the flow of a game, it's natural for players to hound for possession, even if it means obscuring a goaltender's sight lines.

This Nikita Nesterov goal comes off an offensive-zone face-off win, with two Chicago Blackhawks converging on the puck, and also screening Corey Crawford.

Brian Boyle wins the face-off back cleanly. Nesterov, a left-handed shot, can walk straight into this pass. In the time it takes the puck to get back to him though, Ryan Hartman and Richard Panik will both attempt to make a defensive play.

But what the Chicago forwards end up doing is taking away Crawford's ability to track the shot. Hartman, on the left, doesn't allow Crawford to see the path of the puck to the far-side. Hartamn, darting into Crawford's line of sight, is another smudge on his windshield. Now, instead of getting into position for a near 30-foot point shot that Crawford stop probably over 98 percent of the time, he has to fight through two screens set by his teammates.

face-offs can provide difficult situations for goaltenders to track pucks, but with how few-and-far-between goals are scored directly following face-offs, the impact isn't significant enough to impact long-term success. That Nesterov goal tied the game at 2-2 in the third period, and Tampa Bay would go on to score the next three goals, and win 5-2. That play undoubtedly influenced the result on the game, and Boyle's ability to win an offensive zone face-off was a major catalyst.

There isn't enough of a statistical link though for face-offs to determine something like who does and does not make the playoffs. 

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