The overrated value of a faceoff


Every so often, an analyst will talk about how a certain player deserved a “three star” nominee because he won two or three big faceoffs. Even more so often a coach will send out two centremen in a high-leverage situation to win a key, late draw. The question is whether this tactic has a tangible value.

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Let’s use the Corsi number here. The Corsi number is, of course, an advanced +/- statistic that counts every goal, saved shot, missed shot and blocked shot while a player was on the ice and is a reliable indicator of which team had possession of the puck when a player was on the ice. Since a won faceoff essentially gives one team possession over the other, logically, faceoff percentage would correlate well to a player’s Corsi number.

In the beautiful, scenic spreadsheets offered at Behind The Net there exists data on 1799 players who have played 60-or-more games over the course of a season. I looked at a few, key bits of data from those players to determine faceoff value.

Microsoft Excel kept crashing on me, so I couldn’t label the chart. However, the Y-axis indicates a player’s Corsi number while the X-axis indicates the team’s faceoff percentage while he was on the ice. I’ve added a trendline, as well:

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With an r-squared value of .015, there is little correlative value between winning a faceoff and actually turning the possession into anything tangible.

I ran a similar correlation between where a player started his shift [ Offensive zone starts / Total Offensive and Defensive Starts ] and his Corsi number. Let’s see this result:

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The r-squared value is .160. It doesn’t mean that there’s a determination in where you started your shift as to having tangible possession, but it does show us that the location of the puck is more important than who actually has the puck. This is where the dump-and-chase gets away with being a still useful, method of zone-entry. A team concedes possession for puck location and works to get it back in a similar spot.

Oilers blogger Tyler Dellow has looked at the value of a faceoff on the penalty kill recently and I have to add that I’ve come up with a similar conclusion at even strength. There’s a 60-40 split between the top and the bottom regular faceoff men in the league. At 10 draws a game (roughly) that equals two touches of the puck on your defenseman’s stick before anything can happen on the play.

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I will add, however, that there are some faceoff specialists who double as strong defensive players: Manny Malhotra, Jarrod Smithson, Steve Ott, Paul Gaustad and [I guess] Selke winner Ryan Kesler had strong seasons on both draws and preventing shots. Players like Zenon Konopka and Jarrett Stoll had less generous defensive numbers, and Jonathan Toews, who came second in Selke voting purely by virtue of his faceoff skill was 169th in shot prevention among the 314 forwards who had played more than 600 minutes this past season.

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  • SurfacetoAirMissile

    Stats refer to an average over time. In an average game, at an average point in it, no, face offs don’t matter much.

    But as time runs out, each event becomes more significant if the game is still on the line.

    Nobody sweats it in the first period of the first game of the year, but they really care at any point in game 7 of the finals.

    The world cannot correctly be viewed through numbers that have no correlation to it’s complexity or it’s tendency to do enormous things in very short time spans. Like hockey.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    I think a part of the problem the Oil had last year was the wingers lack of willingness to go help the centerman and dig for the puck, it cant always be left up to the center to win the battles on the dot.

  • Aitch

    If your team can’t forecheck, backcheck or keep possession of the puck once it has it, faceoffs are important. Otherwise, it’s a nice advantage, but hardly the be-all and end-all that some folks make it out to be.

    (That said, I’m still glad that we picked up Belanger.)

  • And then I was all like “check out the value of R squared!” and he was all like “DUDE, check out the sweet conditional formatting on this excel sheet.” and then I was all like, “NO WAY!!!”

    So what you’re saying is that all these smart hockey people like controlling the puck for no reason because excel said so? Must be true. I read it on the Internet, and nobody lies on the internet.

  • John Chambers

    And yet every coach in the NHL game plans based on winning the face-off and will tell all who ask that it is one of the most critical points of the game.

    Maybe someone should e-mail them the corsi to show them they are doing it wrong.