Randy Carlyle and the faceoff paradox

The bad news, as pointed out by James Mirtle, is that Tyler Bozak is averaging more than three minutes a game more than Mikhail Grabovski this season. That can mean that Randy Carlyle actually-factually thinks Bozak is a better player than Grabovski.

Worse, as I’ve seemed to notice, it seems as if Grabovski has been held to such a low number based on a statistic. Like has been pointed out to me many times before in comment sections, you can’t build a team based on a spreadsheet, whether it’s Corsi, Offensive Zone Start %… or face-off percentage.

From Jonas Siegel’s Leaf Report last night. When I first saw the quote from Carlyle after the Jets game, my interest was piqued:

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“If you’re not starting with the puck, then you’re defending… any line, I guarantee you, would rather start with the puck than have to chase it and recover it.” Carlyle noted that any such improvement did not fall on the centreman alone, but required (as per usual) secondary aid from teammates on the ice. Grabovski has been hit or miss on the draw, a sampling of his work in the past five games revealing such a trend: 7-13 (54%) vs. the Penguins, 4-14 (29%) vs. the Jets, 9-14 (64%) vs. the Penguins 2-11 (18%) vs. the Bruins, 12-21 (57%) vs. the Senators.

Puck possession is important. It’s extremely important, in fact, and the correlation between winning teams and teams that possess the puck is extremely high. That said, face off percentage is a terrible way to determine which team controls the puck.

The NHL used to record “zone time”, or the amount of time a team started in the offensive end. A vintage Oilers blogger under the blogname Vic Ferrari noticed that teams often talked about possession, but nobody tallied up to see which team had the most offensive zone time. It’s something that appears at EA Sports, but no longer NHL.com.

During the 2002 season though, the NHL did record that data:

I thought it would be worth looking at a season to see how shots, and shots directed at net, meshed with the zone times for the teams. Now obviously some teams play more of possession game than others, and unbalanced scheduling means that some teams played this type of opponent more than others. Still, the connection between shots and zone time will still shine through, as will the link between the ability to outscore opponents and these two things.

His chart still has zone time numbers from 2002. You should read that whole post from above, but I have my own chart here with the pertinent information: Zone Time differential, Shot Attempt differential (Corsi) and a stat I took from NHL.com for that season, Faceoff Win Differential:

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  Zone Time +/- Corsi +/- Faceoff +/-
Carolina 212 381 671
Vancouver 204 573 74
Ottawa 196 443 12
New Jersey 195 1144 -50
Dallas 187 677 300
San Jose 130 21 -113
St. Louis 116 854 -13
Toronto 114 323 191
Boston 101 915 -214
Philadelphia 96 460 -8
Chicago 90 226 -226
Detroit 88 684 149
NY Islanders 86 106 189
Buffalo 55 64 -286
Calgary 53 16 279
Washington 23 68 357
Los Angeles 19 -157 128
Edmonton 18 101 39
Anaheim -40 -124 106
Phoenix -60 -111 -186
Tampa Bay -108 -487 -302
Colorado -113 -187 155
NY Rangers -115 -345 78
Montreal -135 -906 297
Nashville -152 -349 -320
Columbus -208 -1023 5
Pittsburgh -208 -424 -318
Florida -211 -569 -429
Minnesota -276 -855 -167
Atlanta -355 -1532 -398

Faceoffs are very important for determining which team has good zone time. I went into Excel to calculate the relationship between Faceoffs and Zone Time. It was pretty high, with an r-squared value of .24585. An r-squared of 1 implies perfect correlation, an r-square of 0 implies zero, so you can say that faceoffs explain about a quarter of team variance in puck possession ability.

Lots of good puck-possession teams are good at faceoffs. The 2008 Detroit Red Wings were first in the league. The 2002 Carolina Hurricanes were first in the league. The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks… third in the league. The elite possession teams throughout the years have been really good at controlling the puck off the draw.

That said, you need to be a good player to turn faceoffs into meaningful possession. The 2008 Detroit Red Wings had a player named Pavel Datsyuk whose faceoff percentage was slightly lower than that of another player they had named Kris Draper. Draper was the best faceoff man on the team, winning an incredible 58.6% of the 944 draws he took that season. But Datsyuk played 21:23 of ice-time per game, and Draper played just 15:37.

When Pavel Datsyuk was on the ice, the Red Wings got 63.2% of the overall shots for both teams. That is an incredibly high number. When Kris Draper was on the ice, the Red Wings took just 50.5% of the shots. Naturally, this needs to be qualified. If you check the usage chart, Draper played slightly better competition than Datsyuk and took slightly more of the defensive zone draws. Still, Datsyuk, despite being not as good at faceoffs as Draper, was relied upon more because he was so much better at doing everything between the faceoffs.

The correlation between shot attempts and zone time is r-squared of 0.81386, or was in the 2002 season. That concept I doubt has changed much. The teams that are the best at controlling the shot clock have produced the most elite teams in the NHL.

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Relationship between Zone Time (x-axis) and Faceoff Win Differential (y-axis):

Relationship between Zone Time (x-axis) and Corsi (y-axis):

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The shot differential numbers are much, much more indicative of zone time than faceoff numbers could ever hope to be. This is why the explanation Carlyle gives about faceoffs, and the deductive reasoning that Carlyle sends Grabovski out for fewer faceoffs because he isn’t as good as Bozak, is absurd. He’s looking at a small statistic that influences a fraction of the overall puck possession picture.

I forget where I read that many traditional sports statistics don’t represent the big picture. Simply put, baseball, basketball and hockey have primitive box scores because when the box score was invented, teams didn’t count relevant information, just what was easy to count. It’s a modern era, where every game is televised, multiple official statisticians record every game and we have piles of new information relevant to what we need.

Grabovski is a better player than Bozak between the whistles. Despite starting almost exclusively in his own end against the toughest competition the NHL has to offer, his Corsi % is almost what Bozak’s is. Bozak’s is higher, but Grabovski influences it better. Besides, the current difference between Bozak’s faceoff percentage (53.8%) and Grabovski’s (50.3%) yields a difference of 0.70 per game over 20 faceoffs. Even if there were a legitimate difference between the two, say 55% and 45%, we’re looking at a difference of two wins per game. Two lousy, marginal, ten-second long possessions.

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Grabovski has just as many even strength points as Bozak. Grabovski does more in harder competition than Bozak. Grabovski is more talented than Bozak, Grabovski’s synergy with Phil Kessel is more than that of Bozak and Kessel, and Grabovski is a better all-around hockey player than Bozak.

The only explanation as to why Grabovski gets less ice-time than Tyler Bozak at this point is Randy Carlyle’s belief in the faceoff statistic. It’s a backwards, backwards world.

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  • CheezWhizard

    Why are you hating on Bozak man? He has been playing with Kessel for a few years now and they have been a very productive offensive line. They are also good friends and Kessel uses every opportunity to let everyone know that he really likes playing with Bozak.

  • Hey Cam,

    I am a avid reader of Leaf blogs, Leafs Nation, MLHS, VLM, and others that keep the blue and white blood circulating! Thanks.
    I am usually not a poster, but I am compelled to tell you, that you should really send your stats and findings to the Leafs head office. I am just shocked that Carlyle or anyone else on Leafs management dont see this. Everyone talk’s about how Bozak is great player and has qualities that make him a great defensive centre (and I totally agree) but then why is Graboski been assigned to the job? Your stats prove it, even watching the game shows that Graboski’s talents are getting wasted, there must be something more to it….

    Hopefully it is resolved, I will not be able to handle another year like last year. Truth be told, I think it is almost possible,this team has many good pieces that we might be able to come out of hibernation, Keep the articles coming!

    • If the Leafs were really interested in this stuff, they’d have found it by now, and would probably have hired somebody with real programming or statistical experience to do it better than I can.

      I’m just a journalist.

    • SkinnyFish

      MLSE is aware of this blog and other Leafs blogs like PPP, MLHS, etc…and so on. Frankly, they don’t care and have actually been quite hostile at times. Unlike other teams, the Leafs do not hand out press credentials for blogs and have little to no outreach with them. They’re simply too big to care.

  • The way I see it is that Grabbo needs to work on his faceoffs if he wants to play in the NHL.

    And speaking of good faceoff artists, I’m surprised Carlyle hasn’t brought up Zigomanis.

    That guy is a beast at faceoff. I’m going ping Don Cherry on twitter to see if he will talk about it again on coaches corner

  • SkinnyFish

    What doesn’t make any sense to me is if Carlyle thought Grabovski was so unreliable in the dot, why would he start Grabo in the defensive zone 65% of the time? Seems like he’s asking for trouble.

    The fact of the matter is that when you compare the difference between offensive zone starts and offensive zone finishes, Grabovski has the third-best difference (1. McClement, 2. Kulemin). Meaning out of everyone on the Leafs, he is third-best at turning a defensive situation into an offensive one. It’s a testament to his possession game. The only issue is half of each of his shifts are spent trying to get across the red line. He does all the grunt work but gets no respect.