Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Don't Lose That Draw!

Don't get me wrong I love stat analysis but one of the dumbest conclusions next to "you must have good special teams play to win in this league" (obviously, as that's why one of the teams with the worst powerplays ever in the playoffs won the 2011 Stanley Cup, isn't it?), is the so-called "importance" of winning faceoffs.

Logically, in one's brain you would feel the team that has possession of the puck is better off than the one that doesn't. What is left out of the raw faceoff winning percentage data is so many things.

All faceoffs are not equal.
Losing a faceoff in the neutral zone or the attacking zone is not the same as losing one in your own end.
Factor in the time of the game, the score, etc., and yeah, I'll take the guy with the low faceoff percentage who can win the one crucial draw when it actually means something.
In fact losing a faceoff is never the end of the world as how often have you seen the subsequent puck battle result in the "losing" team getting the puck back or just a typical English League midfield scramble circa 1975?
Often (shock! horror!) centers lose faceoffs on purpose early in games to suck their opponents in to get them overconfident later in the game on crucial draws.

Anyway, faceoffs (and I'm sure most hockey fans do not go to games to watch faceoffs hence the often heard screams of "drop the puck!") are vastly overrated, especially by media some of whom love this when needing something (anything!) to write about in often dull snoozefests.

Here's a list of the best playoff faceoff artists last season.
Out of this list the only faceoff guys who made the Final were ranked 15th (Travis Zajac, New Jersey) and 22nd (Jarret Stoll, Los Angles Kings).

Maybe this is just a one-playoff season anomaly. Let's have a look at 2011 then, shall we? We've got the Boston Bruins' Patrice Bergeron 3rd and David Krejci 16th. OK, let's say that's one for the pro-faceoff acolytes even if in the Top 20 of playoff faceoff percentage less than half (nine) were players on teams who went to the Conference Finals or the Cup Final.

OK, 2010. We have 5 of the Top 20 faceoff guys' teams as having made a significant playoff run of at least three rounds. We also have leader Eric Belanger's Caps out in rd. 1. So for every Brandon Yip we have a yang.

I'm no Gilbert

I could go on and on but faceoff winning percentage offers very little insight into the actual winning or losing of games. If it did where are the Cups for such all-time great faceoff men as Yanic Perreault, Mike Sillinger or Adam Oates? Heck, where are the deep playoff runs for any of the teams these faceoff greats were on? I'm sure Oatesy's "success" in the playoffs is more passing oriented than on the faceoff dotted line. Sure, for every Steve Yzerman or Joe Nieuwendyk you can argue your case but statistically you'd be tossed out of Stats 101 if that was your argument. To determine whether these stars are the norm or just the minority in this John Travolta of a B movie theory.

How about the regular season? Taking the past three seasons and looking at the Top 20 each season in faceoff winning percentage, how many of these faceoff specialists saw their teams make the playoffs?
Thirteen out of 20 players made the playoffs (San Jose Sharks had three centers in the Top 20 as well...and a lot of good it did them in rd. 1 but that's another story)

Eleven out of 20. Just FYI, the Washington Capitals topped the East and their best faceoff man was Nicklas Backstrom who was 33rd overall. Weirdly, San Jose had no one in the Top 20--hm, McSorley stick measurements, anyone after the '11/12 jump?

Ten out of 20. Actually, nine of the 16 playoff teams did not place a single player in the Top 20 in faceoffs. Plus the perennial playoff Philadelphia Flyers had none at all over the three seasons.

So over the past three seasons, just over 56 percent of the players in the Top 20 in faceoffs in the regular season have been on playoff teams. Pretty decent record but not mindblowingly overwhelming enough to win a hockey pool or even a Cup maybe.

Now, how about we compare the faceoff records to something that probably matters more than controlling the puck? Yes, actually putting the puck in the net whether you won the faceoff and scored off that "control" or you stole the puck back after a faceoff loss and somewhere along the line put the biscuit in the basket.

Top 20 in scoring from '09/10 through '11/12 regular seasons had 44 of the 60 players who are on that list (obviously, like on the faceoff dot, some multiple times over the three seasons in question) made the playoffs. That's a 73 percent return on your scoring vs. the 56 percent in faceoff investment.

But I sure am!

Hey, you believe what you want. There are still fans and media who believe that you need an "elite" goalie to win a Cup so for every flukey Jonathan Quick channeling Patrick Roy '86 there is an Antti Niemi or Chris Osgood. So to each their own. All I'm saying is faceoff stats should be taken with grains of malt.

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