Just over two years ago, I got into the topic of faceoffs and how they affect your penalty kill. It’s a topic of some interest to me, given the abysmal penalty kill and power play that the Oilers have iced over the past few years. This has coincided with the Andrew Cogliano era, faceoffs in general have been a sore point and the Oilers’ inability to win a faceoff while killing penalties has convinced a lot of smart people that the Oilers need a beast of a player who can win draws on the PK.
This is the sort of issue with which data is quite useful in terms of framing the discussion. As such, I did my best to sort through all of the power plays awarded last year, sorting them by whether the shorthanded team won or lost the initial faceoff. I should caution that there are likely to be a few errors in here – it’s more difficult to do this in Excel than you’d think – although I believe the data to be close enough that it’s not worth me investing the time to sort out any power plays that are missing. It should be almost bang-on. I came up with 7996 power plays started by a faceoff, an average of 266.5 per team, which is within 10 or so of the actual average; when you allow for powerplays that start when one player leaves the box, I suspect that this is right on.
Having sorted the power plays by whether the team on the penalty kill won or lost the draw, I can then basically perform a comparison between two types of team: one team that wins 100% of its faceoffs when killing penalties and another that loses 100% of its faceoffs while killing penalties.
As you’d expect, the data does seem to show some difference based on whether or not teams win the initial faceoff. When teams won the initial faceoff, they killed the penalty at an 82.5% rate; when they lost it, they killed the penalty at a 78.9% rate. At first blush, you might think that there’s something to spending money in order to ensure that you have players who can win faceoffs on the power play or when you’re shorthanded.
The problem, as I see it, with this line of thinking, is that the choice at the NHL isn’t between 100% or 0%. The bounds are much more tightly circumscribed. I did the math to calculate the expected penalty kill percentage of a team that wins 65% of the initial faceoffs when killing penalties and a team that wins 35% of them. I am, if anything, being generous with those bounds. I come up with the difference in faceoff percentage resulting in the 65% team killing penalties at an 81.2% rate and the 35% team killing them at an 80.1% rate. Over 266 opportunities, we’re talking about 2 or 3 goals. I note that this meshes well with the answer I came up with when I went at this question a different way:
That might be significant but I suspect when I really drill into things I’ll find that being an atrocious faceoff team on the PK will cost you, at the absolute top end, a win over the course of a season. I suspect that it’s probably more like half a win but we’ll see.
I’ve put some thought into why the difference might be so small and the answer that I’ve come up with is that, when you’re facing an elite PP team, whether you win the draw or lose the draw, you’re going to have to taste the poison. If you lose the draw, they get to set up and throw their best at you for a minute and a little more, subject to any clears. If you win the draw and ice the puck, what happens? Generally, a defenceman hurries back while the forwards take a leisurely skate back to the red line or far blue line. They aren’t hard seconds to play. It would be interesting to take a look at the average shift length on the PP for stars in shifts where they won the initial faceoff versus those where they lost. I strongly suspect we’d find that the shifts tend to be longer when they’ve lost the initial faceoff.
All of this is a sort of long way of saying that I’m not sure a veteran centre who can take faceoffs is the panacea some, like Lowetide, have suggested because I lean towards thinking that winning or losing faceoffs doesn’t make enough of a difference in the outcome of hockey games to matter. If Belanger is a good addition – and he’s the only addition that I think is likely to make a positive difference, so I’m a bit baffled by all the praise for Tambo’s July 1 – it’s because he’s a good hockey player during the time between the faceoffs.
There’s another angle to this that I think warrants some discussion too. If I was coaching the Oilers, the only true centre on the team who’d see much PP time next year is Sam Gagner. Shawn Horcoff can certainly play on the PP better than he’s given credit for – he’s a pretty average PP player, which is more than you’d think given his reputation in Edmonton. I see a lot of guys on the Oilers who could provide Horcoff’s skill on the PP though and, when they’re competitive, he’ll hopefully have been bumped on merit. (I am assuming that common sense prevails and that the Nuge goes back to the WHL.)
If winning or losing faceoffs doesn’t matter a ton, it seems to me that you want to get your difference makers out on the PP. A first PP line of Hall in between Smyth and Hemsky doesn’t seem terrible to me. Smyth has a skill set in front of the net that isn’t found elsewhere on the team. You could have Hemsky running the thing off the half wall, with Smyth moving back and forth between the front of the net and the corner and Hall circling in the slot. Or maybe you organize it differently, I don’t know. The key, as I see it, is not getting bogged down in faceoff success rate as a major determinant of one of the three spots.