Some of the best hockey analysis on the internet comes from the “Oilogosphere,” the group of bloggers who follow the Edmonton Oilers. While I don’t share their passion for analyzing Sam Gagner and Dustin Penner, I am continually impressed by the number of Oilers fans who know the right questions to ask, know how to get the data and know how to figure out the answers to everyone’s questions. One of the most brilliant observations to come out of all this was the realization on “Irreverent Oiler Fans” that not all players are given the same faceoff opportunities by their coaches.
It should be clear that defensive zone faceoffs represent a substantial defensive risk. Indeed, after winning a defensive zone draw, your team will allow more shots on goal in the next 30 seconds than if you had lost a faceoff in the neutral zone.
Shots/30s LOSE WIN Delta
Defensive Zone 0.489 0.244 0.245
Own Blue Line 0.260 0.174 0.086
Center Ice 0.230 0.183 0.046
We can see how the progression of shots against over time following a defensive zone faceoff goes:
The immediate impact is clearer from a plot of the shooting rate per second:
It’s hard to downplay what happens here. After you lose a faceoff in the neutral zone, you have time to set up defensively and you don’t give up a particularly large number of good scoring opportunities. However, when you lose a faceoff in your own end, opponent shots on goal go up so quickly that it’s as though you gave the other team a 10-15 second power-play. For several seconds, the rate of shots allowed is as high as it is on a 5-on-3. The prospect of this level of defensive disadvantage, particularly late in a one-goal game, must give coaches nightmares.
Coaches act rationally in the face of this danger, heavily tailoring their lines to the situation. Among players who took over 1,400 even-strength offensive and defensive zone faceoffs over the last four years, usage varies substantially. Centers with reputations as shutdown players like John Madden, Sami Pahlsson and Rod Brind’Amour were tasked with substantially more draws in the defensive zone. Similarly, Vincent Lecavalier, an offensive superstar with well-known defensive deficiencies, was by far the least likely to take a faceoff in his own end.
Top 10 Players Pct Def Faceoffs Def WPCT
Bobby Holik 59.3 59.8
Mike Sillinger 56.2 56.0
Jeff Halpern 54.5 51.4
John Madden 54.4 54.5
Jay McClement 54.4 54.0
Sami Pahlsson 54.4 53.5
Manny Malhotra 54.0 59.3
Chris Drury 53.9 54.6
Michal Handzus 53.1 50.1
Rod Brind'Amour 52.9 62.5
Bottom 10 Players Pct Def Faceoffs Def WPCT
Sidney Crosby 46.6 49.7
Mike Ribeiro 46.5 48.2
Scott Gomez 46.3 51.2
Joe Thornton 46.3 51.5
Eric Staal 46.0 46.8
Henrik Sedin 45.5 45.8
Matt Cullen 45.4 52.9
Pavel Datsyuk 44.9 57.8
Joe Sakic 44.4 54.5
Vincent Lecavalier 42.6 50.2
Coupled with the graphs of shooting rates above, it’s clear that a coach’s usage of his center will dramatically affect a player’s offensive and defensive performance: Lecavalier being just a -9 on a horrible Lightning team last year was no indication of his defensive ability. Clearly most teams know which players have real defensive skills, and know how to deploy their players effectively, which makes it all the more surprising that Manny Malhotra remains unsigned.
Gabriel Desjardins is a contributor to Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey website Behindthenet.ca. Email him at info at behindthenet.ca.