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On Faceoffs: Many variables, none overwhelmingly important

How could they use the guy who wins 49 out of 100 when they had a guy who wins 53 out of 100?!

"Good thing we out faceoff'd them." -Said no one, ever
"Good thing we out faceoff'd them." -Said no one, ever
Bruce Bennett

Last night, with the game on the line and the New York Islanders holding a 4-3 lead in the final 21 seconds of the game, Kyle Okposo took two defensive zone faceoffs on the right side of the ice. They were his first and only two faceoffs of the night.

Okposo won the first draw, against Brad Richards, which Andrew MacDonald cleared around the boards for an icing. He lost the second one, also to Richards, but Frans Nielsen was eventually able to break up play at the point and seal the 5-3 victory with an empty net goal. Why choose Okposo? Especially considering:

  • Nielsen had previously won three of five draws against Richards (all in the neutral zone) on the night. He's not historically a faceoff leader, but he leads the team in percentage this year at 49.9%.
  • John Tavares, who wasn't on the ice for this final shift, had won both of his draws against Richards in the game (one defensive zone, one offensive zone) and is at 48.5% on the year.
  • Rookie Brock Nelson had won 11 of 15 draws on the night (73%), including both his draws against Richards (though he lost his draw against Derek Stepan, who was also on the ice). But he's under 50% on the season.
  • Okposo, who has been decent on faceoffs some years, has only taken 72 this year and won only 41.2% of them. (Of course in that sub-100-event sample, each additional draw changes his percentage.)

The broader question is why do coaches -- and players who make on-the-fly changes in the circle -- mess around with this? Why not use the "hot hand" in Tavares, or even Nielsen, who was on the ice and had some success against Richards already?

The answers are many, partly due to the situation -- Okposo is arguably the Islanders' physically strongest faceoff-capable player, and in this situation you might just want him to disrupt any set play, or not get physically dominated even if he loses the draw.

In the end, the variability is very much due to faceoffs being a whole lot of art and not much science.

Faceoffs are one of the most blurry, oft-overstated, oft-misunderstood part of hockey, with understandable reasons:

  • We know that losing a faceoff can lead directly to bad things.
  • We also know that usually, time and play moves on and the faceoff win/loss no longer matters to the end result. In other words, a faceoff win or loss can be made irrelevant by the next one-on-one battle that follows just seconds later. Or the next one. Or the next one. In 20 seconds, there is time to win the draw, get a clear, allow a bad re-entry, give up a goal. There is also time to lose the draw but score an ENG anyway.
  • We know that the vast majority of faceoff takers win between 4.5 out of 10 and 5.5 out of 10, a laughably narrow, coin-flip margin. (Patrice Bergeron, the league's top faceoff man, is at 60.2% after 1,000 draws. His career high for a full season is 59.2%.)

In other words, the gap between "best in the league!" and "can't hold his own" on faceoffs is not very wide.

It's definitely nice to have someone, for those really high leverage late-and-critical faceoffs, who you know is better at the dot. However, even the best guy is at best a very modestly weighted roll of the dice.

The Little Variables at the Dot

Meanwhile, there is a lot more going on at the dot than one would think if going strictly by a player's overall faceoff percentage. Zenon Konopka is famous for cheating there and cheating well. The more an official in attuned to his cheating, the more likely he is to be thrown out of the dot, the less likely his specialized skill is to matter, the more likely he is to just be 4th-Line Winger, and so on.

Further, this is a situation where righty or lefty really can matter -- but even there, it depends on the player's particular strength (forehand? backhand? tying up?), the strength of his opponent (diffusing one of those three?), and which side of the ice the draw is held (strong side? weak side? side of the winger who will help your team win possession?).

Take one example, via some November coverage by the Connecticut Post's Michael Fornabaio about the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and two important Islanders prospects:

Second period on, Anders Lee took more faceoffs than usual, which just seemed interesting. Both Ryan Strome and Pellerin mentioned the lefty-righty thing, that Lee would take some left-circle draws for the safer angles. And they’ve done that along the way. But I didn’t remember Lee, who played plenty of center in college, taking neutral-zone draws with Strome on the ice before tonight — at the very least, he hadn’t to this degree.

Sometimes, with certain matchups, one faceoff taker will "have the number" of an opponent. But no matter who the player is -- be he Patrice Bergeron or Peter Regin -- he is capable of absolutely dominant games at the dot and absolutely horrendous ones -- sometimes against the same opponent.

Faceoff success tends so much toward the mean, I think, because there really is a limited toolbox to use for success. It's more like rock-paper-scissors than it is like chess. Sometimes the tools you're using on a given night will have good luck and match up well with the opponent. Some nights not. Some nights will be a tossup. Some nights will ebb and flow as two centers adjust to one another, revealing and hiding their favorite tricks as the night goes on.

And some nights you're just tired or hurt. Strome, from the same piece:

"Just changing it up," Strome said. "Last game, I took a lot, and it does wear on you." Some big guys to battle against at the dot, he said. Pellerin mentioned that guys might switch it up if some matchups hadn’t worked.

It's dangerous to compare rec hockey to the best league in the world, but a relevant anecdote here: I've had guys tell me at the dot, "Geez, I can never win against you," and I've thought to myself, "Geez, last game this very same guy kicked my butt every time." (Granted, at the amateur level, many players probably barely pay attention to this niche aspect of the game. The chance for true glory supersedes.)

But even at the beer league level, you know some guys save their best tricks or best efforts for the highest leverage situations, like Okposo vs. Richards to conclude Tuesday night's game. And even then, the range of their odds for success spreads no further than between 40 and 60 percent.

Point is, faceoffs matter, yes; but it's almost on the level of "showing up" matters. You can lose them because you're a poor hand matchup. You can lose them because you're nursing an injury. You can lose them because you didn't "want" it as bad as the other guy clearly did -- perhaps you were saving that reserve of turbo energy or your best trick for scoring later on the same shift.

As fans, in the heat of the moment we'll often complain, "Why this guy out there now?! ... Why that guy against that guy?!" But ultimately we're complaining against very minor shifts in the odds -- and there could easily be more going on under the surface than, "But this guy wins 53 of 100 draws, and he beat that guy on 3 of 5 tonight!"

Again, that's not to say faceoffs don't matter. But it's helpful to keep it in perspective. If a guy becomes a faceoff specialist, he's focusing on a really specialized part of the game that improves the team's chances of winning only marginally -- the bigger value may be in the comfort his perceived skill gives his coach and teammates. But there's a reason most faceoff specialists, like enforcers, focus on the niche that they do: Lacking other more valuable skills, it's either do that or say goodbye to the NHL lifestyle.