Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins always be bad at faceoffs?

Jonathan Willis
October 03 2012 10:11AM

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the league’s worst face-off man last season, and it wasn’t particularly close. Of the league’s 120 most-used centers, Nugent-Hopkins was ranked 120th, with a 37.5 percent success rate (the only player on the list that lost more than 60 percent of his draws).

Is he always going to be a bad faceoff man, or is there hope for improvement?

To answer that question, I generated a list of players who met three criteria:

  • Took more than 400 faceoffs as a rookie NHL’er
  • Won fewer than 45 percent of their draws
  • Has had at least five seasons to improve

I ended up with a list of 23 players. Three of those ended up getting cut because they didn’t keep taking faceoffs in the NHL – Johan Davidsson returned to Europe, while Simon Gagne and Pierre-Marc Bouchard were hurriedly returned to the wing.

That leaves us with a group of 20.

The List

Years highlighted in yellow are ones where the player won more than 50 percent of faceoffs taken.

The Takeaway

Lots of stuff worth noting here; following are the points I thought especially relevant.

  • We should expect Nugent-Hopkins to continue to struggle in the faceoff circle for the next five seasons. A few players managed to get up to the 50 percent mark, but only one – Clarke Wilm – managed to record more than a single season where he won more faceoffs than he lost in his first five years in the league.
  • Nugent-Hopkins can make up the gap. Interestingly, when I split this group in half, with the 10-best and 10-worst together, there was no sign that the really terrible guys fared any worse, long-term, than the guys who were merely bad as rookies. By the third season, there was no difference between the 10-best in this group and the 10-worst, on average, and by year five the worst guys were averaging 47.3 percent in the faceoff circle while the better players initially were at just 45.0 percent. In other words: there’s no reason to suppose that Nugent-Hopkins can’t make continual strides in this part of his game.
  • Note Manny Malhotra’s record. Malhotra, now one of the NHL’s finest faceoff men (Related: Malhotra shares his tricks of the trade), took years to get to that level. In his sixth season in the league – after never having won more than 50 percent of faceoffs taken – he suddenly put up a 53.9 percent win rate in Columbus. He’s been an elite faceoff man ever since.

In short: Nugent-Hopkins is probably going to be terrible in the faceoff circle next season. He probably won’t be particularly good for quite some time. But there’s no reason that faceoffs, if he works on them, can’t become a strength eventually.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Archaeologuy
October 03 2012, 10:19AM
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I just assumed it was a league mandate that he lose that many faceoffs in order to make it more fair for the other teams.

Does it really matter? He's just going to strip their player of the puck and make an impossible pass to a wide open Jordan Eberle anyway.

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#2 David S
October 03 2012, 10:54AM
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Sounds like the NUUUUGE has put on some weight this summer. He's up (!) to 185 now and expects that'll help him out somewhat. Still, some guys are just better at some technical elements than others. I'm more concerned with the overall package and his Zeus-like ability to put the disk in the basket.

Frankly, although his skill level put him in the NHL, his physical development might have been better served at a lower level. I mean, did you see those pipe cleaner arms he had last year? My mom probably could have beat him on the dot.

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#3 Håvard
October 03 2012, 11:19AM
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Nail Yakupov scored two goals against Thoresen's and Kovalchuk's SKA in todays game in the KHL.

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#4 book¡e
October 03 2012, 10:25AM
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Winning Faceoffs and Playing centre during gameplay are entirely different skillsets. I imagine that there are many wingers who would be better at faceoffs than the centres they play with. Given that centres and wingers could easily lineup in alternate positions (something that happens all of the time when a centre is thrown out of the circle), I don't understand why more teams don't have wingers taking faceoffs for centres who struggle at it.

Any thoughts?

Is it pride? Seems stupid in a billion dollar sport.

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#5 Spydyr
October 03 2012, 06:33PM
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Winning faceoffs comes down to who cheats the best.Simple as that.

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#7 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
October 03 2012, 10:30AM
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What was 99's face-off percentage? 93 should be just a shade under... right?

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#8 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
October 03 2012, 10:46AM
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What's Yanic Perreault doing these days?

Perreault’s League-Leading Face-off Win Percentage (min 250 face-offs)

Year. . . . . Team. . . WinPct

2000-01. . . Tor. . . . 62.7

2001-02. . . Mon. . . . .61.3

2002-03. . . Mon. . . . .62.9

2003-04. . . Mon. . . . .65.2

2005-06. . . Nash. . . . 62.2

2006-07. . . Pho/Tor. ...62.8

2007-08. . . Chi. . . . .66.7 (less than 250 face-offs)

Something... something... face-off coach?

Source: http://blog.stats.com/2007/11/journeyman_is_nhls_best_in_the.html

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#9 RexLibris
October 03 2012, 10:49AM
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I'm not one who believes that faceoffs are a "talent", in terms of being inherent. I think they qualify as a skill in that one can learn, over time, to become better and better.

Strength is one aspect, but I would look for intelligence in a player as a sign of potential improvement. That or, as Quicksilver Ballet noted, some foil on the knuckles might do in a pinch.

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#11 book¡e
October 03 2012, 01:41PM
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dawgtoy wrote:

Looks like Yakupov was sent out on three previous occasions before scoring the Shootout winner on his fourth attempt. Interesting rules for the Shootout over in the KHL.

I have seen this in some international play, you can re-use the same shooter. I hate this rule, because I love when shootouts go to round 13 or something and you see some plugger get the opportunity to be the hero.

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#12 Walter Sobchak
October 03 2012, 03:06PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Crosby was 45.5% in the circle as a rookie, and took three years to reach the 50% mark.

Also, I completely disagree that RNH will be good at faceoffs simply because he thinks the game at a high level. Wayne Gretzky thought the game at a pretty high level too and was never especially notable as a faceoff man. He won 49.0% of his faceoffs over the two years we have records for.

Ha! Ya but, he also scored on like 5 faceoffs too, I'd say that's out thinking your opponents!

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#13 David S
October 03 2012, 03:26PM
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I sometimes wonder what it would be like if Gretzky played today. Stats geeks would be foaming at the mouth saying saying "We shouldn't call him great unless he breaks 50% FOP", or the inevitable 300 comment "unsustainable scoring rate" argument thread.

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#14 VK63
October 04 2012, 10:37AM
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He was 18 with the arms of Kermit the frog.

Having seen him this summer I know that he has put on some beef.

Couple that observation with a belief that at some point the "brain trust" that runs this leaky boat will realize "suitcase" Sillinger is gainfully employed here and survived forever in this league with basically one skill set.

He won draws.

da nuge is gonna be fine!

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#15 Quicksilver ballet
October 03 2012, 10:17AM
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Strength is only one aspect of faceoffs, timing/technique is as important. Last guy i seen who had both, was Davey Keon. A punch to your opponents head in the heat of the moment seems to have lost some of its lustre in recent yrs, maybe that's what RNH should try. It's more important who finishes the play with the puck than who starts the play with it.

That Gretzky kid must've had incredible timing on the dot if he put up nearly 3000 pts in this league. Hang tough RNH, they don't celebrate winning FOP's in the HHOF.

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#16 Sanaa Montana
October 03 2012, 10:18AM
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Give him a few years, he'll be alright. Not as many years as Gagner needs but I'm sure he'll improve.

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#17 Kenny
October 03 2012, 10:23AM
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Didn't MacT once say you either have it or you don't. You can't learn faceoffs?

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#19 Reg Dunlop
October 03 2012, 10:39AM
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@book¡e

I remember players like Krushelnyski and even pre-centre Messier taking draws for Gretz. Also, the famous call by Foster Hewitt when the Leafs last won the cup featured Allan Stanley, a Dman, taking the final draw for George Armstrong. History shows that a great centre doesn't always have to take draws. However, RNH is special and I bet he will dramatically improve on the faceoff dot, sooner than we might expect.

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#20 Kenny
October 03 2012, 10:59AM
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MacT was talking about Coglino when he said that.

www.hockeyshot.ca/v/hyperlinks/howwinfaceoffs.pdf

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#21 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
October 03 2012, 11:35AM
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Håvard wrote:

Nail Yakupov scored two goals against Thoresen's and Kovalchuk's SKA in todays game in the KHL.

Video or it didn't happen!

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#22 The Goalie 1976
October 03 2012, 11:48AM
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We should all be happy if he mirrors Sam Gagner's progress in faceoffs. Bad years 1 and 2, then gain 3-5% a year into the 48% range, and hold there. There are a bunch of 'elite' centers that are in that range (Malkin, Sedin, Getzlaf, even Crosby at first.) 50% would be great, but anything above 45% should be acceptable for this player.

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#23 Håvard
October 03 2012, 11:54AM
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He also scored the gamewinning goal in the shootout, so does this register as a hat-trick against Pat-rick?

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#24 Håvard
October 03 2012, 11:56AM
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http://text.khl.ru/en/34442.html Link to the gamestats

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#25 Gitagrip
October 03 2012, 12:15PM
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Winning FOP....BFD. It's really when you win your 45% ....no?

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#26 Walter Sobchak
October 03 2012, 12:49PM
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http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=_9-jJ3jSysE&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D_9-jJ3jSysE

Yakupov a first goal

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#27 dawgtoy
October 03 2012, 01:03PM
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Looks like Yakupov was sent out on three previous occasions before scoring the Shootout winner on his fourth attempt. Interesting rules for the Shootout over in the KHL.

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#28 oilers2k10
October 03 2012, 02:20PM
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Didnt Crosby suck in faceoffs as a rookie? Now he's doin alright..

I think you can't really compare the Nuge with most other players because he thinks the game at such an elite level that I think it will only be a matter of time before he becomes great at them..he's already stripping opposing players off the puck more than anyone else on the team not named Eberle..he will be very good very soon on the dot.

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#31 oilers2k10
October 03 2012, 03:39PM
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I dunno, Crosby won 1001 faceoffs in 09-10, 137 more than the nhls next best faceoff man.. I say that's a huge improvement over 45%

RNH is also undersized..maybe do another study of players with similar height/weight ratio as RNH in their rookie years..I bet you can boost his percentage up at least another 5% after he gains 10-15 pounds of muscle. He's already quick, wiry, and smart..but muscle mass is also important when fighting for position on the draw. You cant win them all on smarts and quickness alone. 37% for a barely 170 pound 18 year old at 6 feet is pretty good in the NHL I say, the guy was a tooth pick in his rookie season..a very wiry tooth pick..still he will get much much stronger and a bigger.. I think we all forget how young the guy is..pretty much a year younger than hall was in his rookie season and he was a baby.

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#32 Jprime
October 03 2012, 03:51PM
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@Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

In Gretz's final year he was 52% according to NHL.com

Totally acheivable.

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#34 oilers2k10
October 03 2012, 05:32PM
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I dunno, I'm normally a stats guy..but I would love to make a bet saying RNH gets over 50% by his third year, just doesn't strike me as a player that will be bad at anything for very long.. Lets see how he does in OKC..

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#35 OILERSORDEATH
October 04 2012, 12:00AM
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As long as Nuge is pumping in 80-100 pts a season I dont a Damn about his faceoffs!!

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#36 David S
October 04 2012, 12:36AM
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So if the NUUUUGE takes ten FO's a game, right now he's likely to win 4 of them.

If he turns into a faceoff Jedi and gets his average up to 50%, he'll win one more FO a game. One. Effin'. More. Faceoff.

How is this even an issue for anybody but Excel spreadsheet jockeys?

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#37 Hemmertime
October 04 2012, 02:32AM
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@David S

2-3 extra Faceoffs likely. Our 1st line centre should take more than 10 faceoffs a game.

In a tie game in the third it could be the difference between Nuge or Horcoff coming on the ice.

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#38 loosemoose
October 04 2012, 05:25AM
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Hemmertime wrote:

2-3 extra Faceoffs likely. Our 1st line centre should take more than 10 faceoffs a game.

In a tie game in the third it could be the difference between Nuge or Horcoff coming on the ice.

That last line is the scariest thing I've read in a while.

What a choice for old Kruger!

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#39 Simpsonite
October 04 2012, 11:14AM
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The impression I got on last season was that Nuge was improving by the end of the season and his numbers were better? True? Not true? Can we even break that down at all?

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#41 David S
October 04 2012, 03:47PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Do you remember Eric Belanger on the power play? Why do you think he was there?

It's an issue for NHL coaching staffs, too.

@J

I get what you're saying. But I think he was there to help us Fail for Nail. How many times last winter were we screaming about Belanger being out on the PP?* If he was being used to win draws I probably would have bought that except he stayed out for whole shifts. Agonizingly long, Belanger Triangle-type shifts. My god it was painful.

Frankly, I'm not sure if any of our young guys outside of Gagner were anywhere near decent on the dot, and we were what, third in the league last year on the PP?

*May have just been me.

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#42 @Oilanderp
October 04 2012, 04:38PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Do you remember Eric Belanger on the power play? Why do you think he was there?

It's an issue for NHL coaching staffs, too.

Hard to win a draw from the point! That's where I remember Belanger being on the PP.

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#43 Justin Azevedo
October 05 2012, 02:37AM
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@David S

I was able to go to a game against the oilers as media last year, and I will always remember the tiny, tiny legs that ryan whitney has. like my forearms were bigger than his legs; and it's not like I'm some 300 pound gorilla.

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