Todd McLellan has a bit of a problem. He has three good faceoff choices in Matt Hendricks, Anton Lander and Mark Letestu. He also has three inferior faceoff options in Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl, though of course he never seems to have them all at the same time.
The good faceoff players are all fourth-line quality players and all (more or less) veterans. McLellan can’t double-shift those players all the time, and besides he needs to develop the faceoff skills of his young stars. How does he balance those competing priorities?
NHL.com now tracks faceoffs by the zone in which they are taken, and there are some interesting trends to be found if we look at the Oilers’ six primary faceoff men, as reflected in the chart above. The number of faceoffs in each zone is recorded on the chart, with the coloured bar reflecting the percentage of each player’s faceoffs that take place in a given zone.
We see small neutral zone bars for Letestu, Lander and Hendricks. Each of those players takes more faceoffs in both the offensive and defensive zones than they do in the neutral zone.
That’s because those are high-leverage situations. According to work done by Gabriel Desjardins back in 2011, 100 extra faceoff wins in the offensive zone are worth an extra 2.5 goals. Logically, the same numbers apply in the defensive zone, just in reverse.
Hendricks (60.4 percent on faceoffs), Lander (54.5 percent) and Letestu (51.8 percent) give the Oilers their best chance of winning those more important draws.
Neutral zone faceoffs are less critical. Most of the people who did work in this area are now employed by NHL teams, so it’s hard to find the studies which support this (that may be something I should tackle over the summer) but the number of goals created and prevented by winning or losing a neutral zone draw is a lot smaller.
That’s why McDavid (36.4 percent on faceoffs), Nugent-Hopkins (45.4 percent) and Draisaitl (46.7 percent) take more faceoffs in the neutral zone than they do in either the offensive or defensive zones. Starting those lines at centre allows McLellan to have it both ways. He can continue to develop his centre’s faceoff game while not paying a cost in the here-and-now.
Naturally, there are limits to this strategy, and McLellan has to juggle other priorities, but as much as possible while matching lines and zones and getting ice-time to his best players he follows this strategy. The upshot is that Edmonton isn’t suffering as much for the faceoff woes of its youngest players as we might think at first glance.
The biggest factor in winning faceoffs is experience. There’s a common myth that size matters on the draw, but that’s nonsense—whenever I’ve compared faceoff prowess to size I’ve ended up finding no correlation whatsoever. When I’ve dug into experience (I just have unpublished stuff, so that’s maybe something else to write up over the summer), however, the results have been skewed heavily in favour of veterans.
Faceoffs aren’t a big man’s game. They’re an old man’s game.
The good news is that even players who are wretched out of the gate can get better at this. Consider Nugent-Hopkins and his faceoff performance by season:
- 2011-12: 37.5 percent
- 2012-13: 41.0 percent
- 2013-14: 42.4 percent
- 2014-15: 45.7 percent
- 2015-16: 45.4 percent
That’s a pretty steady progression, and one which should continue as Nugent-Hopkins gets older. We’ll likely see similar progressions from McDavid and Draisaitl.
In the meantime, though, it’s probably worth hanging on to a couple of fourth-line guys who can win faceoffs for those must-win draws.