On a couple of higher profile Blackhawk podcasts recently, hosts have suggested that faceoffs really don’t matter that much in hockey, that their importance is “overrated.”
This has been stated in the context of pushing a Nick Schmaltz is “out of position at wing” narrative, in part because his faceoff percentage is typically close to 40% overall—which is abysmal and untenable for an NHL center.
But I digress. This article in only indirectly about Schmaltz (and the rest of the Hawk centers). It’s really about the under-appreciated (apparently) importance of faceoffs to winning hockey.
Let’s begin this with a basic—and highly ironic—premise. Because so often the “interwebz experts” who proclaim that faceoffs don’t matter, are also those who spout Corsi as the underpinning of every trivial tit for tat (or tweet for tat, whatever).
Here goes: if you want to be a possession team—ie, fuel the ongoing Corsi frenzy of so many would-be analytics gurus—and direct more shots at your opponent’s net than they direct at yours—you have to first possess the puck.
Let that sink in.
Sure, hockey is a fluid game, which is in part why it’s so difficult to quantify the importance of one particular aspect of play—like faceoffs. And there are other ways to gain possession of the puck.
But, faceoffs are clearly one of the ways, if not the most obvious way, you gain possession.
I will grant, neutral zone faceoffs are probably somewhat less important. But, offensive and defensive zone faceoffs are highly important, especially in power play and penalty kill situations.
Win a clean draw to your defenseman on the penalty kill in your zone, and 9 times out of 10 that puck is going hard around the boards and out. Win the draw to your defenseman in the offensive zone on the power play and you have a good chance of setting up and initiating a play.
It’s not brain surgery.
But to this point, this is all somewhat theoretical. And I will dive into some supportive numbers here in a minute.
But first, let’s climb into the Wayback Machine and set the dial for June 2015, the third periods of Games 5 and 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Hawks and the Lightning, when Jonathan Toews, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw and (especially) Antoine Vermette essentially stymied the Lightning’s comeback hopes in one goal games by winning draw after critical draw. And if you don’t recall, I suggest you go back and watch those latter stages of those games, or read Tampa coach Jon Cooper’s post-game comments.
To possess the puck, you have to win the puck.
So let’s look at some numbers. In those playoffs, where the Hawks won the Stanley Cup.
Vermette ranked third in the playoffs among centers at a dominant 58.9%. Toews was ninth among centers at 56.1%. Kruger and Shaw were both 50%. As a team, the Hawks were third in the playoffs that year in all situations at 53.1%, and they had to go through some of the league’s best faceoff men: Mikko Koivu, Ryan Kesler, Nate Thompson, Val Filippula.
More specifically, the Hawks were 59-52 in the dot on the power play, and even at 49-49 shorthanded.
The following year, when the Hawks lost in the first round in 7 games to the Blues, overall, they were 49.9% for the series, and a terrible 13-26 shorthanded.
The year after, 2016-17, they were swept in the first round by the Predators, and their faceoff% was just 47.2.
Certainly, other factors contributed to that postseason decline. But again, the maxim applies: possessing (shooting) the puck requires winning the puck.
And, despite what they tell you, faceoffs matter . . . in actual hockey.
All I have for now. Comment below.