Nashville Predators' playoff fortunes could hinge on faceoff success

One issue that has dogged the Nashville Predators in playoffs past has been their inability to win faceoffs consistently. Last year, their 12th-ranked performance among playoff teams contributed to their 1st-round loss, and against Detroit in 2008, they were outright dominated, particularly when the Preds were on the power play.

So how do things look as we head towards the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Yes, we know that Jerred Smithson is one of the best in the NHL on the dot, but what about the rest of the crew?

Follow after the jump as we detail how teams across the league compare in a variety of faceoff situations, and dig deep into how the various Preds perform...

Tonight the Preds take on the Atlanta Thrashers at Bridgestone Arena, while Friday closes out the home portion of the regular season schedule against Columbus. Take the OTF Discount to save money on Nashville Predators tickets for these games!

First, let's take a look at overall team performance with splits for even strength, power play, and penalty killing work (click any of the column headers to sort on that value):

Team  EV  PP SH Total Win%
 Vancouver Canucks  54.6%   59.7%   54.3%  55.1%
 San Jose Sharks 53.2% 58.8% 54.3% 54.0%
 Detroit Red Wings 51.9% 54.8% 51.6% 52.2%
 Florida Panthers 51.8% 56.3% 47.8% 51.9%
 Washington Capitals 50.8% 54.5% 55.9% 51.7%
 Boston Bruins 51.9% 51.4% 49.9% 51.6%
 New Jersey Devils 50.8% 59.0% 49.1% 51.5%
 Phoenix Coyotes 52.4% 50.9% 45.6% 51.4%
 Columbus Blue Jackets 50.8% 54.4% 51.3% 51.3%
 Los Angeles Kings 50.4% 57.2% 48.3% 50.9%
 Ottawa Senators 51.3% 51.4% 47.1% 50.8%
 Minnesota Wild 50.3% 54.3% 50.3% 50.7%
 Chicago Blackhawks 50.3% 52.8% 49.5% 50.5%
 Colorado Avalanche 50.6% 56.5% 43.6% 50.4%
 Toronto Maple Leafs 49.6% 54.5% 51.4% 50.4%
 Tampa Bay Lightning 51.1% 49.1% 46.8% 50.3%
 New York Islanders 50.2% 52.4% 48.2% 50.2%
 Philadelphia Flyers 49.9% 56.4% 45.9% 50.2%
 League Average 50.0% 52.7% 47.3% 50.0%
 Nashville Predators 50.2% 51.8% 47.3% 50.0%
 Dallas Stars 50.6% 49.6% 45.1% 49.8%
 Montreal Canadiens 49.8% 48.1% 47.4% 49.3%
 Pittsburgh Penguins 50.4% 51.8% 39.2% 49.2%
 Atlanta Thrashers 48.5% 52.1% 46.0% 48.7%
 Calgary Flames 48.0% 50.8% 44.0% 47.9%
 Buffalo Sabres 47.3% 50.2% 49.4% 47.9%
 Anaheim Ducks 47.9% 50.5% 44.6% 47.9%
 New York Rangers 47.5% 52.9% 41.5% 47.5%
 St. Louis Blues 48.5% 45.2% 41.8% 47.5%
 Carolina Hurricanes 44.2% 47.9% 42.7% 44.5%
 Edmonton Oilers 44.8% 48.0% 38.3% 44.3%

As regards the Nashville Predators, the note of concern here is that all of their fellow Western Conference playoff contenders (outside of Anaheim) are better than them on the faceoff dot, with the division leaders Vancouver, Detroit & San Jose being the three best teams in the entire league.

As for some of the individual Preds? Let's see how they fare. The following table breaks down individual faceoff numbers (winning percentage and number of faceoffs taken) by situation, and which part of the ice was involved:

Even Strength Power Play Penalty Kill
Off. Zone Neutral Defensive Off Neu Def Off Neu Def Total
 Jerred Smithson 58.2% 65.0% 55.7% 45.5% 71.4% 100.0% 62.5% 69.0% 46.1% 57.1%
170 214 386 11 7 1 8 29 154 980
 Nick Spaling 52.6% 51.3% 52.5% 33.3% 66.7% 0 0.0% 68.4% 48.1% 51.2%
114 117 120 3 3 0 6 19 108 490
 Joel Ward 44.7% 57.1% 52.0% 64.0% 40.0% 100.0% 0.0% 42.9% 40.7% 49.7%
38 7 50 25 5 2 2 7 27 163
 Mike Fisher*** 46.7% 48.0% 48.9% 51.9% 65.2% 33.3% 33.3% 23.5% 50.5% 48.4%
259 383 276 133 23 6 6 17 93 1196
 David Legwand 48.7% 45.5% 44.6% 47.7% 58.3% 100.0% 40.0% 47.1% 43.4% 46.3%
187 292 184 44 12 1 5 17 53 795
 Cal O`Reilly 43.9% 44.8% 50.4% 47.4% 47.1% 100.0% 100.0% 0.0% 60.0% 46.5%
148 154 113 57 17 1 1 1 5 497
 Team Totals 48.8% 50.2% 51.3% 50.4% 53.4% 78.6% 35.5% 54.8% 46.4% 50.0%
1080 1273 1226 357 73 14 31 93 386 4533

***Mike Fisher's numbers include his work with Ottawa before being traded to Nashville. I included Cal O'Reilly here in case he's able to play, and left out Marcel Goc. The totals line represents all of Nashville's faceoffs.

One area available for potential improvement with the Predators is how they do on the power play. Teams in general win 52.7% of their Power Play faceoffs (due, presumably, to having that additional man on the ice to help win puck battles), but the Preds underperform in that regard (51.8% total on the PP). Mike Fisher's numbers aren't too far off that pace, but David Legwand and Cal O`Reilly's are quite poor.

One thing I've argued for in the past is a situational substitution; bringing in Jerred Smithson for a power play faceoff at the expense of a winger, so he can take the draw and then come off the ice for a quick change. This kind of move could especially be used in the 2nd period, when the team bench is nearer the offensive zone, allowing the change to be made more quickly.

Would this amount to a huge difference in team performance? Not likely, but with teams looking for any edge possible in the playoffs, it's an idea worth considering. Teams are used to putting their best faceoff man out there for the key defensize zone draws, but the ones in the offensive zone are worth winning, too. To quote Behind the Net from a couple years ago:

...more than 10% of all the goals in the NHL during the 2003-04 season were allowed within 20 seconds of a team losing a face-off in its own defensive zone.  Overall, that means that one out of every 40 lost face-offs resulted in a goal in the next 20 seconds.  In a league where teams score just 2.5 goals per game, that makes a significant difference.    

Gabe's analysis argues that winning or losing a faceoff in either end of the ice is far more significant than in the neutral zone. That being the case, it's worth not just looking at how to leverage Smitty on the power play, but perhaps to spare him some of those neutral zone draws in favor of work in both the offensive and defensive ends. I think we see some of that already being done (note how David Legwand's workload is weighted towards neutral zone faceoffs; he may be the Preds' worst regular faceoff man), but the question now is whether this specialization might be applied in the offensive zone.

It's all about getting the most out of the tools you have available, and Jerred Smithson's faceoff-winning skills could provide a boost to an offense which, despite solid recent performance, remains the largest area of concern as to whether the Preds will finally make a deep playoff run.

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