Faceoffs, Puck Possession and the Predators

Will Nashville's continuing struggles in the circle have an effect going forward?

There are many things going right for the Nashville Predators right now. Faceoffs are not one of them.

Despite sitting atop the Western Conference and being a top-10 possession team in this admittedly young season, they are dead last in the league in faceoff effectiveness. It's becoming a much talked about area of concern, and will no doubt lead to questions on what this means going forward.

First though, let's be honest: Nashville was never going to be very good in the dot this season. They are icing an almost identical roster from last year, when they ranked 21st with a 48.9% effective rate. The only center they brought in (Cody Hodgson) isn't all that good on the draw, posting a 46.4 mark in his career, and their incumbent 1C is even worse. Even with Paul Gaustad doing all the heavy lifting, the team is mediocre at best at faceoffs. Even their centers-turned-wingers (Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok) don't have much success their either.

But Nashville is trending downward. Wednesday night against San Jose they won only 16 faceoffs the entire night, watching the Sharks come away with the puck 37 (!) times instead. Apologies for stating the obvious, but that's alarming.

So how much of an affect is this going to have on the team going forward, especially when it comes to wins in losses? It depends on how you look at it. Right now the Predators have less than a 45% chance of coming away with the puck after a faceoff. In a specific situation, say late in a game where they need to hold the lead or score a goal, that's bad. Very bad. In the larger scheme, over the course of a season, it's likely not going to be a predictor of future success or failures.

There have been several studies done as to how and if faceoffs directly correlate to Corsi/shot attempts. Conventional wisdom says that if you win the draw you possess the puck, and therefore have a better chance of setting up shots and scoring chances. However, the winning team's advantage only lasts for about 5-10 seconds before it gets negated by the rest of the play. Basically, it doesn't matter if a team wins a bunch of faceoffs if they aren't able to get a play going with it. That entirely depends on the systems at work.

Justin Bourne of The Score looked at this exact scenario a year ago. (This spawned a three-part series by Japers' Rink, which you should really check out.) The Predators were the best faceoff team in hockey in 2013-2014, but were an awful possession club and missed the playoffs. After they won a draw, they opted to dump it behind the goalie or chip it out of the defensive zone, which didn't lead to much success.

Now, it's an entirely different team out there nowadays, but there was a good example of this idea during Saturday night's game:

Gaustad cleanly wins a defensive zone faceoff against Evgeni Malkin, and the puck is sent back to Mattias Ekholm. Ekholm dishes to Ryan Ellis who promptly turns it over to Olli Mååttå. Since Nashville's fourth line is against the likes of Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sergei Plotnikov, they get hemmed in their zone and the Penguins gets two scoring chances. That win didn't amount to anything except two good saves by Pekka Rinne.

On the flip side, much later in the game Mike Fisher lost an offensive draw to Nick Bonino:

The puck finds its way to Brian Dumoulin, who skies it to center hoping to just get it out of the zone. (This is similar to what Bourne broke down the Preds doing a lot of two years ago.) Nashville regains control, and after a clumsy zone entry and some sloppy defensive play by Pittsburgh, James Neal sees a small opening to jam a the puck past Marc-André Fleury.

These types of things happen dozens of times in a given night, and will vary depending on the players on the ice, and the team they are playing. Nashville didn't lose that game because of lost faceoffs. They outshot the Pens 39-25, out attempted them 70-42, and out scoring chanced them 36-24. Blame Fleury.

Finally, Hockey Graphs took a look at the relationship to Corsi and faceoffs, similar to the Hockey Wilderness piece linked above. The initial data seemed to indicate a relationship, however author Garret Hohl provided contextual insight on why it might be a little overstated:

There are a few reasons why the impact may not be as high as the numbers indicate.

For one, a faceoff battle is simply a set-play puck battle; skaters who perform well in faceoffs can also help their team’s possession by performing well in other puck battle situations. The correlation with puck possession could be picking up both impacts.

Secondly, most coaches know their team’s strengths and weaknesses. They know which centres are the better faceoff options. They also know if their team performs relatively better in breakouts, sustaining pressure in the offensive zone, and neutral zone performance. A coach may improve the impact of their faceoff percentage on their Corsi percentage by taking these into account and also by deploying their faceoff specialists predominately in non-neutral zone situations.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that shooting the puck more than the opponent (which the Preds did last year, and continue to do so far this year so) is a better predictor of success than winning faceoffs. That's not to say that they should resign themselves to being awful at it, though. Peter Laviolette should continue to position his team in a way they can retrieve the puck, as well as create plenty of contingency plans for won and lost draws. But the players themselves need to take a clinic or something as well, since the coach can only put his guys out there. They're the ones that need to win it.

We'll be keeping an eye on this throughout the season. For now, cover your eyes and pray to the heavens whenever there's an important draw that needs to be won, but know there are worse things the team can be doing than losing faceoffs.