NHL – Faceoffs really do matter

I read an article earlier today which took a look at the Best and Worst Faceoff Takers since 1997. The article explained that a guy like Scott Nichol who has won 59.3% of his faceoffs since 1997 was underrated because of that statistic. I have to say I had my doubts so I decided to look into it.

In order to calculate the value of winning faceoffs, I looked at team statistics from the past 11 seasons. The first thing I did was to group all the teams in the past 11 years that had a faceoff percentage above 51.0% in a season and compare them with the teams that had a faceoff percentage below 49.0%. Here is how they compare:

FO % Pts GF/G GA/G Goal Diff.
52.32 92.79 2.80 2.64 0.154
47.71 81.38 2.65 2.83 -0.178

To my surprise, a difference of 4.6% in team faceoff percentage gives on average 11.4 more points in the standings. That is a gigantic impact for a statistic that is independent of everything else that happens on the ice. It’s a one on one match-up between two players, independent of a player’s teammates, linemates, the score of the game and so on. Those are some nice statistics but how can a team use that to their advantage?

Based on those same statistics, a difference of 4.6% in team faceoff percentage leads to a difference of 0.331 in goals for and goals against per game. A difference of 1% will therefore lead to a difference of 0.072 goals per game or 5.9 goals in a season.

Take Scott Nichol who has won 60.8% of the 778 faceoffs he has taken so far in 2009-2010. Then take a look at a guy like Tim Connolly who has won only 46.8% of the 737 faceoffs he has taken this year. If Scott Nichol had taken Connolly’s 737 faceoffs with the Sabres this year instead of Connolly, their team faceoff percentage would have increased by a little over 2.5%. That is equal to about 6.2 points in the standings or an additional 15 goals in goals for and against differential.

The impact of a faceoff guy is even more intriguing from a statistical perspective because these statistics are independent from everything else. A guy can have 40 goals because of the players he’s playing with, a guy can’t win 60% of his faceoffs because of the players he’s playing with. On top of that, a guy with 40 goals will be very expensive on the free agent market but a 60% faceoff percentage will generally not reflect itself on a player’s salary.

Faceoff percentage is one of the most underrated statistics in the NHL and it seems the San Jose Sharks have figured this out. The Sharks have both Scott Nichol and Joe Pavelski who are the two leaders in the NHL in faceoff percentage and this is one of the reasons why they are having such a great season.

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