5 February 2014

Golden Linings/Crimson Bindings: the centres' faceoff prowess

A feature looking at the recent positives of the Sens' play.

A glance at the NHL's faceoff leaders shows that the Ottawa Senators are sitting snugly at 9th place. This has been evident over the season, and has perhaps been the duet partner in consistency to the Sens' surprising, and welcome, offence. (We're on pace to be shut out just once more in the season's last 25 games, for a season total of three blankings.) It's become just about commonplace to see >50% numbers from our main centres Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad and Zack Smith.

And indeed, so far all four are 50% or plus; Mika's exactly even at 50% (with a very low 210 total faceoffs), Turris is a wee bit higher at 50.5%, Smith is a strong 52.8% and Spezza's flying high with 54.5% of faceoffs won. Captain Jason's already at 1010 faceoffs (Turris is just behind at 1009). These sample sizes suggest that the players are delivering at their expected output, and indeed, Spezza has been over 50% in faceoff wins in every single one of his seasons except for his first full rookie season. Zack Smith's and Kyle Turris's season sample sizes are much smaller (not to mention Zibanejad's), but given that they've gone through a substantial amount of faceoffs already and faceoff% have been proven to be relatively repeatable, they can be expected to continue above the 50-marker.

This is excellent for the team on many fronts. Statistical work has been done to prove that teams who win a faceoff have an advantage in possession for at least 30 seconds after the faceoff win, and although there isn't a distinct correlation between faceoff wins and points, the overall relationship is a positive one.
Sens in red.
(Outliers include the bottom-most data point, the Winnipeg Jets with 61 points/45.8 FO%; the right-most data point, the Anaheim Ducks with 85 points/49.1 FO%; and the second-top-most data point Nashville Predators with 59 ponts/53.2 FO%.)

The benefits of having all four centres able to win fifty percent of draws on any given night is evident when considering the different roles that the four lines play. Tales of faceoff specialists like Manny Malhotra and Zenon Konopka (remember him? Shout-out to his rabbit) being started almost exclusively in the defensive zone represent zone-start tactics taken to an extreme. Checking lines are often given the unceremonious job of starting in the defensive zone and getting the team into offensive or at least neutral territory.

The Sens are no different: outside of Eric Gryba, Smith takes the most defensive zone starts, with an O/DSt% of 43.5%, on the entire Sens team. Next is Turris (not Smith's usual line partners Neil and Greening, which seems a little odd, but MacLean has placed Smith all over the place recently), who's also facing very difficult competition along with the rest of his line; this speaks to the overall brilliance of MacArthur-Turris-Ryan, really. Spezza is getting cushier starts, and in addition he doesn't play on the PK, but his numbers mean that should MacLean need to, Spezza would perform perfectly fine anywhere on the ice, really.

In essence, faceoff expertise in the centres allows our team to run balanced lines without the need to rely on a specialized role-player (e.g. Konopka) who is otherwise useless. This advantage extends through to all aspects of lines and strategies when it comes to deploying certain men on the ice to achieve a certain effect; "win a faceoff and get off quick" no longer becomes a part of our desperation-play repertoire. If there are tangibles which help you win games in as-of-yet intangible ways, then faceoffs are one of them.


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