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An Undervalued Stat? Analyzing Faceoffs in NJ

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Faceoffs can be an important facet of the game of hockey. They start a game, and a team that can win them can generate positive momentum. Despite this, however, it is a stat that is not largely discussed. How important are they really? Let's look.

Zajac is the best Devil in the faceoff circle, hands down.
Zajac is the best Devil in the faceoff circle, hands down.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

In the world of advanced statistics, possession numbers are considered to be extremely important.  A team's and a player's Fenwick and Corsi percentages can tell a lot about how a team or individual is performing when on the ice.  Here at In Lou We Trust, we spend a good amount of time using advanced statistics to argue points about our favorite team, and possession numbers are thrown around quite often.  The funny thing, however, is that faceoff numbers and percentages are not discussed regularly, despite their connection to improving possession.  I think most fans that watch the team on a regular basis would say that the New Jersey Devils are terrible in the faceoff circle, but besides for that simple point, not much more is said.  How important is winning faceoffs actually, and how do the Devils stack up?

The Importance of Faceoffs

As it turns out, faceoffs can play a semi-important role in hockey.  I know that statement is completely obvious, but I mean it more in terms of advanced statistics.  To the naked eye, winning a draw gives your team possession of the puck and control of play, which is certainly a good thing.  But when you dig deeper, you can find that these wins can add up to some tangible results.  There was a study done back in 2012 by Michael Schuckers, Tom Pasquali and Jim Curro from St. Lawrence University on the importance of the faceoff in hockey.  The entire study can be found here, from Stats Sports Consulting.

To quickly sum up their findings, faceoffs can have an impact on any hockey game, and on a team's overall chances to make the playoffs.  There are three real interesting findings that I want to point out here, which will be relevant for this article:

  • 76 faceoff wins at even strength are worth approximately one goal in value.
  • 41 faceoff wins on special teams are worth approximately one goal in value.
  • A team that wins 60% of their faceoff draws as opposed to 50% gains approximately 12 extra goals per season, which equates to two extra wins.

Therefore, a player who can produce wins in the faceoff circle can provide tangible results for his team, in terms of goals and wins.  The more faceoffs a player wins, the more his team possesses the puck, and the more his team possesses the puck, the more goals that team will score.  76 faceoff wins may seem like a lot, but players who are really good at winning draws can win a lot more than they lose.  And anyone who watched this thriller from last year knows that winning faceoffs on the power play can definitely lead to goals.

How Do the Devils Stack Up?

For the purposes of this study, I am only going to look at guys on the team that were in the faceoff circle for at least 100 attempts.  This really covers most of the players on the team who took draws regularly, as the next player that gets cut off from my list is Tim Sestito with 47 draws.  All NJ faceoff information and statistics come from Extra Skater.

Player

EV Faceoff Wins

EV Faceoff Losses

EV Faceoff %

ST Faceoff Wins

ST Faceoff Losses

ST Faceoff %

Travis Zajac

565

452

55%

174

167

51%

Adam Henrique

285

368

43%

110

133

45%

Patrik Elias

226

336

40%

47

64

42%

Stephen Gionta

213

312

40%

25

30

45%

Dainius Zubrus

160

158

50%

45

39

54%

Andrei Loktionov

131

171

43%

4

9

31%

Jacob Josefson

75

76

49%

8

9

47%

As you can see, the numbers bear out the notion that New Jersey is a bad faceoff team.  Only Travis Zajac has considerable positive numbers, with Dainius Zubrus hovering just over 50%.  Everyone else is quite poor in the faceoff circle, with Patrik Elias and Stephen Gionta really helping to drag the team percentage down.  In fact, these numbers do not stack up well with the rest of the NHL at all.  The Devils ranked 27th in the league last year in faceoff percentage at a miserable 47%, ahead of only Winnipeg, Buffalo and Calgary.

When comparing these numbers with the St. Lawrence University study, the results do not turn out well overall, but they actually aren't completely terrible:

Player

EV +/-

EV Goal Differential

ST +/-

ST Goal Differential

Travis Zajac

113

+1.5

7

0

Adam Henrique

-83

-1

-23

-0.5

Patrik Elias

-110

-1.5

-17

-0.5

Stephen Gionta

-99

-1

-5

0

Dainius Zubrus

2

0

6

0

Andrei Loktionov

-40

-0.5

-5

0

Jacob Josefson

-1

0

-1

0

Travis Zajac is obviously a beast on faceoffs.  The +113 even strength differential is excellent, and that equates to an extra goal and a half that the Devils scored (I would round up to two considering he took the draw that led to Zidlicky's overtime buzzer beater).  No one else helped at all, however.  Combining the rest of the numbers, special teams included, the combination of Henrique, Elias, Gionta, Zubrus, Loktionov and Josefson gave the opposition an extra 5 goals.

Now what does this all mean?  Well, when combining Zajac's positive numbers with everyone else's negative numbers, the Devils lost approximately 3 goals because of their faceoff woes.  This matches fairly well to the St. Lawrence University study, where plus or minus 10% equates to 12 goals.  For the Devils, 47% in the faceoff circle meant a loss of 3 goals.  This is not a groundbreaking number, but it certainly is a small piece.  Three goals can lead to an extra loss during the season, which can be 1 or 2 points in the standings.

Overall Conclusions

In the end, faceoffs clearly do matter, but not significantly so.  The Devils were the 4th worst team in hockey last year in terms of faceoff percentage, but that terrible number only led to the loss of about 3 goals, or around 1 or 2 points in the standings.  And since the team was 5 points out of a playoff spot, being a 50% faceoff team would not have gotten them into the playoffs.  Even if NJ was the best faceoff team in hockey last year (Nashville, 53.1%), they would've only gained about 7 goals on the season, which may not have equated to an extra 5 points in the standings.  Also, the Devils are an excellent possession team, so while faceoffs help to improve possession numbers, the team does not need considerable help in that department anyway.

Now, with that being said, I do think that faceoffs are something to look at.  Last year, the fight to make the playoffs was a real close one, and many teams were bunched together in April hoping to gain those two wild card spots.  When there is that much parity in the Eastern Conference, teams need to find every advantage possible, and faceoffs could be one of them.

Sadly, I do not think faceoffs will be a strength for the Devils next year.  Apart from Zajac, no one has shown to be great at winning draws.  Even Mike Cammalleri has never been a prolific faceoff winner, so he will not add much to the team's faceoff percentage.  Hopefully, Zajac can keep doing his thing, and the Devils can end up somewhere around 50% next season as a result.  Even that would be a good improvement.

Your Take

Now that you have read this, what do you think?  Are faceoffs something to look at, or should they be largely ignored?  Do you think the Devils have a chance to be a better faceoff team this year, or are we looking at another year of poor results on the draw?  Please leave your comments below, and thank you for reading.