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A Lot and A Little: Offensive Zone Faceoff Polarization

Some forwards this year get way more offensive zone faceoff opportunities than others. But for the defensemen? It doesn’t really work that way.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Generally, when teams send out forward lines, they often will send out a certain line depending on where the faceoff is taking place. “Checking lines” or other energy lines will often be sent out for the majority of defensive zone draws where they can work to play defense and tilt the ice back the other way for the scorers. The top two lines, which score the majority of points, will be sent out most often for offensive zone draws where they can use their skills to hopefully pot some goals.

However, this doesn’t always happen this way. If a fourth line was just on the ice and hemmed in for a long shift, others could be there. Or if the top line had a long shift up and down the ice, the third or fourth line might get a shot with an offensive zone draw. However, for the New Jersey Devils, it seems that Lindy Ruff is very particular about who gets offensive zone faceoffs for some of the forward group. Here is a quick list of the top 2 Devils forwards at 5 on 5 in terms of OZFO%, and the bottom two. Rank is in terms of all NHL forwards with at least 200 5v5 minutes this year, and 383 forwards made the list. Data taken from Natural Stat Trick.

I could have also added Nathan Bastian to that list at the bottom, as he is only ranked 2 spots higher than Wood on that list, at 358, with near enough the same offensive zone faceoff percentage. However, that would have thrown off the symmetry of it, as then I would’ve needed a third player for the top of the list, and the next highest is Andreas Johnsson ranked 109.

So realistically, when Hughes and Bratt are being sent out onto the ice for a faceoff, basically two thirds of the time they are getting that draw in the offensive zone with a chance to generate some offense. For Wood and McLeod (and Bastian), however, they are only getting that chance to generate offense in the zone less than a third of the time, and for McLeod, less than a quarter of the time. It’s a major difference, as seen by the rankings in that list. Of 383 forwards with at least 200 5v5 minutes, both Hughes and Bratt rank in the top 30, while Bastian, Wood, and McLeod all rank in the bottom 30.

Of course, the most interesting thing about that is despite the lack of offensive zone faceoffs, Miles Wood still manages to currently rank 5th on the team in 5v5 points, just behind Hughes and just ahead of Bratt. With his speed and his play style, he still generates those odd man rushes against, or simply just speeds past the defensemen and gains opportunities for points. And with that goal last night against Washington, McLeod now ties for the 5v5 lead in goals with 6, as does Wood. Both have way more than Bratt, who only has 1 goal at 5 on 5 to go with his 9 assists.

Now, you could look at that one of two ways. The optimist would look at that and say that’s great! Despite those guys receiving so little opportunities for offensive zone draws, they are still managing to score points and especially goals at a decent clip. It means that Ruff is right to do as he is doing, because Hughes and Bratt get their points with easy starts, but the other two grind out points and tilt the ice in the Devils’ favor with those tough assignments. The pessimist, however, would look at that and say wow, if those bottom 6 guys are scoring as much at 5 on 5 as those top 6 guys, despite that crazy offensive zone faceoff discrepancy, it must mean that the top guys are really not producing as much as we would want. With all those extra offensive zone draws, you would hope and expect them to produce more points than those who don’t get nearly as many of those opportunities.

The interesting thing too, is that if you just populate defensemen for this instead of forwards, it doesn’t pan out the same way. The defender with the most offensive zone faceoffs, at 5 on 5 and with at least 200 minutes, is Ty Smith, who is ranked 50th among 205 defensemen. He is the only Devil ranked in the top 100 for offensive zone faceoff percentage, and he sits at a fairly reasonable 54.74%. Damon Severson is next on the list, ranked 110, and as of today, has an exact 50% OFZO%. Meanwhile, the defenseman with the lowest percentage in that category is P.K. Subban, who still sits at a reasonable 42.09%. So whereas the forward group is really separated when it comes to who gets the coveted offensive zone faceoffs, the defensemen all get a decent share of them, and it seems like Ruff and Co. are focusing on the defensemen much less when it comes to who should be going out for offensive zone draws. It seems they do want to shelter Smith to a small degree, but at only 54%, it isn’t like he is totally sheltered, not like Keith Yandle, who this season currently sits at an OZFO% of 72.27. Almost 3 out of every 4 faceoffs Yandle sees are in the offensive zone, which is crazy.

In the end, I’m not sure this is data you look at and can say wow, if this were different, the Devils would win more. It isn’t something I personally believe you can seriously criticize the coaching staff for. They want to put the likes of Hughes and Bratt in as many offensive opportunities as possible, while they are comfortable giving the likes of Bastian, Wood, and McLeod plenty of defensive starts, expecting that they will play solid defense and help to get the puck back up ice. And since those guys are still managing to score their fair share of points despite the dearth of offensive zone faceoffs, it makes sense. To me, it was just an interesting bit of information to note. Whereas Ruff does not really separate defensemen when it comes to zone starts, for the forwards, that is something he looks at much more closely and takes care to make sure the guys he wants in the offensive zone are there more often than not.