Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Art of the Draw

There may, possibly, be a few things in the world closer than the Montreal/Boston playoff series this year. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are probably closer. So's John Tortorella's temper to the boiling point of mercury. Other than those examples, it's tough to think of anything that's been as neck-and-neck as that Habs/Bs series.

The stats show just how close it was, but if one team had a slight advantage in the numbers, it was actually the Canadiens. Each team scored 17 goals in the seven games. The Habs won the special-teams battle. They went 22.2% on the PP, while the Bruins failed to score. That gave the Canadiens a perfect 100% on the PK to Boston's 77.8%. The Bruins took more shots, with 243 versus the Habs' 229, although the Canadiens won the three games in which they were significantly outshot. In goal, Carey Price's .934 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average beat out Tim Thomas' .926 and 2.25. The only area in which the Bruins had the clear upper hand was on faceoffs. They were 53.3% for the series, while the Habs were just 46.7% on the draw.

The numbers mightn't seem that far apart, but the experts, the guys who built their reputations as faceoff specialists, say there's a world of difference between the Bruins' success rate and that of the Canadiens. The NHL didn't publish official faceoff stats before 1998, but that year, at age 39, Guy Carbonneau was second in the league, winning 59.4% of his draws. He says the faceoff was important then, but it's even more so now.

"In the past, because there was more scoring, I think faceoffs weren't as important as they are now. Now it's huge," Carbonneau states. "Games are tighter. Teams are a lot more equal. Every little detail is important. You talk a lot more now about power play and penalty killing. It was important in the past, but not life and death. And now, because of the new rules on the power play, time of possession is really big. Every time you win the faceoff, you don't have to chase the puck."

Carbonneau says the importance of faceoffs increases exponentially when a team doesn't score many goals to begin with.

"For low-scoring teams, all these little things are really important. I know Jacques Martin is spending a lot of time on penalty killing and power plays and those areas of the game because they're not going to score four or five goals a game. They have to really work on those little things, and faceoffs are a huge part of it," he says.

And the man who captained the Canadiens to their last Stanley Cup takes it a step further. He thinks teams without really good faceoff men are hard-pressed to win at all.

"There were not a lot of specialists in the past. Doug Jarvis comes to mind as one of the best, and as one of the guys who kind of built a career on that. Now every team is looking for one of those guys," Carbonneau explains. And if you don't have one? "You better score a lot of goals. There's less faceoffs now than there used to be during a game, but because every power play starts in the opposing zone, you need to win the puck, especially during the playoffs when the games are even closer."

Carbonneau's observation is right on, statistically speaking. There were actually about ten thousand fewer faceoffs in the league this year than there were ten years ago, dropping from an average of 5381 per team to 4709 per team. That's where Carbonneau's anecdotal evidence separates from the numbers, though. The top ten teams on faceoffs ten years ago scored 68 more PP goals than the bottom ten teams. This year, the bottom ten teams on the draw actually scored 109 more PP goals than the top teams. When you figure in PP opportunities, the scoring percentages of the top ten faceoff teams are pretty comparable to those of the bottom ten. So it seems that winning the faceoff in the opposing zone to start the PP actually doesn't improve scoring that much.

The Canadiens supported that in their only playoff series this year. Tomas Plekanec was a disappointing 43.3% on faceoffs. Scott Gomez was even more dismal, at 40.7%. Jeff Halpern won 73% of his faceoffs, but he played in only four games and didn't take any draws on the PP. Yet, winning all those faceoffs didn't give the Bruins a great advantage overall.

What's interesting, however, is that while Plekanec's faceoff average was generally poor, on the PK he was over 50%, and he took almost all of the shorthanded draws for the Habs in the series. So, while the Bruins controlled the faceoff at even strength, the Candiens did so on the PK, which perhaps explains, at least in part, why the Bruins got shut out with the man advantage.

Tim Taylor took thousands of faceoffs in the NHL as well, and managed to keep his percentage in the mid-fifties most years. He actually ranks sixth in the league since the lockout. He agrees with Carbonneau's idea that a team must have a faceoff specialist if it's going to win. In his theory, however, it's more an overall team performance stat than just a special-teams one.

"Puck possession is what it's about. The best teams in the league do not give the puck up much. You win the draw, you possess the puck and now the other team is chasing you. There's a huge connection between good teams and the teams that win the most faceoffs," Taylor attests. "You have to have one guy who can win big. If you can't win faceoffs, you're giving the other team a huge advantage. If you're chasing the puck all night, statistics say it's going to be really hard to win. If you don't have that guy it's going to be tough to win in the playoffs."

The standings back up Taylor's belief. The top faceoff teams this season were Vancouver, San Jose and Detroit; first, fourth and fifth overall in the league respectively. Same thing in the playoffs. The four remaining teams are all among the seven that are above 50% on the draw.

Still, having one guy in the top-six who's above 50% on faceoffs might not be enough. There's still a need to add that type of guy on the third or fourth lines as well. Those lines are responsible for secondary scoring, and, just as importantly, preventing goals against. Winning faceoffs helps with both those lower-line tasks. The excellent statistics website Behind the Net has figured that in the first seven seconds after a face-off in your own end, you are 10 times more likely to be scored on if you lost the draw than if you won it. The number crunchers at Behind the Net also have concluded 10% of all goals are scored within twenty seconds of winning the draw. Those stats indicate that a team's ability to score...and prevent being scored upon...improves when it's good at faceoffs.

The numbers also show that the top ten teams in the league on faceoffs average three more wins than the bottom ten. They tend to give up fewer goals overall, score more at even strength and are better on the PK as well. Habs fan-extraordinaire Jason Weiss figured out that the top six teams (the top 20%) in the league were 6.12% better on faceoffs than the bottom six (the lower 20%) this year. They also average six more wins, which leads him to conclude that each percentage point of improvement on the draw equals an extra win. If you look at the Habs with that in mind, a team average of 53% rather than 49% would have meant four extra wins. That would have translated to 104 points and the division title.

Of course, faceoffs are just one part of a very complex game. It's one thing to win the faceoffs, but quite another to take advantage of that by scoring. Just looking at this season, the Florida Panthers were fourth in the league in faceoff percentage. However, their two top faceoff men, Marty Reasoner at 54.5% and Stephen Weiss at 53.9%, managed to score only 81 points between them. They were winning the draws, but couldn't do anything with the puck afterwards. Contrast that with Vancouver's league-leading 54.9% success rate on the draw, coupled with the scoring exploits of top faceoff men Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin (combined 177 points between them) and you can see the difference. That's why it's important for the players who have the best chance of scoring be able to win more draws.

In the Canadiens' case, their two top centres take nearly half of all the team's faceoffs. Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec combined for just 95 points, and neither of them were over 50% last year. This season, Gomez was at 48%. Plekanec was exactly 50%, although he was slightly below that on both PP and PK draws. He was also markedly better at home than he was on the road. That doesn't surprise Carbonneau.

"I still don't like that the home team has to put their sticks down second because ninety percent of the time they don't put their stick down. I think they made a big deal of it because they didn't want any cheating at first, but it's a lot different now," he says.

Taylor says that requirement for the road player to put his stick down first is directly responsible for most players having better percentages at home.

"Faceoffs are one of those intriguing areas of the game where you can really cheat, and the best cheater is often the best one at winning the faceoffs," he explains. "What I mean by that is the visiting team has to put his stick in first, so the home team puts his stick in last. So actually, when you put your stick in, you don't actually stop. You go in in one swoop right away and time it so the referee is dropping the puck at the same time you're putting your stick in, which means you have a big advantage at home."

Some players learn how to compensate. Plekanec, Carbonneau says, was actually better three years ago when he coached the young Czech. He says in Plekanec's case, opponents started complaining about his favourite cheat.

"Tomas has a different style," Carbonneau says. "Europeans go on their forehand a lot. Tomas uses not only his stick, but uses his skate a lot. That kind of pisses off a lot of the guys, and when you piss off the other side, they tell the linesmen. Once in a while, they forget about it and he does it because he's got really good timing, good instinct and good anticipation. I wouldn't say he cheats, but he's got great timing of when to bring that skate to make it really hard on the opposing centreman. Now they've found a way to get around it."

Carbonneau says if he studied slow-motion video of Plekanec's faceoffs, he'd probably be able to find something to help him improve. (This from the man who'd stay after practice and take draws against Plekanec, beating him and all the other Canadiens centres handily at nearly 50 years of age.) He thinks there's only so much you can teach when it comes to owning the draw, however. Some of it is practice, some of it's learned technique and a lot more is instinct. But, he says, the biggest factor is wanting it more than the other guy.

"To me, you can't win them all, but you can't lose them all either. If you have a tough night and you can't win them, at least try to tie them up. If you tie up the stick, then the puck is lying there and someone can come in and get it. Communication is important," he believes. "It's the difference between a guy who's 56% or one who's 49%. A lot of it is attitude, going in there and wanting to win it."

Taylor agrees the mental aspect of faceoffs is very important, and that's something that can be taught.

"You can teach the importance of it. As the years go on, you realize the importance," he says. "You're trying to establish one up on a person. If you beat a guy three times in the neutral zone, it doesn't mean a whole lot. But then you have a big, important draw in the defensive zone and you've got him thinking, 'He's beaten me three times so I'll have to do something different.' Now this guy's out of his comfort zone, and getting in someone's head is huge. Every faceoff you take from the start of the game to the end is important."

Taylor points to Carbonneau as an example of how a player can really hone his faceoff technique and make himself dominant, if he has the will and work ethic to do so.

"He concentrated on it. He wasn't a guy on a PP who was going to take a one-timer. He was a defensive guy who took a lot of defensive faceoffs and he took pride in it. It was something in the character of his game that kept him in the league as long as he was," he states.

That, then would indicate that Plekanec and Gomez should be able to improve on the draw. We know they can do it. Plekanec was 51% a few years ago, and has proven his ability to put in the extra work he needs to do in order to improve himself. Gomez was around 53% with the Rangers and Devils, and 51% in his first year as a Hab. His 48% this year may have been further evidence of his generally listless play this season. Taylor says it's possible for centres to improve if they want to. He thinks the wingers also have to buy in, if the team's average is to get better.

The player's role in working on the technique and concentrating on the importance of winning draws is unquestionable, but his relationship with the linesmen is also a factor. Taylor thinks it's the most important variable for a centre.

"I think the best cheat is getting to know the linesmen really well, and being friendly with them. It's hard for a linesman, as a human being, if you're nice to him all the time, for him to kick you out. But if you're always "Oh, what the hell is that?" and giving him grief, then it's easy for him to kick you out. If you're nice as can be to him, it's tougher for him to kick you out. Now, being nicer gets you a bit more of an advantage when you're about to take a faceoff," he laughs.

Carbonneau says Taylor's spot on with that observation.

"They're pretty fair and they won't try to screw you over, but they do have a say about which side they throw the puck. If you piss off the linesman game in and game out, not only are they going to kick you out, but they'll drop the puck on one side of the circle a little more often and nobody can tell the difference," he grins.

Whether it's through watching video, practicing technique or befriending the linesmen, the conclusion here is that the Canadiens need Plekanec and Gomez to improve on faceoffs. That's the most important thing they can do this summer. They've both been better in the past, and can conceivably get there again with some attention to detail. Backing them up, within the current roster of centremen, there's hope Lars Eller and David Desharnais can improve on their 42.5% and 49.7% respectively. Some of the top-ten faceoff men in the league have improved as they got more experience. Ryan Kesler, for example, was 46.1% in his rookie season and has improved every year to sit at 57.4% this season. Carbonneau says experience plays a big role in learning the habits of opponents as well as the tendencies of the linesmen, and that helps young players improve as they progress in the league.

If the younger Habs don't improve right away, the Canadiens need a solid player on the lower lines who's excellent on draws. Jeff Halpern was really strong this season, but there's a question about how long he can stay healthy. Coming up in this free agent season, Marty Reasoner is available. He's good for maybe a dozen goals a year from the bottom lines, and was 54.4% on the draw last year. Vernon Fiddler doesn't put up as many points, but he's a solid 53.9%. Zenon Konopka is fourth in the league, with an impressive 57.7%, but he only scored 9 points last year. He's tough as nails, which wouldn't go astray with the Canadiens, but there, again, is the conundrum of an ability to win draws with no ability to handle the puck when you do.

In the end, winning faceoffs brings with it a great many benefits for a team. Tim Taylor explains it best: "You have to be able to win faceoffs. You might think the difference between 49 and 52 isn't that big, but it is because those are scoring opportunities you're giving up."

The Canadiens loss in the playoffs this year is proof the team needs to improve its faceoff success. Without winning draws, the team is limited in its ability to take advantage of its scoring talent. The experts agree.

*Thanks to Guy Carbonneau and Tim Taylor for their input. Also thanks to Jason Weiss. Photo is of Ken Danby's 1997 work, "Face Off."


V said...

What a great article.

How the hell do you get these people to work with you on these articles... and why are you (and occassionaly Arpon Basu) the only person who seems to be able to provide us with these kind of insightful pieces with regularity?

Ignore the questions... just a way of showing my gratitude.

Now if only you didn't have the word 'Habs' in your banner. Kidding!!!

J.T. said...

@V: Thanks! I just ask people questions and hope they answer. :)

Anonymous said...

Leigh Anne, you're as close as being the Habs Joe Posnanski. That's the highest praise I can give to a sportswriter. Just wow.

That's my problem with French sportswiting right now. Mathias Brunet is good, M-A Godin is great too, so is François Gagnon, JF Bégin was the best before he went all editor on us. They're all very professional, but no one is as good as you, and it's not even your job to cover the Habs.

Again, a thousand thank you for your time and passion!

Marco said...

Excellent article JT, keep it up!

JF said...

Wonderful piece, J.T. We can all see that when the Habs are struggling in the faceoff circle, they spend a good part of the game chasing the puck, but it's great to have some solid data on the problem.

You are one of the best, if not the best writer out there on the Habs. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into your well-researched, thought-provoking articles.

pfhabs said...

Leigh Anne:

thank you for another year of interesting and insightful posts


moeman said...


Anonymous said...

What can one say Ms. Power. Thanks I suppose.

The Canadiens give the puck away an awful lot. That makes for safe line changes and some too many men calls. Correct the faceoff issue and the get it out and get off mentality and yep, different team.

I started off the year somewhat irked at all the folks on the anti-Gomez case. I gradually came around and was, by mid-season, hoping he could be buried in the minors next season. I bet he is a great guy to have around but his declining game perhaps reflects a lack of zest for the game, as evidenced by portions of your article.

Young Crosby worked on faceoffs. But do older, contented players do that sort of thing? When you figure that Gomez and Pleks are on the ice the most maybe the answer is to have wingers who can take faceoffs for them. (Gomer can mail them a cheque at the end of the season:-)