In the 2008-2009 season, 70,417 faceoffs were won in 1,230 games. That's roughly 57.25 faceoffs per game, nearly one per minute. The San Jose Sharks were second in the league in this metric behind the Detroit Red Wings, with the teams posting a 53.8% and 55.1% conversion rate respectively.
This season, the Sharks are currently tops in the league with a 56.9% conversion rate. Sjsharks.com ran a piece on Monday night that highlighted this faceoff success. Todd McLellan stated, "When you win on the penalty kill, you can erase 20-30 seconds," which makes sense intuitively-- centerman wins the draw clean, the puck goes to the defenseman, and he clears it up the boards and out of the zone. The team with the man advantage must retrieve the puck, bring it up the ice, enter the zone, and set up in the umbrella or whatever they happen to be using. If the Sharks do a good job of holding the blueline and force the opposing team to dump it in to engage in puck battles along the boards, 20-30 seconds could theoretically tick off the clock. Simple enough.
In the same piece, Scott Nichol said, "A lot of guys make a living on faceoffs." Which got me to thinking-- how much do they really matter?
Last season, the correlation of faceoff percentage and total standings points was 0.51; when compared to other statistics such as goal differential (0.95) and shot differential (0.63), it ends up low on the totem pole of things that correlate with teams winning hockey games. I came into this expecting as much-- the purpose of a hockey game is to score more goals than your opponent, and the more you do that, the more you are going to win. Same goes for shots on net-- the more opportunities you have to score goals, the greater likelihood it is that you will do so.
If this sounds like a complete fluff piece, don't jump off the train just yet. I don't really care if you do, but just don't.
Back to the original idea for this exercise-- the article on sjsharks.com. If you've read through it already, you'll remember that a fair amount of emphasis was placed on winning draws during the penalty kill. In 2008-2009, the NHL adopted a new rule which required the initial faceoff of a powerplay to take place in the offensive zone. Therefore, winning draws while shorthanded should mean that your penalty kill will have greater success. Right?
Surprisingly, that's wrong. The correlation of shorthanded faceoff percentage and penalty kill percentage is actually in the negative at -.17. Now these numbers don't confirm that the lower your faceoff percentage is the higher your PK percentage will be-- after all, correlation does not imply causation, and saying that you would be better off losing all your draws doesn't make sense at all. However, this is suggesting that, amongst the league as a whole, a good faceoff percentage does not equal a good kill over the course of a season.
To illustrate this, here's a pretty little chart to swoon your eyes at. The top seven teams in each PK category are highlighted in red, while the bottom seven are highlighted in blue.
Now there's many reasons why this is the case-- winning a PK faceoff doesn't necessarily mean your team clears the puck directly afterwards, nor does it mean that you're a world beater when it comes to getting your stick in passing lanes. Blocking shots have nothing to do with faceoffs, along with the performance of your goaltender. The list goes on and on. The biggest factor though may be that faceoff percentages don't have all that big of a range. The average success rate last season was around 45.7%. Over the course of 100 trips to the dot, that comes out to roughly 8 extra faceoffs lost, or in other words, two in 25 extra faceoffs. Not exactly a damning setback at the end of the day.
The funny thing about it is, a small sample can really skew things to shit, and that should be considered as we make our way towards the thing that happens in mid-April (not saying that word just yet). Over the course of the season goals and faceoff wins tend to balance out, but in a compressed set of highly intensified games (really trying not to say that word just yet) winning faceoffs can make an impact. And a rather big one at that.
Just don't give all the credit for San Jose's fourth ranked penalty kill to the guys in the dot this season. Even if they're making their living off it.