How important are faceoffs to possession in women’s hockey?

This was co-written by Mike Murphy, Alyssa Longmuir, and Shayna Goldman based on work for the Big Data Cup and Ottawa Hockey Analytics Conference

As a result of women’s hockey analytics needing to play “catch up,” it’s not unusual to see analysts relying on stats that have already been proven to be less insightful in the men’s game. One such area of the game that is frequently highlighted at the collegiate, professional, and international levels of the women’s game are faceoffs. 

Faceoffs have been covered extensively in men’s hockey, and much of that work points to the fact that faceoffs wins aren’t all that they’re chalked up to be. Back in 2015, Arik Parnass, now of the Colorado Avalanche, found, “This … aligns with what hockey analysis has found over the years when it comes to faceoffs. Overall, winning them just isn’t as important as it’s made out to be.” 

While a great deal of work has been done on the importance (or lack thereof) of faceoffs in the men’s game the same cannot be said of women’s hockey. But why would it be any different? 

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Has the NHL’s new faceoff rule increased goal scoring?

Mise au jeu BOS @ MTL Faceoff” by Fleurdelisé. Licensed under Creative Commons via Commons.

Over the summer, the NHL made a number of significant rule changes to make the game more entertaining to fans and more fair for teams, with 3-on-3 overtime being the most revolutionary and thus far the most applauded.

Buried down at the bottom of the list of rule changes, however, was a much less significant note. It involved faceoffs – you know, that thing data analysts get peeved at commentators for overemphasizing. For years, the standard procedure has been that the visiting team’s player is required to put his blade on the ice prior to his opponent. This is an advantage for the home player, as he can attempt to secure the puck back to his side with one consistent motion rather than having to move his stick forward and then backward.

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A New Way To Measure Deployment – Expected Faceoff Goal Differential

Zone starts are not that great of a metric. Although certain players do tend to be put out almost exclusively for offensive or defensive purposes, the reality is that for most players’ zone starts have a relatively small effect on a player’s performance. And yet, many hockey writers still frequently qualify a player’s performance based on observations like “they played sheltered minutes” or “they take the tough draws in the defensive zone”. Part of the problem is that we’ve never really developed a good way of quantifying a player’s deployment. With many current metrics, such as both traditional and true zone starts, it’s difficult to express their effect except in a relative sense (i.e. by comparing zone starts between players). So when a pundit says that a player had 48% of his on-ice faceoffs in the offensive zone, it’s difficult to communicate to most people what that really means.

Going beyond that, even if we know that 48% would make a player one of the most sheltered skaters in the league, the question that we should ask is so what? Simply knowing that a player played tough minutes doesn’t give us any information that’s useful to adjust a player’s observed results, which is really the reason that we care about zone starts. We know that if you start your shifts predominantly in the defensive zone, you’ll likely see worse results, but zone start percentages don’t tell us how much worse they should be. Traditional deployment metrics are too blunt of a tool – they provide a measurement, but not one that gives any context to the performance numbers that we really care about.

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The Goal Impact of Even Strength Faceoffs for NHL’s top 100 Faceoff Centres

Jackets-Canucks Face-off.JPG
Jackets-Canucks Face-off” by Leech44Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A debate was ongoing on twitter over faceoffs and their value. The debate lead to most of this data being scraped anyways, so I thought I would display everything for your viewing pleasure.

The truth is, faceoffs tend to be highly overrated. They matter, but they do not matter on average much more than any other of the many puck battles that occur throughout the game. When you really break it down, faceoffs are really just a set play puck battle after all. However, some have more values than others.

Let’s take a look.

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The relationship between Corsi% and winning faceoffs.

Faceoffs have always been an interesting area of research. There have always been individuals in the media and public who extol faceoffs importance; I have even heard quotes like: puck possession is so important and you cannot win the puck possession battle if you are starting without the puck.

Not too long ago Gabriel Desjardins showed that the impact of a faceoff is real (as one would expect) but likely over glorified by some. One example from his study showed shot rates after an offensive zone faceoff:

From these numbers Desjardin estimated an impact of +2.45 goals for every 100 non-neutral zone faceoff wins over 50%, and +3.66 for every 100 for special teams. A real impact, but not overly huge impact. Neutral zone faceoffs carried even less of an impact with +0.90 goals for every 100 faceoffs over 50%.

But what about faceoffs overall relationship with possession? Continue reading