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Better Know: The Minnesota Wild's Faceoff Struggles

The Minnesota Wild enter the playoffs with a 49.9% win percentage in the faceoff circle. Unfortunately, the deeper you dig into it, the uglier this stat gets. Can they have any success against the Blues' second ranked centers, who draw at a 53.4% win rate?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It's not a secret that the Wild have been poor in the face-off circle this season. At 49.9% on the year, they rank 15th overall in the league, which may be masking how problematic the face-off dot has been for the team. Mikko Koivu's 55.2% success rate, coupled with him taking the lion's share of face-offs is floating what is otherwise a canoe crewed by termites.

Before we dig in too much, it's worth noting that this analysis should be kept in perspective. Faceoffs are important, they give a team an edge, but they don't single-handedly win games, no matter what the NHL / SAP advanced stats videos seem to indicate. To give a sense of the scale, War on Ice's research while working toward their Wins Above Replacement stat calculates that a team gains one goal per 76.5 faceoffs won.

Below, we'll dig into the Wild's faceoff numbers, where their weaknesses really are, and if there's any way they can get an edge on the Blues in the first round of the playoffs with regards to faceoffs.

The Blues are this season's second best team in faceoffs, with a 53.4% success rate. They were good all year, but got a nice boost in January when the team made a trade to acquire Marcel Goc, who gives the team four lines of centers drawing over 50%, three of which are over 54%. The Wild only have one center over 50%.

The Mikko Problem

Before we start digging into handedness, zone separations, shots after the draw, and home vs. away differences, it's worth noting that one of the team's biggest problems is that they rely too much on Koivu for face-offs. It's out of necessity more than anything, but any opponent knows exactly who is coming onto the ice for an important draw. Koivu took 35.9% of all of the team's faceoffs.

You might say, well, 25% seems normal since there are four lines and you probably have four or five guys taking the majority of faceoffs. But don't forget how often he gets thrown out of the circle, that the team has had four centers take over 500 draws, and that 17 players have taken at least one faceoff this year. The next in line behind Koivu is Mikael Granlund who took 19.7% of the faceoffs. Then it's Charlie Coyle with 14.4% and Kyle Brodziak with 13.8%.

By comparison the Blues' leader was Paul Stastny, who took 22.6% of faceoffs, followed by David Backes at 22.1%, and Jori Lehtera at 20.7%. (Alexander Steen is next, but he tapered off following the acquisition of Marcel Goc, so there are other variables involved after Lehtera.)

The chart below shows each of the team's top five faceoff takers this season with winning percentage, quality of competition, and the number of faceoffs they average per game.

Hand FO% QoC% FO/Game
Mikko Koivu Left 55.2% 51.1% 22.4
Mikael Granlund Left 48.4% 50.5% 14.5
Charlie Coyle Right 46.5% 49.8% 8.8
Kyle Brodziak Right 49.2% 49.8% 9.4
Erik Haula Left 45.4% 50.1% 8
Paul Stastny Left 57.9% 49.9% 15.6
Jori Lehtera Left 51.2% 49.6% 14.1
David Backes Right 54.6% 50.2% 14.1
Marcel Goc Left 54.8% 50.7% 8
Alexander Steen Left 50.3% 50.2% 5.9

Net Shots Post Faceoff founder Craig Tabita outlined a new statistic in January that looks to quantify the effectiveness of faceoff wins. We've all seen a clean win to the point that results in a shot on net or even a goal and we've seen the scrum where it isn't entirely clear who really won the draw. Both of those count as a win for a center. It's a binary result. Win or lose. Tabita's Net Shots Post Faceoff (NSPF) attempts to quantify the amount of offense a center creates through their draws.

Tabita goes in-depth on the topic at Hockey Prospectus, but briefly, the result is that NSPF is "the balance of shots on goal and missed shots ('Fenwick' shots) in the 10 seconds following even-strength zone faceoffs, per even-strength zone faceoff."

We'll look into this year's data below, but it's worth noting that on January 31st, Tabita aggregated data from the 2009-10 season through January 29, 2015 on NGPF, which is net goals post faceoff, constructed on the same principle as NSPF but for goals. Since 2009-10, Koivu ranks eighth among NHL centermen who have taken at least 1,000 draws.

But it also gives an idea of how few goals actually result directly from a faceoff. Since 2009-10, Koivu's faceoff skill has directly resulted in 18 goals. It's an advantage, but it's a slight advantage.

Below you see offensive data for NSPF and NGPF for the Wild and Blues, with the first category being the total number of offensive zone, even strength faceoffs taken.

Total O-Zone ES FO ES O-Zone FO% NSPF NSPF Rank NGPF
Mikko Koivu 445 53.5% 0.164 42 0.002
Mikael Granlund 330 47.9% 0.148 69 0.018
Charlie Coyle 204 41.7% 0.132 92 0.005
Kyle Brodziak 144 56.3% 0.139 77 0
Erik Haula 131 55% 0.122 111 0.008
Paul Stastny 313 53.7% 0.147 70 0.013
Jori Lehtera 362 49.4% 0.108 120 0.008
David Backes 212 51.9% 0.203 11 0.014
Marcel Goc 136 61% 0.132 93 0
Alexander Steen 122 45.1% 0.123 110 0

Here's the inverse statistic, NSPF in the defensive zone.

Total D-Zone ES FO ES D-Zone FO% NSPF Rank NGPF
Mikko Koivu 369 54.2% -0.125 31 -0.003
Mikael Granlund 248 50.4% -0.161 92 0
Charlie Coyle 247 51% -0.126 32 -0.008
Kyle Brodziak 230 43.5% -0.148 69 -0.009
Erik Haula 171 44.4% -0.170 109 -.012
Paul Stastny 324 59.6% -0.142 53 0
Jori Lehtera 237 54% -0.110 12 -0.004
David Backes 310 54.8% -0.113 13 0
Marcel Goc 168 55.4% -0.137 45 -0.018
Alexander Steen 109 50.5% -0.174 114 +0.037

What's immediately clear is that outside of Koivu, the Wild don't match up in the faceoff circle. Koivu is great, but so is Backes and so is Stastny. Goc is also excellent and Lehtera is solid. None of these adjectives apply to Coyle, Granlund, Brodziak, or Haula, though Coyle is surprisingly strong in the defensive zone, but we'll circle back to that shortly.

Pressing Your Advantage

But, is there any way that the Wild can take advantage? Are there chinks in the Blues' armor?

There are a few ways to approach the problem, most of which require last change and the ability to choose the faceoff match-up, which only the home team gets. Here's a breakdown of the difference between home and away faceoffs for these 10 centers.

Home Away
Mikko Koivu 58.3% 52.1%
Mikael Granlund 52.5% 44.1%
Charlie Coyle 50.4% 42.5%
Kyle Brodziak 50% 48.5%
Erik Haula 50.7% 39.6%
Paul Stastny 55.9% 60%
Jori Lehtera 55.6% 46.5%
David Backes 55.3% 54%
Marcel Goc 57.2% 50.7%
Alexander Steen 47.2% 52.5%
The Wild's centers definitely benefit from last change at home. Each of the centers has more faceoff success at home than away. That shouldn't be much of a surprise, especially considering that it's not just the match-up that gives the home team the advantage but the ability to approach the circle last. With the team's struggles here, it makes sense that they see much more success when Mike Yeo can control the faceoff match-ups.

On the road, things get ugly. Outside of Koivu, only one center is above 45% and one is below 40%.

Here's the big problem with getting too excited about the bump received from last change: It's only useful in a vacuum. The Blues get a pretty incredible bump at home as well, but importantly, the dip in numbers you expect to see on the road is only slight for the Blues and their centers are largely better on the road than the Wild are at home. That's how wide the gap is.

Dividing the Zones

One of the troubles that lack of faith in the Wild's ability is that it can effect deployment. Below, take a look at how the 10 centers fare in each of the ice's three zones.

Offensive Zone FO% Neutral Zone FO% Defensive Zone FO%
Mikko Koivu 55.7% 56.4% 53.3%
Mikael Granlund 48.3% 45.7% 51.4%
Charlie Coyle 39.3% 47.3% 52.3%
Kyle Brodziak 54.4% 51.5% 45.4%
Erik Haula 52.5% 42.7% 43.5%
Paul Stastny 55% 59.4% 59.8%
Jori Lehtera 50.4% 48.8% 55.7%
David Backes 52.4% 57.1% 54.2%
Marcel Goc 61.3% 50.6% 53.7%
Alexander Steen 46.8% 47.2% 54.2%

You get some weird divides in Minnesota, though it's heartening to see that Granlund and Coyle are above 50% in the defensive zone where the faceoffs are most important.

However, Coyle is a great example of how this could effect deployment. He's able to see some success in the defensive zone, but his offensive zone draws are abysmal at 39.3%. Apprehension about him in the faceoff circle at large and particularly in the offensive zone can have Yeo leaning away from him for offensive zone draws (he has a -8.36% ZSO%Rel) meaning that you're putting him, along with Thomas Vanek (47.69% CF%), in the defensive zone to start and asking them to make the move into the offensive zone.

Pointing out Vanek's poor possession numbers is cherry picking a bit, considering that Justin Fontaine is on the other wing and is a possession king-maker (everyone but Vanek has improved CF% when playing with Fontaine compared to without).

Lefty vs. Righty

Another way we can breakdown faceoffs is how centers fare against left-handed opponents and right-handed opponents. It can make a difference for many players in how they set up and approach the draw.

Here's a look at how the 10 centers fare against lefties and righties.

FO% vs Lefties FO% vs Righties Difference
Mikko Koivu 55.2% 55.3% Right +.01%
Mikael Granlund 47.5% 49.7% Right +2.2%
Charlie Coyle 45.7% 48.4% Right +2.7%
Kyle Brodziak 48.8% 50.3% Right +1.5%
Paul Stastny 55.8% 62% Right +6.2%
Jori Lehtera 52% 49.7% Left +2.3%
David Backes 52.8% 56.7% Right +2.9%
Marcel Goc 52.9% 56.4% Right +3.5%

I'll exclude Koivu here because the difference for him is basically nothing and he's winning the majority of faceoffs against both left-handed and right-handed opponents. There are a few interesting things to see here on the Wild's end...

but I'm not going to talk about any of them because each of the Wild's centers fares better against right-handed centers than left-handed centers. Four of the Blues' five centers are left-handed. The lone right-hander that could maybe become a target for Yeo at home in order to cast some balance (should the rest of the match-up align to the team's liking) is David Backes. Every metric says that Coyle, Granlund, Brodziak, and Haula are going to have a tough time grabbing a winning percentage against Backes no matter what the situation is.

And the Good News Is

The good news is that faceoffs are just faceoffs, because the Wild have just a single weapon in faceoffs and are completely out-matched everywhere else.

There's also this piece by Garret Hohl where he finds that the self-correlation from regular season faceoff success to post-season faceoff success isn't particularly high and that it's not a very good indicator of a team's goal% in the postseason.