The Hurricanes and faceoffs

Something that was discussed a lot over the course of the season was how hard the Hurricanes centers worked over the off-season to improve their overall performance at the faceoff dot. This was something that needed to be done because the team was just awful at faceoffs during the 2010-11 season (44.6% success rate) and it was one of the reasons why they struggled so much on special teams then. With face-off master Rod Brind’Amour now serving as an assistant coach, the Hurricanes made a considerable effort to improve their ability to win draws this year and it paid off. The Hurricanes went from being the second worst face-off team in the NHL to the 10th best. Just about every player who takes faceoff regularly saw an improvement, as evidenced by the table below.

Player 2010 2011
Staal 48 52.5
Sutter 44.3 50.5
Ruutu 41.2 35.5
Jokinen 52.8 55.1
Dwyer 33.6 51.7
Skinner 36.9 42.1
Matsumoto 36.1
Brent 48.7

Staal has struggled with face-offs his whole career but he made a huge leap forward this season and won well over half of his draws. Brandon Sutter also improved significantly after being brutal at the faceoff dot last season and Jussi Jokinen got even better. The only player who didn’t improve at faceoffs was Tuomo Ruutu, who went from bad to worse. Perhaps the strangest thing here is that Tim Brent won less than 50% of his draws even though his ability to win faceoffs was one of the reasons that teh Canes signed him in the first place.

There is one big problem with all of this information, which is that faceoff percentage, in general, is misleading and somewhat overrated. No one is denying the importance of winning a faceoff but there is a lot of grey area that can cloud up the accuracy of a player’s faceoff percentage. If you were to watch every single faceoff that happens in a game, you will probably notice that not all of them are won cleanly. There are many cases where the wingers have to battle in the trenches to come out with the puck. Sometimes the two centers will battle for the puck for a good couple of seconds and neither come away with posession. Then there are other instances where one team wins the faceoff but fails to come away with possession because the players covering the points can’t keep it in or the opposing team forces a turnover.

This shows that, while important, winning faceoffs can be overrated, misleading and not the best way to judge a player’s ability. If a team can win a faceoff but not control possession, then winning the draw becomes essentially meaningless. Which is why a player needs to be able to do more than just win faceoffs to have a considerable amount of value. However, wining faceoffs plays a huge role in the success of two main areas; the powerplay and penalty kill.

A faceoff win on the powerplay likely means more zone time and a greater chance at being able to strike with the man advantage, while a faceoff win on the PK usually kills off at least 10-20 seconds of the powerplay, so winning the draw can go a long way on special teams. With that in mind, let’s see if the Hurricanes have improved their faceoff numbers in all three areas and who has improved the most compared to last season.

Whether or not you agree that faceoffs are overrated, it was clear that the Hurricanes needed to improve their skills in this area because their faceoff numbers in 2010-11 were brutal at even strength, special teams and the PK. At even strength, there was a big improvement.

Player 2010 2011
Staal 47.4% 52.6%
Sutter 45.1% 51.4%
Ruutu 41.4% 36%
Jokinen 53.5% 55%
Skinner 36.5% 41.6%
Brent 48.8%

Much like the team’s overall numbers, everyone with the exception of Ruutu improved their faceoffs at even strength. That is definitely a step in the right direction but do the team’s numbers at special teams tell the same story? The powerplay does to an extent.

Player 2010 2011
Staal 50.0% 54.9%
Sutter 41.0% 39.4%
Jokinen 55.0% 54.4%
Skinner 37.0% 41.6%
Brent 48.1%

One thing that may have gotten overlooked last season was that Staal was not terrible at taking draws on the powerplay. He got even better in that area this season. Jokinen was also great at taking draws on the powerplay and has really stepped up his game there. His ability to win draws and his play-making skills made the move back to center almost a no-brainer this season, especially with Skinner and Ruutu struggling in that area. Skinner is still very poor at taking draws but he’s slowly getting better. 

While the Canes powerplay has improved from their extra work on faceoffs, the penalty kill hasn’t as much.

Player 2010 2011
Staal 48.9% 45.7%
Sutter 41.4% 49.0%
Jokinen 45.2% 47.1%
Brent 47.7%

Sutter and Jokinen actually improved their faceoff percentage on the penalty kill compared to last season but their overall success rate was still pretty mediocre overall. Sutter usually has the most important draws on the PK since he spends a lot of time on there so it is a good thing that he is getting better. It’s easy to forget that he’s still in his early 20’s and younger players usually struggle with faceoffs, so that was likely the case with Sutter the last few years. Staal also plays regularly on the penalty kill and he actually got worse at takings draws there even though his overall faceoff percentage improved.

Winning faceoffs on the PK is tough in general because the team shorthanded is already at a disadvantage by having one less player on the ice to win the battle for the puck. All the center can do is try to push the puck back to one of the defensemen so they can clear the puck. Perhaps this is something for the coaching staff to work on this off-season. The Canes are a much better faceoff team than they were last season but there is still some work to do. Not just on shorthanded faceoffs, but with the events after the draw, as well.