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What The Face-Off: A League Wide Look

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The Anaheim Ducks have succeeded in recent seasons despite poor team performance in the face-off circle, but just how has success on the dot correlated with playoff berths and titles?

The Ducks have been trying to do something in recent years only the Penguins have managed.
The Ducks have been trying to do something in recent years only the Penguins have managed.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

When the Anaheim Ducks acquired Ryan Kesler this offseason from the Vancouver Canucks, fans and pundits alike were quick to point out the major production boost he will likely bring to the second line. After twice putting up 70-plus point seasons and representing the United States at the Olympics, expectations are high that with two years remaining on his contract he can rekindle similar form. Another area of import to consider Kesler's impact is in the face-off circle, where he finished 14th in the league last season having won 740 drops of the 1406 he contested (52.6%).

Face-offs have been an interesting topic in the blogosphere, with posts looking at impact of winning offensive zone draws based on manpowerdegree to which struggles from the spot can impact final results, and how wins affect possession metrics, amongst others. This sort of nuts and bolts analysis is good to figure the immediate impact within a game that a win or loss on a draw can have, but also paints a fairly narrow picture. In this first of a two post series, we'll examine whether general trends can be gleaned from looking at the regular season face-off winning percentage of teams and with that in mind how those teams ultimately performed in the postseason. Of course correlation is not causation, particularly when trying to isolate a specific stat other than "goals for or against" in determining importance to winning games.  However if people want to look at success in comparison to shot-based metrics, the same examination should be considered for other stats.

The most immediate sample we can look at when looking to see if there's a trend between face-off success and playoff success is by looking at the ultimate achievers, the Stanley Cup champions. In interest of keeping variables such as major rule changes controlled, the sample covers since the lockout lost 2004-'05 season:

Year/Team Reg. Sea. FO% Conf. Rank NHL Rank PO FO% PO Rank
'14 Kings 52.8% 2 2 52.9% 2
'13 Blackhawks 50.8% 8 10 46.8% 14
'12 Kings 51.5% 5 7 49.7% 10
'11 Bruins 51.9% 1 3 52.0% 3
'10 Blackhawks 52.4% 2 3 50.8% 6
'09 Penguins 49.1% 11 19 48.4% 11
'08 Red Wings 53.3% 1 1 54.6% 1
'07 Ducks 51.8% 3 6 50.6% 6
'06 Hurricanes 51.7% 2 5 51.2% 7

The first thing that should immediately jump out is that the '08-'09 Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team in the post-lockout era to win the Stanley Cup while having on average lost the majority of face-offs in the regular season of their title-winning year. Also of note is the point that seven of the nine Stanley Cup winners finished as one of the five best face-off teams in their conference, with five of the nine finishing in the top five in the league as a whole. When looking at the playoff  face-off percentage numbers, six of the nine teams finished their playoff run with a better than even performance in the circle. Ranks within the playoffs have been included as well for completeness, but considering teams end up playing differing amount of games based on results of series the numbers are more skewed.

For sake of argument, lets take a look at the same numbers for the teams that won their Conference, but didn't win the Stanley Cup over the same span:

Year/Team Reg. Sea. FO% Conf. Rank NHL Rank PO FO% PO Rank
'14 Rangers 48.8% 10 22 47.4% 12
'13 Bruins 56.4% 1 1 55.3% 2
'12 Devils 47.1% 15 29 47.2% 16
'11 Canucks 54.9% 1 1 49.9% 6
'10 Flyers 50.1% 6 13 47.9% 11
'09 Red Wings 55.1% 1 1 53.7% 2
'08 Penguins 46.1% 12 30 47.2% 14
'07 Senators 50.3% 6 12 51.2% 5
'06 Oilers 53.4% 2 5 52.1% 6

There's a bit more leeway amongst Conference champions, as three times teams with a sub-50 regular season face-off percentage have reached the Stanley Cup Final, two of which were at the very bottom of the league standings in the stat. It also illustrates that teams are unlikely to change their stripes come playoff time, as only one team was able to improve their performance more than one percentage point. The intrigue comes in matching up the results of the Final to the regular season face-off percentage; only five of the nine times did the team that performed better in the circle during the 82 end up winning the Cup. Additionally when you stretch that out to also include the results of the conference finals, 15 of the 27 series  went in favor of the better face-off side. In both cases the results have been slightly better than a 50-50 proposition in favor of the better face-off percentage.

So while we've seen that all but one of the Stanley Cup champions have done better than 50% in the circle during the regular season as a team, and 14 of the 18 Stanley Cup Finalists can boast similar success, lets take a look how teams crossing that 50% threshold have done as far as making it to the playoffs:

Year PO Quals 50+ RS FO% Conf. Rank 10+ NHL Rank 20+
2014 12/16 16/16 15/16
2013 11/16 13/16 13/16
2012 13/16 13/16 13/16
2011 11/16 12/16 11/16
2010 9/16 14/16 14/16
2009 11/16 13/16 14/16
2008 9/16 11/16 11/16
2007 9/16 12/16 12/16
2006 9/16 12/16 12/16

To figure the percentages for each since 2006, 65.3% of playoff qualifiers (94/144) have had a better than 50% regular season face-off success rate, with 80.6% (116/144) finishing ranked in the top 10 for their conference and 79.9% (115/144) finishing in the top 20 for the league as a whole. When zooming the sample size into the last five years, 70% (56/80) of qualifiers have finished above 50% at face-offs, while 85% (68/80) of conference top ten and 82.5% (66/80) of NHL top 20 finishers in the rankings made up the post season pool. One can generally glean on a look that it's fair to say teams with a better than 50% success rate at the dot have a significantly better chance of making the playoffs than teams that don't.

Perhaps appropriately enough, of the 24 bids earned by teams with sub-50% face-off numbers over the past six seasons the Ducks have accounted for four of them. That's tied with Montreal for most appearances despite that handicap over the same span. Going deeper, 11 of the 24 berths went to Western Conference teams with Colorado and Nashville as the only other teams to accomplish the feat more than once, both doing so twice. It's worth noting that the Ducks were a better than 50% face-off team for all three of their playoff trips from 2006-2008 as well.

In trying to draw some conclusions, it's abundantly clear that as time has gone on since the wipeout lockout teams that fair better than 50% in the face-off circle have increasingly made the playoffs more than teams that don't. It also speaks volumes that every Stanley Cup Final has featured at least one team who finished in the top 10 in the league in face-off percentage, with nine of the 18 total Final participants since '06 finishing in the top 5 over all. While this doesn't describe the roles that face-off success plays in making these teams great, it does show that the stat has merit in terms of predicting whether or not a team will make the playoffs and if they can go deep.

Considering the Ducks role as once again being an outlier of sorts when looking at the numbers, the second part of this series will break down on a game-by-game basis whether there has been correlation between Anaheim winning the face-off battle and winning games since 2006. While the team has had success in reaching the playoffs in recent years, they've done so despite sub-50% performances at the dot. Ryan Kesler has the potential to be a major player for the Ducks this season, and one of the places it may most be felt is in the face-off circle.