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Winning the Draw

April 9, 2014
Caps Blues DL 040814

Our Arik Parnass takes a look at the numbers regarding faceoffs, specifically as it pertains to the Capitals. Have a look here, and thanks to Arik for his contributions to the blog all season. Lot of good stuff to chew on. 


On Adam Oates’ Faceoff Deployment

By: Arik Parnass


With 1:08 left in a crucial game for the Washington Capitals a couple of weeks ago, Head Coach Adam Oates looked down his bench. The Caps trailed the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 late but had an offensive zone faceoff and a chance to tie the game with the net empty. Gone was Nicklas Backstrom, who had suffered an injury on a questionable hit earlier that night. Absent was Mikhail Grabovski, who was out of the lineup as he healed his ankle. Even with centers Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson available, Oates tabbed right-winger Troy Brouwer to take the faceoff. Nobody on the team even blinked.


While every winger will take the odd faceoff when a linemate gets tossed, the deliberate use of one is something of a rarity in the NHL. Out of the 30 teams, only the Detroit Red Wings (as a result of injury) and the Buffalo Sabres (with a roster constantly in flux) have used non top-four centers more in the dot than the Caps. The reasoning behind their strategy is pretty simply. Righties have an easier time taking draws on their right side, and lefties on their left.


“It’s a lot easier to take a faceoff on your backhand,” Brouwer says. “You just have more strength on it, you can spin and get leverage on it.”


On your off-side, winning the draw on your backhand — especially in the defensive zone — brings the puck into the center of the ice, something that can be dangerous. So for the most part of the past two seasons, righties have taken faceoffs on the right, and lefties on the left. That means Brouwer (422), ex-cap Martin Erat (210), and Joel Ward (195), along with converted winger Eric Fehr (382) and the versatile Marcus Johansson (254) have all taken a career high number of faceoffs this season. 


“You’ll see us after practice; all the wingers are practicing their faceoffs,” Brouwer said.


The most noticeable difference has come on the power play. Since the NHL doesn’t release faceoff location data, I tracked five recent home games to examine Oates’ tendencies. Out of 23 power play draws on the right side of the ice, 22 were taken by righties.  On the left side, 14 of the 15 were taken by lefties. The overall success rate on those 36 faceoffs was 54%. It’s a small sample, but that’s considerably better than the team’s overall percentage. Except for the odd set play, that’s probably a trend we’ll see continue.


According to Brouwer, though, Oates also likes to go with the hot hand on draws. He doesn’t always stick to the long-term percentages.


 “A lot of the time it comes down to who’s going and who’s not, who’s got the timing and who’s feeling it. Sometimes you’ve got a matchup where you just don’t win draws against a certain guy, so we’ll try somebody else until something works.”


Beagle also notes that there have been games where he, a natural righty, has had more success on the left, and that Oates has noticed and made the adjustment.


For two years now, Oates has used a faceoff-by-committee approach, one that has yielded mixed results. The club finished tied for 10th in faceoff percentage last year at 50.8%, but are down to 23rd (48.7%) in 2013-14.


What has changed? Johansson, Fehr, Ward, and Laich are all well under 50% for the year, and while Grabovski has been an upgrade over the departed Mike Ribeiro, there have been slight regressions for Backstrom and Beagle as well.


League-wide, those statistics we do have available shed some doubt upon the strategy. The six teams with the highest proportion of faceoffs taken by their top-four centers — Carolina, Phoenix, Ottawa, Los Angeles, Phildelphia, and Boston — are all over 50% in the dot. There’s definitely a health aspect involved there, however, as none of those teams have suffered major injuries down the middle like Washington has.


The brightest light to come out of Oates’ deployment has been Brouwer, who struggled at 47.8% last year, but is up to 51.0% in 2013-14. He believes there was an adjustment period before he could thrive.


“Last year was kind of the first year that I consistently took draws and so it takes a little while to get used to it, and you pay attention to who’s good on draws and kinda look to see what they do. I don’t think I had taken [faceoffs] consistently for four or five years so when it’s part of your game and something you have to work on you pay attention to it more.”


If puck possession is the goal — and it should be — then the first step is winning the draws. Using Backstrom, Grabovski, Brouwer, and Beagle as much as possible the rest of the way — they’re a combined 51.6% this year — might give the team that extra boost to claw their way closer to a Wild Card spot.