Some who follow hockey closely are of the opinion a team’s faceoff winning percentage is not such an important stat, at least in the grand scheme of things. Others feel it is a key point that helps explain scoring for and against a club. For the Chicago Blackhawks, we may have to start leaning toward the latter camp.
Minus captain Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks have been miserable at the dot this season. Among NHL’ers who have taken 50 or more faceoffs so far this season, Toews ranks second in the league in winning percentage at a crazy 60.4 percent success rate. He trails only Arizona’s Dustin Jeffrey with those restrictions put on the stats, but Jeffrey has taken just 56 draws to go toward his 60.7 percent success rate, while Toews has taken 546 draws for his 60.4 percent mark. Among those in the league with a triple-digit faceoff total, Toews leads the pack.
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From there, however, things fall off a pretty noticeable cliff. Marcus Kruger is winning draws at a 48.7 percent clip through 312 faceoffs, down from 53.3 percent in the 2014-15 regular season over 670 draws taken. Andrew Shaw, who thankfully hasn’t been utilized too often this season as a center, has won 46.2 percent of his 119 draws taken. Where it gets really ugly, however, it with Tanner Kero and Artem Anisimov, with the former at 44.6 percent over 121 draws and the latter at 44.0 percent over 377 faceoffs.
Those stats probably aren’t big news to anyone who has been watching a majority of the Blackhawks’ games this season. The Blackhawks have managed to have a decent amount of success so far this season in spite of these struggles at the dot, but there is ample evidence to suggest the Blackhawks’ faceoff woes are part of the reason they haven’t been able to break out yet this season.
Let’s look at this graphic, first, courtesy war-on-ice.com.
A quick explanation of what we’re looking at: This chart is looking at each NHL team’s collective faceoff winning percentage (X axis), versus its on-ice goal differential (Y axis) versus team Corsi-for (color of the circles). In a perfect world, your team would be at the top right corner of this chart. This chart is only covering 5-on-5, even-strength action.
As you can see, the Blackhawks are around the 50-percent mark as a team for faceoffs won — though, as we’ve already talked about, this is due in large part to Toews’ success. They also have a healthy shade of blue in their circle, suggesting they carry play more often than their opponents. However, the team is near minus-10 in on-ice goal differential, hanging out with teams like Buffalo, Columbus, Edmonton, Calgary and Carolina.
Why might this be? One issue we can point to is the lack of faceoff wins for the Blackhawks outside of Toews. This isn’t just considering set plays off won faceoffs on which opponents score faster than you can blink. It’s also considering an opponent winning a draw against the Blackhawks, cycling the puck around the zone and eventually cashing in with a goal. It also considers draws lost in the offensive and neutral zones that the opposition turns the other way for an eventual goal. Despite the above-water Corsi figure for the Blackhawks, just one short opponent possession off a lost faceoff can create a goal that puts the Blackhawks in a hole.
Let’s go to another graph.
This chart looks at total faceoffs lost by each team (X axis) and compares it to high-danger scoring chances against (Y axis) while also considering Corsi-for (color of circle). Unlike the previous graph, you’d like to be at the bottom left corner of this chart. Again, this is only for 5-on-5 action.
The Blackhawks are above average in team faceoffs lost and at-to-above average in high-danger scoring chances against. It’s not surprising these two factors have some correlation, as lost faceoffs in the defensive and neutral zones can lead to quick — and dangerous — scoring chances for the opposition. This also shows that, while a team can be really good possession-wise, lost faceoffs can doom it to giving up a lot of good chances on defense. This can be seen in the blue circles on the upper-right side of the graph.
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But there is something interesting about that. You can see currently bad teams like Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Philadelphia and Anaheim residing higher up the Y axis and further right on the X axis than Chicago. But (literally) rising above them all? The Dallas Stars, the same team that currently leads the league in points. How can they be so successful while losing so many faceoffs and permitting so many high-risk scoring chances? They score in bundles themselves. You can point to slightly better defense and goaltending for Dallas this season, but the Stars have 93 goals in 27 games, and that overshadows pretty much everything.
When comparing them to the Blackhawks, the Stars have allowed two more goals than the Blackhawks in one more game, but have also scored 22 more times. This is a key reason faceoff struggles are an issue right now for the Blackhawks. They’re currently operating with one successful scoring line – as evidenced by Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Anisimov accounting for all three goals Thursday at Ottawa. The Stars can overcome their faceoff woes on the back of a potent offense. The Blackhawks are seeing their faceoff troubles lead to one- or two-goal losses, something they can’t afford in an ultra-competitive Central Division.
So what’s the answer to all of this? That’s not as easy for me to pinpoint. Unlike with other aspects of hockey, you can’t look at faceoffs and suggest changes for Joel Quenneville to enforce, like with line combinations or offensive strategies. Simply put, everyone who isn’t Toews needs to try something other than what they’re currently doing at the dot. Maybe they’re not being aggressive enough, or maybe they’re being overly aggressive but jumping in too early. Again, it’s hard to say.
One thing that could be suggested is more support from the wings when guys like Anisimov, Kruger and Kero are taking draws. Guys jumping in to collect the puck on tight draws would be beneficial, as not all faceoffs are as simple as one guy winning clean and throwing it back to the defensemen. Guys like Kane, Panarin, Shaw, Andrew Desjardins, Brandon Mashinter (as long as he’s around) and Marian Hossa should get involved in faceoff scrums whenever possible and try to bring the puck to their side.
Success at the dot isn’t something that has always come easily to the Blackhawks as a unit in the Quenneville/Toews/Kane era, but with the offense struggling the way it is, now would be a great time to see some faceoff prowess on display in Chicago.