The Stars Were Better At Faceoffs Last Year Than You Think

For a few years now the Stars have been criticized for their faceoff ability. In the 2010-2011 season the Stars center triumverate of Steve Ott, Brad Richards, and Mike Ribeiro won 56.6, 50.6, and 46.6 percent of their faceoffs respectively. As a team the Stars won exactly 50% of their faceoffs in 2011 which was good for 20th in the NHL so the perception has been that the Stars were a mediocre faceoff team.

It's difficult to argue with the idea that the Stars were poor on the draw when they won 50% of their faceoffs last year. That concept is fairly black and white. However, like any other stat, what happens when we take context into account (there's that word again....)? Faceoff's aren't a one on one play inside a vacuum. They're influenced by numerous factors that aren't considered in the official stats.

Fortunately, very smart people are considering these issues. Follow the jump to see just how "bad" the Stars were on the dot last season, and what the future holds for 2012...

 

Depending on who you ask you will either hear that faceoffs are crucially important to winning in the NHL, or that faceoff wins don't correlate very well with winning percentage. I tend to go with intuition in this case. It simply makes sense to me that winning faceoffs will lead to more goals, and thus more wins. Remember the Vic Ferrari quote I used for the Scoring Chance Project Introduction?

Corsi begets scoring chances, scoring chances beget goals - Vic Ferrari

Let's do a little thought experiment with that quote. If we know that Corsi (possession) leads to scoring chances and scoring chances lead to goals, what can we say about faceoffs? Winning a faceoff is one way to take possession of the puck, and possession is what you are ultimately looking for as the first building block to success.  So, winning faceoffs is a valuable skill, but the way we measure it is imprecise.

In Hockey Prospectus 2011-12 Timo Seppa looks at faceoffs in a new light. He attempts to isolate the pure faceoff skill of NHL centermen from last season by taking the recorded stats into context. He calls this stat UFO%. I'll let Timo explain:

UFO% limits the data to road faceoffs only, to eliminate home team advantages and rink bias. Additionally, it takes even strength and non-empty net situations only to eliminate the difficulty of estimating the effects of special teams situations And it adjusts for strength of competition in the faceoff circle. It doesn't adjust for the other players on the ice, but that's expected to be a much less significant factor. To recap, UFO% is calculated from: Even strength, non-empty net situation, road faceoffs. Then, it's adjusted for strength of competition.

How much of the overall faceoff sample did we pare down? Typically, about 35% of faceoffs were used to
calculate UFO%. But you really have to look at it as a necessary evil; conventional faceoff percentage remains too murky otherwise, from numerous confounding factors.

The idea is to isolate exactly how valuable of a faceoff-taker the individual centerman is on a given line. It's by no means perfect, but it sheds some light on the proper way to view the Stars 50% faceoff percentage from last season. Without further adieu, the Stars top three centers from 2011:

2011 Stars top 3 centers
Rank Name FO% UFO% Change
7 Steve Ott 56.6% 57% +0.4%
23 Brad Richards 50.6% 54.4% +3.8%
46 Mike Ribeiro 46.6% 50.4% +3.8%
Just for fun
14 Vern Fiddler 53.9% 55.7% +1.8%

 

Out of the entire NHL last year Steve Ott ranked 7th in UFO%, Brad Richards 23rd, and Mike Ribeiro 46th. That isn't really bad at all. Last season 5 teams had two centers in the top 25 of UFO%: New Jersey, Vancouver, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. Vancouver, Phoenix, and New Jersey were all top 10 in faceoffs. The Penguins dealt with numerous injuries, or they would've been higher than 21 also. 

Maybe they weren't as bad on the draw as we thought. How will things change for the upcoming season though?

Well, Brad Richards is gone, but at the end of the list I included newest Stars center Vern Fiddler. He has a reputation as a good guy on the draw, and these numbers back that up. (As a quick aside, Fiddler also took 48% of ALL Coyotes short handed faceoffs last year). Outside of the duo of Malhotra and Kesler the Stars have the highest rated faceoff duo in the league based on last seasons UFO%.

The name of the game is to get possession. The trio of Ott, Ribeiro, and Fiddler should generate as much possession as any group in the league. The fact that these guys, when all outside factors are equal, can gain possession makes you wonder why the team as a whole struggles to gain control of faceoffs. Glen Gulutzan is preaching details though. Faceoff assignments and the issues at gaining possession are but one of the many details the Stars will need to focus on, and if these numbers are any indication the Stars should be able to improve their faceoff numbers with some small tweaks.

*UFO% numbers and stat explanation taken from Hockey Prospectus 2011-12. I can't recommend the second annual edition enough. If you're interested in this type of analysis I would encourage you to go here and purchase the PDF or print version. The PDF is only 9 bucks.

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