Let’s Talk About Centers

After 47 games, the Calgary Flames are in both an unfamiliar spot and a familiar one. They reached the All-Star Break in a playoff spot, somewhere they haven’t ended a season in the last five years.

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The other place they’re in is near the bottom of the NHL’s face-off rankings, where they’ve been for the last few seasons. And given the importance of winning key draws plays in winning key games – and making the playoffs – let’s have a chat about face-offs. While the Flames aren’t all that good, I think it’s one area where coaching has actually done the most with what they’ve been given.

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First off, the Flames have had a rough go of it centers-wise this season. Sean Monahan is the only pivot that hasn’t missed time, and he’s taken more than double the next most-frequent face-off taker.

At even-strength, the break-down is thus:

  • Sean Monahan: 1,044
  • Markus Granlund: 413
  • Josh Jooris: 387
  • Mikael Backlund: 338
  • Matt Stajan: 305
  • Joe Colborne: 216

For the remainder of this discussion, we’ll focus on just these six guys, because they’re the teams primary centers and the ones deployed with any degree of strategy.

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First off, let’s look at the same list in the same order, and slot in their winning percentages instead:

  • Sean Monahan: 49.7%
  • Markus Granlund: 35.2%
  • Josh Jooris: 47.5%
  • Mikael Backlund: 47.2%
  • Matt Stajan: 53.6%
  • Joe Colborne: 51.4%

Wow, Markus Granlund has horrendous numbers, doubly so given that he’s the team’s second-most frequent draw-taker. Just that sentence seems stupid to me – he’s not great at face-offs, so the solution is to take many of them?

Here’s a table that may explain some stuff…

(Relative % compares the players numbers to the team’s average percentage of offensive zone starts. Calgary spends a lot of time in the defensive zone, so this may be a better comparator.)

Start %
Markus Granlund 52.0% +8.3% 35.2%
Josh Jooris 49.0% +2.3% 47.5%
Mikael Backlund 44.4% +2.9% 47.2%
Joe Colborne 42.9% -0.2% 51.4%
Sean Monahan 42.1% -4.6% 49.7%
Matt Stajan 34.1% -13.9% 53.6%

Matt Stajan’s the best face-off man, and the most experienced overall, so he naturally gets the worst assignments – a lot of defensive zone starts, primarily playing with Lance Bouma and Brandon Bollig. Granlund, the team’s worst face-off man (and their least experienced at the NHL level), gets as much high ground as Hartley can possibly give him. (Granlund’s especially sheltered on the road, where he has a +10.9% relative start compared to the team average, whereas the rest of the team’s centers barely have their utilization changed from home to away.)

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And you can almost perfectly chart the utilization of the team’s centers as a trade-off between their experience (and prowess) and how much shelter they get. This says a lot about how Monahan’s valued internally, specifically given that he survived being thrown to the wolves and thus Hartley has been able to protect the team’s other centers instead (and use Jooris in key late-game situations as the team’s only right-handed center.)

And Mikael Backlund’s back and Markus Granlund got returned to the AHL to work on his game a bit – mostly his face-offs. This probably makes life easier heading to the back half of the schedule.

If we presume that the Flames four centers down the stretch are going to be Jooris, Backlund, Monahan and Stajan, it seems like Hartley has some pretty obvious options. Stajan probably remains as a fourth line and defensive-zone start fixture. No Granlund to shield probably means more strategic offensive-zone starts for Backlund and Monahan, and Jooris can be slotted in more or less where he has been.

Finally, it may be significant given Calgary’s face-off situations and the ability to control match-ups at home that the team has 19 of their final 35 games at the Saddledome. The Flames win 50.7% of their even-strength faceoffs at home and just 43.7% on the road – likely due to match-ups. Having a few more home games down the stretch and squeezing out a couple more wins off key draws at key moments could be the difference between the playoffs and the golf course.

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  • Shooter 5567

    I take away two things from this.
    1. We are only slightly behind Nashville, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh – so I am wondering if too much weight is given to that stat? Obviously Granlund drags that down.
    2. Monahan at just under 50% has won more face offs than the other centers have taken. Or, he has also lost more face offs than the others have taken if your a glass-half-empty kinda guy.

    • McRib

      I think faceoffs are the most overrated NHL Stat Outside of +/-. There was an article by an Advanced Stat guy last year (Dellow?) where they highlighted that the Tampa Bay Lightning were actually loosing draws on purpose and benefiting from it.

      • Bean-counting cowboy

        I think they are over-rated a bit too, but if Sean Monahan doesn’t win that draw against San Jose… does he still score at that point? Maybe… but his chances are higher after winning the draw.

        They become more important in my opinion late in games and OT.

  • Shooter 5567

    Do they track a stat of how many face offs lead to goals within the first 15-20 seconds of the face off?

    If you had that for both the “O” and “D” zones you would have something to sink your teeth into.

  • Shooter 5567

    RE: Mike Richards

    After listening to the FAN960 this afternoon, Mike Richards would be a perfect fit for Edmonton.

    A lack of commitment to fitness and a casual attitude. Exactly the kind of leadership Edmonton is looking for.

  • The Last Big Bear

    Yeah, I think faceoffs are actually not particularly important at all, except in fringe circumstances, like 5-on-3, or when a 4th line gets caught in an icing.

    In generally, I’d say faceoffs have a measurable but marginal impact on winning. It’s something you try to optimize; but not something you make major line-up decisions based on.