In the modern NHL world of analytics, some of the most useful data originates in measuring puck possession. And where does puck possession start? At the first drop of the puck to begin play; in the faceoff circle. There’s plenty more that goes into success, obviously. Still, finding a way to win that first possession after each whistle certainly helps. The Seattle Kraken finished 31st out of 32 teams league-wide in faceoff success last season, with a 45.8% success rate. Surely, they want to improve that figure. However, determining just how important faceoffs are for the Kraken dictates how much they should really even worry about it.
Measuring the Significance of the Kraken’s Weakness in Faceoff Circle
So much of the game of hockey remains extremely difficult to predict. As a result, analytics departments haven’t been heralded as the “end-all, be-all” source of knowledge. They do offer plenty of valuable insight, though, and tons of data continues getting developed and shared with the general public. Tons of models exist now that project regular season success, playoff positioning, and much more. They all utilize historical data along with some combination of statistics the model considers “significant”.
Without going too deep or building a model here, whether or not faceoffs should be considered “significant” is a tough conversation. Again, the Kraken’s faceoff percentage ranked second-worst in the NHL in 2022-23. Despite that fact, the team earned a playoff berth, won their first-round matchup, and finished one win shy of the Conference Final.
Seattle may be more of the outlier than the norm, though. Of the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, ten ranked in the top half of the league in faceoff percentage. The five best faceoff squads all made the postseason, while the five worst all missed the postseason, except Seattle.
Faceoff Significance in Hockey
Ultimately, a faceoff is a brief moment that occurs dozens of times over the course of a hockey game. Many goals come well after the drop of the puck, and sometimes it’s the team that lost the draw scoring the goal later in the same shift. That said, plenty of examples exist too where the faceoff carried enormous weight. Fans remember Beniers’ overtime goal, winning the game for the Kraken right off the opening faceoff.
On a penalty kill, for example, winning the draw usually means clearing the zone and running at least 15-20 seconds off the clock. With an empty net and only a few seconds remaining, a faceoff represents the last moment of hope between a win and a loss. Plenty of coaches draw up plays specifically designed for faceoffs. There’s nothing like watching a team score a goal right off a faceoff too, in that brief moment before players can reach their defensive assignments.
Kraken Woes at the Puck Drop
On paper, the problem jumps out quickly. None of Seattle’s centres finished above the 50% success rate in the circle last year. In fact, only one Kraken faceoff-taking centre even topped the 50% clip the season before. Unfortunately, Morgan Geekie left the team this summer too.
That said, they signed Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who carried a a respectable 52.3% success rate last season. He finished above 50% in each of his last six NHL seasons as well, including a stellar-60.7% success rate back in 2020-21. He likely fills Geekie’s role as the team’s fourth line centre, so there’s a slight upgrade in the faceoff circle for the Kraken.
Beyond that move, they hope for improvement across their returning centremen. Alexander Wennberg, a middle-six centre, never broke the 50% plateau in his nine-year career. Yanni Gourde faired a bit better, but stands four years removed now from his last season above 50% (54.1% in 2019-20). Things look promising with Matthew Beniers, even though his 42.2% win rate ranked worst out of their four centres last year. He should naturally improve some just going from his rookie to his sophomore season. And if not, the Kraken can shift Jared McCann in to take faceoffs on the first line (even though he hasn’t succeeded there over his eight-year career to-date, either).
Kraken Should Ignore Faceoffs and Focus Elsewhere
Looking solely at the postseason, the Kraken faceoff percentage actually got worse. They dropped from 45.8% in the regular season to 43.6% in the playoffs, good for dead-last of the 16. Only four teams won more games than they did though, and two of those four still won less than 50% of the time.
Teams win and lose hockey games due to a wide range of factors. The combined output depends on many inputs. Faceoff success may be one of those inputs, but it’s a minor one at best. Goals happen right off of faceoffs sometimes, but not often enough to be a factor on a nightly basis. Yes, winning a faceoff leads to puck possession, but the quality of that possession remains entirely dependent on the quality of the players and the team’s game plan.
If anything, the Kraken should look at themselves as an example demonstrating why faceoffs don’t matter. They’d benefit far more trying to improve their special teams that ranked in the bottom-half of the league too. Bellemare helps on the faceoff side, but really he’ll do much more for the penalty kill. So even that signing is evidence of other motivations outside of faceoff circle.
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