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The Sideline Observer

Sports and Culture Commentary

The Caps Have a Faceoff Problem: Does It Matter?

The Washington Capitals are bad at faceoffs. Of the 31 teams in the NHL, they rank dead last in faceoff win percentage at 46 percent, almost a full percentage point behind their closest competitor and nearly 10 percent behind the league leader.

Of the Caps’ four regular centers, only Nic Dowd has won more faceoffs than he’s lost this season. Lars Eller and Nicklas Backstrom have fine, if unimpressive, numbers (49.3 and 49.2). But Evgeny Kuznetsov, by many measures the team’s most talented offensive center, stands at an abysmal 38.3 percent, worst in the league (among players who have taken 500+ faceoffs) by more than two percentage points.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Kuznetsov has always been terrible at faceoffs. But past Caps teams have sheltered his weakness by deploying Jay Beagle, one of the league’s best faceoff takers, in many situations to take the load off Kuznetsov’s shoulders. This year, without Beagle, the Caps don’t have another option, which has led to a drop-off in Kuznetsov’s numbers. Dowd, the closest thing to this year’s Beagle, has taken only 7.4 faceoffs per game to Beagle’s 12.6 last year.

But do faceoffs really matter? Is the Caps’ obvious weakness at the dot preventing them from being a better team? The answer is both yes and no.

In the long term, there’s no significant statistical relationship between a team’s faceoff percentage and its success. A linear regression of faceoff percentages and standing points this season reveals that only 2 percent of the variation in teams’ standings points can be accounted for by faceoff percentages. In other words, better faceoff teams aren’t inherently better teams overall. The Caps are a perfect example: despite being the worst faceoff team, they have the sixth best record.

There’s also not much evidence that even a team’s performance at the dot in a single game can indicate the outcome. The Caps are 1-2 in games this season in which they win 60 percent or more of faceoffs. Conversely, they’re 2-1 in games in which they win 30 percent or less. There’s essentially no relationship between high faceoff percentages and wins, as evidenced by the visualization of faceoff percentages per game.

Still, individual faceoffs can be critical in tight game situations. Winning or losing a certain faceoff in a playoff overtime can be the difference between winning and losing the game itself. But in those situations, Kuznetsov can safely watch from the bench as Backstrom or Dowd takes the draw.

The Caps are bad at faceoffs, and that’s not changing. It’s not a good thing, and it won’t help them in the quest for a second Stanley Cup. But fans need to stop thinking it will prevent them from going back to back.

-Tiger Bjornlund

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