Face-Off Mystery of the Tampa Bay Lightning

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, the face-off proficiency of the Tampa Bay Lightning is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Currently the Lightning sit at 18th in the NHL with a 49.6% face-off percentage. Middle of the pack with an average face-off winning ability.

Even the most casual NHL fan knows the importance of winning face-offs. Win the draw and you get the puck. Get the puck and you may have a chance to take a shot. Take a shot and it just might go in the net which after all is the object of the game. It is simple to explain but damn hard at times to execute.

So, the Lightning on face-offs in all situations (even strength, power play, penalty kill) in all zones (offensive, defensive, neutral) are basically a coin flip. For a team that counts puck possession as one of their team strengths, a toss up in the face-off circle seems to be leaving too much to chance.

Specially Puzzling

Looking at specific situations and here is where the mystery becomes more evident. Or is it the riddle? The Lightning’s penalty kill is among the best in the NHL by killing off 83% of their penalties which puts them eight in the league. Yet, looking at their face-offs when they are short-handed and as a team their efficiency is 41.7%.

Breaking down the individual centers on the Lightning while on the penalty kill and the numbers look bad enough to wonder how they kill off any penalties. Of the five centers that have taken more than 20 draws on the kill, none are over 50%. Valtteri Filppula is the “leader” in all zones at 47.3% and in the defensive zone at 45.3%. At least Filppula has taken most of the short-handed face-offs.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Brian Boyle (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Brian Boyle who has taken the second most penalty kill face-offs is only winning 35.5% of his attempts in all zones and even less at 34.3% in the defensive zone. Only Steven Stamkos is over 40% while a man down at 44.2% in the defensive zone and 48% overall. Credit must be given to the penalty killing units because to succeed as often as they are when they are clearly losing a good majority of the face-offs when down a man is simply stellar.

On the power play the riddle goes for full out conundrum. Overall as a team while playing with an extra man, the team is winning only 48.8% of the face-offs. Looking at the individual performances and Tyler Johnson wins 57% of his power play face-offs including 56.8% in the offensive zone. Stamkos helps the cause with 51% overall and 50% in the offensive zone. Filppula is the anchor here, not in a good way as his numbers with the man advantage are actually slightly lower than when he is on the penalty kill. He “wins” 44.7% overall and 44.3% in the offensive zone.

Centers of Attention

One of the most puzzling aspects of this whole situation is Filppula leads all Lightning centers who have taken at least 200 drops at even strength in all zones with an impressive 54.2%. Apparently, when the ice is tilted one way or the other, his face-off skills drop.

(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
Val  Filppula (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

In fact, even strength numbers are very good for the team with Stamkos and Boyle joining Filppula over 50% overall and Johnson right behind at 48.8%. The fact that Johnson is struggling with even strength opportunities is a head-scratcher because he is a hair below 60% when on the power play.

I realize that I could break this down even further by looking at the face-offs at home versus on the road. It can be downright maddening especially when the struggles of the power play belie the face-off success when up a man. Conversely, the success of the penalty kill mystifies when the team’s face-off percentage is brutal when a man down.

Guess when it comes down to it, at least for this Lightning team the face-offs while important aren’t the answer to their success. Overall, they lose more face-offs than they win. Doesn’t seem to hurt them as they have won 17 games out of their last 22 and six in a row after the win against Boston Sunday night.

They seem to win more than they lose on the power play but their power play is struggling at 17% which puts them 26th in the league. They lose a hell of a lot of their face-offs while short-handed especially in the defensive zone yet their PK units are eight best in the league. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Who cares? The real stat that matters for the team as a whole is wins and they continue to do that far more than not.
Featured image provided by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers