Facing the Face-Off Dilemma

To say puck possession is critically important to NHL success is stating the bloody obvious. Having the puck leads to shots on goal. Shots on goals lead to rebounds, scoring chances and you guessed it, goals. The first step in this process is getting the puck and you get the puck by winning face-offs.

Three of the four division leading teams in the NHL today are in the top five in face-off percentage. The Tampa Bay Lightning is currently number 20 of the 30 NHL teams in that statistic. The good news is that as a team, the Lightning is at a 51 per cent success rate.

In full disclosure, it was shocking to see the team over 50 per cent. The eye test, at least my eyes told me that the Lightning was struggling mightily in this area thus far against their opponents. As I began to review detailed face-off stats, the expectation was that the numbers would confirm what my eyes had seen.

Obviously, there are many different face-off situations and to provide as accurate a picture here are the breakdowns for those individual situations.

At home and on even strength, all four centers for the Lightning are over 50 per cent success. In fact, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula are over 60 percent. On the road, the only regular center not over 50 per cent is Steven Stamkos at 49 per cent.

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

Combining both home and away face-off success and all four regular centers are over the 50 per cent plateau and Boyle is over 60 percent. This magnifies the importance of Boyle in light of the recent undisclosed recurring injury has effected the face-off effectiveness for the team.

As the player used most as Boyle’s replacement, Vlad Namestnikov is struggling on the dot. On even strength, Namestnikov has won only 36.7 per cent of his face-off opportunities. Normally, Coach Jon Cooper would use Cedric Paquette as Boyle’s replacement centering the fourth line but Paquette went down with an injury as the same time as Boyle.

Special Teams

On the power play, the team is 15th in the NHL. Smack dab in the middle of the pack. Remember, where it starts, winning the face-off. On the power play, only Stamkos is over 50 per cent. Tyler Johnson, who is struggling to score goals, has taken the most power play face-offs but is only winning 38 per cent of the time. Losing a face-off on the power play can take a good twenty seconds of time with the extra man. Losing two of three face-offs and you may consider refusing the power play.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Where things get bad are on the penalty kill. The team is 20th in the NHL after a brutal start that saw them a few hairs above 50 percent after their first few games. They are now collectively at 79 per cent and improving.

Looking at the face-off numbers when the team is short-handed and Filppula stands out at 71 per cent when the team is a man short. No other center is over the paltry 40 per cent level. On the penalty kill the numbers for defensive zone face-offs is worse than that. A defensive zone face-off on the penalty kill is about as important a face-off opportunity as exists. Again, only Filppula is doing a yeoman’s work with a 67 per cent success rate. All others are losing more than three out of four attempts in this situation.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Valtteri Filppula(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

If the Lightning wishes to replicate last season’s playoff success, they must improve their face-off percentage, especially on special teams. Yes, the penalty kill teams have stepped up after the horrible start. But winning face-offs must be priority one.

Getting Boyle back in the lineup on a regular basis will help. Getting Johnson on the score sheet with a goal will help his numbers. Seems he may be pressing and it is affecting him when the puck drops.

It has only been eleven games and the schedule makers had the team on the road in seven of those games. Once November begins, the team plays the first four games on the road. So, 11 of their first 16 games would have been on the road.

The only event that raises the stakes a little is the torrid start by the Montreal Canadiens. Winning ten of their first twelve games has put the Lightning feet to the fire a bit. They cannot let Montreal get too big a lead. Keeping that gap close emphasizes the December 28th game against the Canadiens. First game between the two teams since the Lightning ousted the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference semi-finals last May.

If the Lightning continues to struggle winning face-offs, the risk that Montreal begins to widen the point differential increases. It is the beginning of the process of scoring a goal. Cannot score without the puck, getting the puck starts when it is dropped.