Rethinking Strategy After Winning Offensive Zone Face-Offs

Rethinking Strategy After Winning Offensive Zone Face-Offs

I imagine driving a golf ball 350+ yards down the middle of the fairway is an amazing feeling. Of course, I have no idea what that feels like but hey, a guy can dream, right? The hockey equivalent of a booming, accurate drive looks something like this…

Stepping into a full clapper from the point and roofing it over the goalie’s shoulder. Looks good, feels great, rarely works. That’s okay. Even if the shot doesn’t go in there are rebound opportunities and puck retrieval that can lead to additional chances, right? Maybe a deflection on the way to the net. Well, what if the following happens more often than you might think – a point shot that leads to a loss of possession.

While an average PGA Tour professional hits the fairway on about 60 percent of his drives, the odds of that shot Ryan Graves scored on going in is less than 2 percent. And yet, when a team wins a face-off in the offensive zone, more often than not, a point shot is what comes next.

Maybe it’s because when a player does score on a point shot, it reinforces a belief that he can, even though the odds are heavily stacked against him. I can promise you this – if a golfer knew he had about a 2 percent chance of success off the tee, he’d probably think about putting the driver away in favor of another club. More likely, players believe a screen, rebound or deflection will increase their odds of creating a goal enough to make it a worthwhile option. That certainly seems to be the belief in hockey but is it true?

Or is shooting from the point after a won OZ draw an antiquated, inefficient strategy ripe for disruption?

I suspect it’s the latter, so let’s find out.

This season, at even-strength, over half (51.2%) of all shot attempts that followed a won offensive zone face-off came from the point (beyond the top of the face-off circles). What should be a last resort, shooting from distance, is in fact, what happens most often. In no other game state should this be a preferred method of creating offense so why in this instance is shooting from distance so universally accepted? I’ll explain why and how to create higher probability scoring options by breaking this down in three sections:

1) What can happen when a player shoots from the point.

2) Why hockey, in general, has defaulted to this option more than any other.

3) How to create higher probability scoring options once a team wins an OZ face-off.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES

Let’s start by looking at what can happen when a team shoots from the point after winning a face-off in the offensive zone:

1) Shot goes in.

2) Shot creates a rebound.

3) Shot is deflected.

4) Shot is covered by the goalie / deflected out of play.

5) Shot is blocked or misses the net.

SHOT GOES IN

We know this is a low percentage play. The Graves example I showed had an expected goal rate of 1.8 percent. Even with a screen in front of the net, the low odds of scoring clean on shots from beyond the top of the circles make it a less than ideal option. However, we need to consider the fact that defensemen aren’t always shooting to score on these plays.

SHOT CREATES A REBOUND

Also a low percentage play. Of the nearly 9,500 shot attempts that followed a won OZ face-off this season (team creates shot attempt before losing possession of the puck), 222 created a rebound scoring chance – that’s 2.3 percent. Of those 222 rebound scoring chances, 27 resulted in goals. So, the odds of creating a scoring chance, much less a goal on a rebound are just about as slim as scoring clean on a shot from beyond the top of the circles.

SHOT IS DEFLECTED

Deflections accounted for a fairly high number of all goals scored off a won face-off – 26.8 percent. However, this does not necessarily mean shooting for a tip should be a preferred method. About half of all deflections at even-strength this season missed the net. Fewer than 8 percent of all deflections went in. The reason deflections accounted for nearly 27 percent of all goals scored off of won draws likely has to do with the fact that so many point shots are being taken in the first place.

SHOT IS COVERED / DEFLECTED OUT OF PLAY

What might seem like a 50/50 play is actually less than that for the offensive team. Attacking teams might think the worst-case scenario when a goalie covers a puck or knocks it out of play is that they have an even chance of winning another draw. However, year-over-year, less than 50 percent of face-offs in the offensive zone are won by the attacking team at even-strength. This season, only Dallas, St. Louis, Toronto, Nashville, and Carolina won more than 50 percent of their offensive zone draws. The league average was 48.2 percent.

SHOT IS BLOCKED / MISSES THE NET

Like trying to win an offensive zone draw, the odds of recovering a missed shot attempt amount to little more than a coin flip. This season, the offensive team recovered 52.2 percent of shot attempts that didn’t go in following a won offensive zone face-off. Overall, offensive teams recovered 50.6 percent of shot attempts taken at even-strength.

Shooting for a deflection is an okay last resort, slightly better than actually trying to score from distance but the odds of scoring on these plays are low enough to question why they occur so often especially when you consider puck recovery amounts to little more than a 50/50 chance.

So, there must be a reason so many teams default to these low percentage play in this area of the game, right?

WHY THEY DO IT

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that face-offs can be a bit of a cluster….you know what. Centers tying each other up, wingers tripping over each other etc. More often than not, offensive teams are not able to win the draw cleanly. When they do, there’s an opportunity to run set plays, aimed at generating chances from quality scoring areas. Many teams do and that’s great. Executing these set plays can mean the difference between playing for the Stanley Cup or playing golf. Just ask the St. Louis Blues.

It’s harder to generate meaningful offense off a scrambled draw or when a defender rushes the point. Let’s go back to that last video example. With a Sharks defender pressuring the point, there are no viable forward passing options for Ian Cole. However, he could move the puck to his defense partner to buy time for Colorado’s forwards to get open.

A picture-perfect passing play isn’t always available but the point I’m trying to make it that maintaining puck possession should take precedence over shooting from above the circles. There are plenty of examples of how to do this that would help increase the attacking teams’ chances of scoring once they win an offensive zone face-off.

MAKING IT ACTIONABLE

So, now that we know how low the odds of scoring or creating a goal with point shots are following a face-off win, we need to identify tangible ways to create better scoring opportunities. To do so, I’ve enlisted the help of a progressive, up-and-coming coach, Jon Goyens – Head Coach of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Jon and I are going to focus on the Colorado Avalanche for a couple of reasons. Number 1, they shoot from the point a lot following face-off wins.

Number 2, overall the Avalanche prioritize shot quality as they lead the NHL in the percentage of their shot attempts that come from the slot at even-strength.

That Colorado shoots so often from above the circles when it gains possession off a face-off in the offensive zone is interesting.

While we are focusing specifically on the Avalanche in the following video breakdown, the ideas and principles discussed are not specific to any one team and can, and I would argue should be applied by all teams. Here’s what Jon and I believe this particular team could do to produce higher probability scoring chances in this game state…

The main takeaway here is that, more often than not, attacking defensemen seem to have a shoot-first mentality when they get the puck after a won face-off. I believe teams should put more of a focus on possessing the puck than shooting from distance. Skating or passing the puck to open space in order to create higher probability scoring chances should yield more positive results. This doesn’t mean quick-strike plays are no longer an option. As we saw in the video breakdown, there are plenty of ways to create quality scoring chances moments after gaining possession of the puck.

Teams win an average 8 to 9 offensive zone face-offs per-game at even-strength. Instead of firing 4 or 5 pucks from the point, what if teams were able to cut that number down and generate one or two more quality chances per-game? It’s a relatively small gain, I know but a gain none-the-less. And if you make enough incremental gains by maximizing efficiency in multiple facets of the game, the results will be meaningful. Optimizing shooting habits to increase goal production at the player level. Having an effective recovery plan if you are going to dump pucks into the offensive zone at a high rate. Eliminating inefficient strategies and concepts at the team level.

I’ll go one step further and suggest if there isn’t a skating or passing option at all, a defenseman might be wise to rim the puck around the boards to a far-side winger or D partner. Efficiency is the key and shooting from above the circles after a won OZ face-off is one of the most inefficient, yet universally adopted concepts in hockey.

 

(Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)