On last week’s episode of the Sound Of Hockey Podcast, I forecasted that the biggest need for the Seattle Kraken early in the 2023-24 NHL season will be a right-handed center. This was not the first time I mentioned the need after the Kraken chose to not qualify the only right-handed center on the team from last year, Morgan Geekie. At the core of this need is the option to deploy a right-handed center to take strategic faceoffs from a right-hander’s strong side.

Before anybody goes right to the comments section to tell me faceoffs don’t matter, let me state that I do acknowledge that faceoffs are not as important as we once thought they were, and possession after a faceoff is a better measure of success. The possession stat is not captured and shared publicly, but we do know that faceoff wins and losses are a leading indicator of that possession, so we are going to work with the tools that are publicly available to us.

Seattle Kraken faceoff numbers last season

Let’s call out the obvious; the Kraken were one of the worst teams in the league for faceoffs last season. Early in the campaign, it was an easy stat to pick on, particularly when the team had challenges on the power play, as it seemed to have frequently. Teams were able to win the faceoff and clear the zone, killing valuable time even before Seattle could get set up. The dismal faceoff numbers also seemed to drive speculation from national media types that the Kraken would target a center at the trade deadline last season.

Faceoff deployments in the defensive zone

There is a strong side and a weak side for faceoffs. Right-shot centers tend to favor winning faceoffs on their backhand to the back right of the faceoff circle. Conversely, left-handers will try to win it to their back left.

The area on the ice in which this is particularly important is when the faceoff is in the defensive zone. If the faceoff is to the right of the goalie, ideally you have a right-hander take the draw, so they can try to win it to the corner, or, at the very least, keep it out of the center of the ice. If you have a left-hander taking a faceoff on the right side, there is a danger that the center could win or just direct it toward the center of the ice or toward the net.

See Exhibit A below.

Let’s see how centers were deployed in the defensive zone based on their handedness.

One item of note is that the total number of faceoffs taken by lefties is much higher. This is largely because roughly 66 percent of the centers in the league are left-handed, and as far as I know, there are no ambidextrous centers in the league, which would make the right-handers around 33 percent.

Because of this scarcity of righties in the league, the deployment of lefties based on the side of the ice is not as pronounced. But righties are deployed significantly more on the right side with 72.4 percent of their faceoffs taken in the defensive zone on the right side.

For lefties, you can see the advantage of the strong side, winning 53.6 percent of defensive-zone faceoffs, compared to just 45.0 percent on the weak side.

Kraken faceoff deployments in the defensive zone

Now let’s take a deeper look at how the Kraken leveraged their centers last season and how they fared at the defensive-zone faceoff dots.

As expected, Morgan Geekie, Seattle’s only right-handed center, was heavily deployed on the right shooter’s strong side in the defensive zone. At 47.1 percent, he had the highest win percentage on that specific faceoff circle.

Next let’s remove Geekie and add Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the expected fourth-line center to start 2023-24.

On the surface, the faceoff percentage should go up, but it doesn’t account that 80 percent of Geekie’s faceoffs were taken on the right-hander’s strong side. Bellemare will not be deployed in the same way, and someone will need to take those faceoffs to the right of the goalie in the defensive zone.

Shortcomings of measuring faceoffs

There has been research to suggest that faceoff winning percentages do not have a significant impact on games, and most people I talk to in the hockey world imply there is a more important stat of gaining possession after a faceoff. The players on the ice all have a role to play in the faceoff and could impact who wins possession. Here are two of my favorite examples of these shortcomings.

This first example is when the Kraken “lose” the opening faceoff in overtime against the Capitals.

The second is when the Kraken “win” the faceoff in a playoff game against the Avalanche.

In both cases, the team that won the faceoff never really possessed the puck but still got credit for winning the faceoff.

Shots against after faceoffs

In a perfect world, we have a statistic that captures which team gains clear possession of the puck after a faceoff. This would be a team stat that considers all players on the ice and their ability to gain possession… but we don’t have that.

A proxy that is often used is shot attempts and shot attempts against after a faceoff within a designated time interval. I asked around about the interval, and the consensus I got back was five seconds. The logic here is if a team attempts a shot within a five-second interval of a draw, they will have successfully gained possession. Conversely, you can evaluate a team’s performance at gaining possession after a faceoff by seeing the rate at which they allow shot attempts after a faceoff.

For consistency in the analysis, we are going to focus on defensive-zone faceoffs. Let’s first look at the raw numbers of shot attempts against within five seconds of a defensive-zone faceoff.

When evaluating just on a volume basis, there does not seem to be an issue with the Kraken’s ability to gain possession after a defensive-zone faceoff. They are squarely in the middle of the league, ranking 16th in shot attempts allowed within five seconds of a defensive-zone faceoff.

Analyzing the performance on a volume basis is flawed, though, because a team, for whatever reason, might have a lower number of defensive-zone faceoffs, which might reduce the volume of shot attempts allowed. A better approach will be to look at the rate at which a team allows shot attempts after faceoffs.

This visual starts to tell a different story. The Kraken were ranked 26th in the league at the rate that they allowed shot attempts within five seconds of a defensive faceoff with only one playoff team below them, the Minnesota Wild.

We can slice it one more layer to hone in on the actual faceoff circle in question and see how the Kraken performed. To differentiate the two circles, we are going to label them from the goalie’s perspective, so the “Defensive-Right” is the circle to the immediate right of the goalie, while “Defensive-Left” is the circle to the immediate left of the goalie. To remind people, the Defensive-Right faceoff circle is a right-hander’s strong side, while the “Defensive-Left” is the left-hander’s strong side.

Consistent with the faceoff percentages, the Kraken struggled with relinquishing possession after faceoffs from the Defensive-Right circle; they ranked 28th in the league at the rate in which teams get shot attempts within five seconds of the faceoff.

No easy fix

As I stated in the beginning, the Kraken need a right-handed center to deploy on the right-side defensive-zone faceoff circle, but it is unlikely we will see any roster moves before the season starts. Of the right-handed centermen available during free agency, only J.T. Compher, Luke Glendening, and Noel Acciari would have been candidates that could have been targets that fit this profile. And who knows if the Kraken made a run at any of them?

It is also naïve to think there isn’t a host of other factors when targeting free agents, including contract terms and long-term fit within the organization. Also, it is important to point out that Shane Wright is a right-handed center, but it would be asking a lot of a rookie to be that stable right-handed option as he gets used to the speed and the strength of the game.

Is it October yet?

I hope some of you feel a little bit more enlightened on faceoffs, and I also want to recognize my own insanity that I put the time and research I put into evaluating defensive-zone faceoffs. It was fun, insightful, and interesting for me, but come on, a 1500-word post on defensive-zone faceoffs?  

If you have thoughts, questions, or want to see some specific teams or players broken down, leave a note in the comments section and I will do my best to get back to you.

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