A Game of Puck Position
Greg Ballentine over at The Puck Stops Here explains why winning faceoffs doesn’t correlate with winning hockey games.
The only reason we talk about faceoff proficiency is because the statistic is collected. All evidence – and common sense – tells us faceoffs are not worth talking about. Nobody talked about them before the NHL published the data but once the numbers were out there, the media manufactured a myth to justify talking about it.
Conventional wisdom argues that hockey is a game of puck possession.
This is a relatively new piece of conventional wisdom, something that came along at about the same time that hockey announcers were handed the new statistic to deliver up to fans. “Hockey is a game of puck possession,” declared every colour analyst, “And puck possession starts with the faceoff…”
But what exactly do we mean by this piece of conventional wisdom? I don’t think the description is apt at all. Of course it is usually better to have the puck than for the opponents to have it. That’s a given, but that doesn’t mean the game is about puck possession. In fact, hockey is a game of territory.
Basketball is a possession game and it is easy to see the distinction. Hockey teams would much prefer to see their opponents in possession of the puck behind their net than have the puck themselves behind their own net. In basketball, teams prefer to have the ball everywhere. In hockey, teams voluntarily turn the puck over in exchange for territory many dozens of times a game. In basketball, teams never voluntarily give up the ball.
Calling hockey a game of puck possession makes zero sense. A couple of years back, Kelly Hrudey showed a 40 second Igor Larionov shift that saw Igor recover the puck for the Red Wings on five different occasions in five different spots on the ice. Aside from the fact that the puck was following Larionov around it was an unremarkable sequence. It was a 40 second clip that nobody watching thought was unusual yet the puck turned over eleven times. How can something like that be squared with the conventional wisdom?
Offense in hockey is about finding (or creating) open ice and moving the puck through it to the opponent’s goal. Give any NHL player open ice and he will carry or pass or shoot the puck through it. Defense in hockey is about denying open ice to the offense. The key is the ice – open or not – not puck possession. If the ice is open, the puck is moving through it, and if the ice is not open the puck is usually going to get turned over. The position of the faceoff is more important than who wins it. The puck marks the amount of the ice controlled by one side or the other, much like the football marks the amount of territory controlled by football teams.
Hockey is a game of puck position, not puck possession.