All the rage, justifiably so, in terms of NHL rule changes during preseason was about the new 3-on-3 overtime format. For those who have not seen it yet, it is kind of like when you were a kid and you stopped at a convenience store and bought 1 of those slushies where they had to squirt the concentrated flavor juice into it, and the teenager working there kindly gave you an extra 6-7 squirts of pure sugar. For younger readers who have no idea what I am talking about, think of it as having 1 too many caffeine-laden energy drinks. Shorter version: 3-on-3 overtime is an absolute blast.
But this is actually about another change that could impact the NHL for the 2015-16 season – a change to the face-off rules. On the surface the faceoff seems to be a fairly even event. 2 players line up across from each other. The ref drops the puck. The best man wins. But that is actually not the case.
Even with the old version, it was not so much a fair fight. The home team had a couple decent advantages. First, the visiting face-off man had to put his stick down first. This gives the home player a small advantage. In addition, the home team always gets the last change of players on any face-off (except when they ice the puck and cannot change at all) which gives the home coach some advantage to be able to pick match ups for the play but also potentially to ride face-off match ups that are working. Another random advantage that was not so much rule-driven but situational has to do with which side of the ice the face-off is on (which dictates which side the referee stands on). The need to get the top part of the stick out of the way of the referee dictates whether a player takes a face-off on his forehand or backhand. (Former Cane Manny Malhotra got around this by getting so low that the referee was no longer in the way.) Finally, there is the issue of a defensive zone draw. In the defensive zone, players generally do not want to draw the puck straight back at their own net (for obvious reasons), so they are a bit more limited in which way they take a draw and where they must try to pull it to.
And therein lies the change to the face-off rules for the 2015-16 season. The new rule is that regardless of home/away, the player taking a defensive zone draw must put his stick down first. This essentially makes every defensive zone draw (even at home) the same as the old road defensive zone draw. This is significant for 2 reasons. First, a fairly high percent of draws are in one of the 2 ends. All icing, penalty call and goalie stoppages are in 1 of the 2 team’s defensive zones. Second, these tend to be more important draws because they at least have the possibility to fairly quickly lead to a scoring chance.
I have not seen any of the analytics/stats people pull it together yet (someone point me to it if they have), but it would be interesting to see a ranking with face-off percentages for face-offs from 2014-15 only on the road and in the defensive zone. When ranking good face-off players for these important defensive zone draws, it is no longer accurate to consider overall face-off percentages, nor is it accurate to look at defensive zone draws (because the old kind had different rules). Instead, coaches need to consider road defensive zone face-off proficiency because in terms of process/rules that is what all defensive zone draws are now. And we are about to see even more of them.