Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins always be bad at faceoffs?

Jonathan Willis
October 03 2012 10:11AM

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the league’s worst face-off man last season, and it wasn’t particularly close. Of the league’s 120 most-used centers, Nugent-Hopkins was ranked 120th, with a 37.5 percent success rate (the only player on the list that lost more than 60 percent of his draws).

Is he always going to be a bad faceoff man, or is there hope for improvement?

To answer that question, I generated a list of players who met three criteria:

  • Took more than 400 faceoffs as a rookie NHL’er
  • Won fewer than 45 percent of their draws
  • Has had at least five seasons to improve

I ended up with a list of 23 players. Three of those ended up getting cut because they didn’t keep taking faceoffs in the NHL – Johan Davidsson returned to Europe, while Simon Gagne and Pierre-Marc Bouchard were hurriedly returned to the wing.

That leaves us with a group of 20.

The List

Years highlighted in yellow are ones where the player won more than 50 percent of faceoffs taken.

The Takeaway

Lots of stuff worth noting here; following are the points I thought especially relevant.

  • We should expect Nugent-Hopkins to continue to struggle in the faceoff circle for the next five seasons. A few players managed to get up to the 50 percent mark, but only one – Clarke Wilm – managed to record more than a single season where he won more faceoffs than he lost in his first five years in the league.
  • Nugent-Hopkins can make up the gap. Interestingly, when I split this group in half, with the 10-best and 10-worst together, there was no sign that the really terrible guys fared any worse, long-term, than the guys who were merely bad as rookies. By the third season, there was no difference between the 10-best in this group and the 10-worst, on average, and by year five the worst guys were averaging 47.3 percent in the faceoff circle while the better players initially were at just 45.0 percent. In other words: there’s no reason to suppose that Nugent-Hopkins can’t make continual strides in this part of his game.
  • Note Manny Malhotra’s record. Malhotra, now one of the NHL’s finest faceoff men (Related: Malhotra shares his tricks of the trade), took years to get to that level. In his sixth season in the league – after never having won more than 50 percent of faceoffs taken – he suddenly put up a 53.9 percent win rate in Columbus. He’s been an elite faceoff man ever since.

In short: Nugent-Hopkins is probably going to be terrible in the faceoff circle next season. He probably won’t be particularly good for quite some time. But there’s no reason that faceoffs, if he works on them, can’t become a strength eventually.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.