The word is out. This weekend in Minnesota, at least one PLL club reportedly may experiment with not dressing a faceoff specialist for their game. The obvious question, why in the world would they do such a thing? The short answer is that it's Eli Gobrecht's fault. The long answer is this:
This year, the PLL changed the shot clock rules. On possessions following a faceoff win, the shot clock is set to 32 seconds, down from 52 seconds. The change, through three weeks of games, has produced some interesting scenarios as teams try to “solve” the new rules and develop the best strategy. Faceoffs have so many variables and moving parts, it’s virtually impossible to try and whiteboard or scheme a strategy. Practice and game action are the only ways to really develop a plan.
I rewatched the last two weeks of PLL games (that’s what is on ESPN+ and available, I don’t have access to Week 1 games). I logged all faceoffs taken, 97 in Charlotte and 125 in Columbus. I charted who took the faceoff, who won it, where they won it (forward, backward, or messy/at the X including on a violation), the time left on the shot clock when the full offensive personnel got onto the field if they did at all, and the outcome of the possession (goal, save, turnover, shot clock violation, and so forth). I only tracked the possession immediately following the faceoff win. If a team never bothered to sub all their offensive personnel on, or shot on a break and lost the ball, that time was logged as well.
The goal here is simple. Even though the data set is small, is it possible to determine if there is a significant difference in offensive efficiency for a team that wins a faceoff backwards vs a team that wins it at the line or wins it forwards? About how much time is usually left in either situation, that is to say how much time is lost by a rear exit vs exiting forward or winning a battle right at the dot.
Why is this important? Because the answer to that question is the answer to the “why would you not dress a FOGO” question. If winning it backwards has a significant negative impact on offensive efficiency, then a team can try and force that as a faceoff outcome. The strategy being that with a short clock, forcing a win backwards means the opposing team has to pick up a GB, clear, and sub their faceoff unit for their offense. Disrupt this process a bit via the ride or harassing their faceoff specialist with your pole taking the draw, and you eat up that a lot of that 32 seconds The team that won the faceoff ends up with very little time to actually play offense, sometimes under 10 seconds. In the Waterdogs/Atlas game in Week 3, the Waterdogs ceased using a specialist, and instead leaned on Eli Gobrecht to force Trevor Baptiste and the Atlas to exit backward, clear the ball, sub, and play offense on a short clock. Gobrecht went 2-20 facing off, but everytime he got Baptiste to go backwards, he effectively did his job.
So of the last two weeks of faceoffs, how did that efficiency work out?
In Week 2, there were 97 total draws. Of those, I charted 30 backward exits, and of those 30, five ended in goals. That’s 16.7% efficiency. Of the remaining 67 draws, 14 resulted in goals, which is just under 21% efficiency. So in week two, winning backwards resulted in offensive play that was about 5% less efficient.
In week 3, I tracked 125 total draws. Of those, I charted 49 backwards exits. Just eight of those ended in goals. Again, about 16.3% efficiency. Of the other 76 exits, I charted 17 goals, for 22.3% efficiency. So again, offense was about 5-6% worse when the faceoff win was a backward exit.
But what really spurred this thinking was the Waterdogs/Atlas game. Let’s take a look at the stretch where the strategy really started to be deployed of using a pole and conceding the draw, rather than trying in earnest to win the draw.
With 6:11 left in the second quarter, Eli Gobrecht took his first faceoff of the day. He would, as noted above take 20 draws over the course of the rest of the game against Baptiste.
On those 20 draws, Gobrecht forced a backwards or uncomfortable exit at the spot that resulted in backwards movement 19 times. The Atlas scored two goals on the 19 possessions they had following those 20 faceoffs against Gobrecht, just over a 10% efficiency mark. A significant dip. Seven turnovers and six shot clock violations were committed on those faceoffs. Ironically, the one time Baptiste won forward, Atlas committed a shot clock violation. Baptiste was regularly forced backwards all the way to Concannon in net and the Atlas had to clear the length of the field. Of those 20 draws, the Atlas never fully subbed all the way on with their offense eight times. When they did, they "started" their offensive possession with 15 seconds or less seven times.
An offense that can be up in the low to mid 20’s on efficiency suddenly dipping all the way to down to around 10% when Gobrecht forced them backwards to their own end is a significant data point. It’s the reason for this strategy to be tested this week. The answer to “why wouldn't you dress a faceoff guy” is 10% efficiency on backwards exits. Watching this game back, it was a bit ironic. The broadcast could not stop singing the praises of Baptiste. And he obviously deserves them, statistically it was a record setting day and he was incredibly successful. But they also wondered on air how in the world you contend with faceoff dominance like that, even suggesting that at some level, you just can’t. They suggested the Waterdogs just had to locate shots better and get to Concannon. Two balls, efficient shooting, it's the only way you can beat Baptiste.
Maybe not the only way. It certainly played a big part. But the Waterdogs, from midway through the second quarter onward, put on tape exactly how you contend with dominance like Baptiste. Don’t win it, but dictate where it goes and what the other team has to do with it. Coach Andy Copelan deserves some credit for this.
An important note: this strategy only works if the other team never adjusts. Continuing to focus on that Atlas/Waterdogs game because it’s become the poster child for this strategy. In that game, Atlas never really adapted. They kept facing off with the same personnel and didn’t do much to adjust to what the Waterdogs were doing. You really can't blame them, Baptiste was winning everything, easy to say let's just keep rolling with it. That said, there are a few options to try and defeat the Waterdogs tactic.
First, faceoff without a pole on your three man unit. The faceoff is essentially being conceded anyway. You don’t need a pole to be there for the GB or causing a turnover, Baptiste is almost certainly just winning it to himself. Your pole is doing a 10 yard sprint away from, and back to, the sideline. In order to save sub time, line up with offensive midfielders or two way players on the wings. Doing this results in having to sub possibly just Baptiste, if anyone, and you save the time of having to sub a pole off. A faceoff unit of Baptiste/Costabile/Logan facing off wins the GB and needs to sub at most, if it's easy, two players.
Second, put an offensive midfielder on your defensive end. There’s no minimum number of poles. You can play with none if you want. If you can turn a rear exit into a ball flipped to a player like Romar Dennis or Bryan Costabile running up field with speed, in a transition situation, it’s much harder to stop this. This tactic has been around for decades (Coach Andy Towers should be familiar, the stories of it being used at New Canaan High School in his days are still around). The Atlas scored a goal out of a look that wasn't this exact set, but had a similar result. Costabile came from the wing on a backwards exit, Baptiste flipped it to him, and he attacked with speed in transition against an unsettled Waterdogs defense, scoring a goal.
And don’t be shy about doing both of those things together. Remember that the team conceding is having a pole take the faceoff with defensive personnel on the wings, all already on the field. They aren’t planning on subbing, they’re planning on playing about 12-14 seconds of defense and then subbing. Should you manage to actually lose a conceded faceoff, they need to sub all three players to play offense on a short clock. You’ll be ok and can sub with them.
Neither of those tactics has really been tried, but a few quick opportunities out of that look would force the team conceding draws to at least rethink the way they deploy personnel. There’s plenty of other ways to deploy your wings and create opportunities as well. How teams prepare for this type of tactic this week will be interesting.
Ultimately, it looks like forcing a rear exit can reduce the opponent’s offensive efficiency by giving them short possessions. If you can consistently force the opposing faceoff man all the way back to his defensive end, ideally to the goalie, to clear the field and try to sub, offensive efficiency can take a big enough hit that there’s a breakpoint where winning a faceoff just stops impacting the game. For now. Once teams counter that by better deploying offensive options and saving sub time, conceding for a rear exit may stop being an option. And then the chess match goes on.