The Edmonton Oilers are a bad team on the draw, and they have been for a few seasons now. Part of the problem has been that they've had bad centers over the last couple of seasons. But that's not to say there aren't reasons for their lack of ability - at least some of the reason, it seems to me, is youth. Faceoffs are, in many ways, just like any other puck battle in the game in that success requires strength, coordination, and a whole lot of practice. But just how much should these young players be expected to improve? And how do guys like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano compare to their peers? After the jump I'll take a look at all of the centers who first entered the league at 20 or younger and who have taken at least 200 even strength faceoffs in each season from 2005-06 to 2007-08.
Unfortunately, there are only twelve players who meet the criteria, so we'll be dealing with a pretty small sample. In fact, because the sample is so small, I thought I'd begin by listing out how each of those twelve players have done in terms of EV FO% since the start of their respective careers:
What becomes clear here is that each player is unique. Most players demonstrate some improvement over the years, but some just flat-out don't (I'm looking at you Evgeni Malkin). Nonetheless, I thought it might be instructive to look at the average improvement by age:
Again, this is a very small sample, so it's hard to come to any really solid conclusions, but it does look like players will improve as they get older. All three of Sam Gagner, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal improved substantially from 18 to 19, and several players made large improvements from 19 to 20 as well. After that, the improvement by age slows down but doesn't stop, which is pretty encouraging for a fan whose team is counting on Sam Gagner to become a reliable two-way player. It's somewhat less encouraging for a guy like Andrew Cogliano who has made decent progress as a faceoff guy this past year, but is starting from so far back that it's hard to imagine him every being passable on the dot.
This should also be instructive if the Oilers decide to play Taylor Hall at center for long stretches this season. It will be very tempting to say that he can't play the position if his faceoff percentage is somewhere between 40% and 45% in his first year, but that's not really the case. In fact, 45% would be the second best showing of any of the 18 or 19 year-old rookies on this list, behind only Jonathan Toews (whose rookie season looks amazing in this context).
I thought it might also be helpful to look at how players improved based on their years of service:
This is a somewhat less encouraging picture for players like Gagner and Cogliano. This is only based on six players, so it will obviously require a larger study to be really helpful, but the same group of players who improved substantially in their first three years taper off in the text two. It doesn't make sense to bet against Sidney Crosby all that often, but I think this preliminary information would help me to take the under if we set the line for his EV FO% at 54.58% (his total from one year ago).
As for the Oilers, let's hope that Cogliano is moved to the wing for good and that Gagner has one more development spike in the circle still to come.