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Hockey is a game of puck battles, but its statistical measurement of same is limited to just three categories: the contentious and subjective "Real Time Scoring System" metrics known as Giveaways and Takeaways, and Faceoffs won and lost. The latter are both much better defined and far more frequent. Moreover, being what the soccer guys call "set pieces", the coaches and players themselves have much more say about who is involved in faceoffs.

Just four years ago the Oilers were aces of the faceoff dot, 2nd in the NHL. Since then, however, Oilers faceoff efficiency has spiralled right down the crapper: 

2005-06: 53.4%, 2nd  
2006-07: 51.5%, 8th   
2007-08: 50.5%, 12th  
2008-09: 47.9%, 25th  
2009-10: 47.7%, 26th 

Interesting to see how the faceoff load has been shared  over those years. After the jump are the top four guys from each season, listed in order of draws taken per GP:


Player FO/G FO%
Horcoff 18.2 52.7%
Stoll 16.4 56.8%
Peca 14.8 54.9%
Reasoner 9.0 52.5%
Horcoff 17.8 50.6%
Stoll 17.7 55.6%
Reasoner 10.6 54.6%
Pouliot 7.7 48.7%
Horcoff 18.2 50.6%
Stoll 15.2 55.1%
Reasoner 11.0 52.8%
Cogliano 6.6 39.5%
Horcoff 22.0 53.9%
Brodziak 12.0 51.6%
Gagner 9.1 42.0%
Cogliano 8.6 37.2%
Horcoff 21.7 51.4%
Brule 10.3 49.5%
Gagner 9.5 43.9%
Cogliano 7.2 37.2%

The constant all those years has been Shawn Horcoff, leading the team in draws per game every year, and in overall draws every year but one (the year of his shoulder injury). Horcoff has consistently kept his head above water a little above the 50% line, which is more impressive than it looks given he typically takes way more faceoffs on the penalty kill than the powerplay. (Special teams percentages are split roughly 55/45 in favour of the team with the man advantage.)  

What has changed are the guys underneath Shawn. After Peca left in the summer of '06, Stoll and Reasoner continued to carry their weight and make the Oilers an above-average, if deteriorating, group. But when both Jarret and Marty departed in the summer of '08, the bottom fell out. Horcoff's workload soared from ~18 to ~22 faceoffs per game, and he now typically takes more draws per game than the next two Oilers combined. First Brodziak, now Brule have been barely adequate second choices in the circle although both have displayed other weaknesses in their game becoming their lack of experience. Gagner and Cogliano have both been inadequate both on the dot and in the defensive zone generally. 

The new season is now 13 games old, enough to show that not much has changed since 2008-09 other than Brule in Brodziak's spot. Horcoff remains a workhorse who wins more than his share; Gagner and Cogliano continue to languish near the 40% mark in limited, if not limited enough, exposure. Pat Quinn is learning what Craig MacTavish knew well: it's pretty much impossible to hide two pivots who can't win a draw. And the Oilers continue to rank in the bottom quarter of the NHL in an area of former strength.

One thing that has changed this season is faceoff distribution. Brule has taken just 4 faceoffs on special teams, which figures since he plays under half a minute per game on each unit. Penner, who plays significant minutes on both, is 11/14 on the PP but hasn't taken a single draw on the PK which begs the question as Derek would say. Especially when Cogliano and O'Sullivan are 2/11 and 4/14 respectively on the PK. 

Instead, the load has fallen even more on Shawn Horcoff. In '08-09 he took about a third of all faceoffs at even strength but nearly half of all faceoffs on both special teams (49.3% of PP draws, 49.5% of SH). In the new season he continues to take about 35% of even strength draws; once again the lion's share of these are in his own end of the rink. However, in the absence of Brodziak from the PK unit, his responsibility has soared to the point where he has taken over 64% !! of all shorthanded draws to this point in the season. His PP draws, meanwhile, have dropped to 40% of team, as Gagner, Penner and O'Sullivan are getting tabbed more frequently for this duty. No doubt this distribution has had some effect on Horcoff's point production. On the plus side, the much-maligned penalty-kill unit has improved from 27th in the NHL to 18th at this point; surely the faceoff workhorse deserves some credit for that improvement.