One of the overriding themes of the season early in 2011-12 has been the amount of protection Tom Renney is providing for the Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle line. Tyler at mc79hockey looked at strength of opponents and zonestarts have been at the forefront of discussion of the line's success.
393 Forwards have appeared in 5 games or more thus far in 2011-12. Eberle, Hall and Hopkins rank 12th, 14th and 18th, respectively, in offensive zone faceoff percentage. Ryan Smyth, Ryan Jones and Shawn Horcoff rank 346th, 355th and 366th, respectively. Lennart Petrell, who has been substituted in for Ryan Jones and Magnus Paajarvi on defensive zone faceoffs from time-to-time, ranks 294th. This isn't much of a surprise; any Oilers fan reading the Oilogosphere has read this more than once.
Doing the hard work means that Smyth, and Horcoff are also getting the lion's share of the even strength ice time. Smyth and Horcoff rank 17th and 46th in even strength time on ice, with Jones in 121st. Though Renney is limiting the young kids' defensive zonestarts, he's not limiting their even strength time on ice: Hall ranks 139th, Hopkins 144th and Eberle 164th.
This has an interesting, intended or unintended consequence on the rest of the team. Renney has been avoiding defensive zone faceoffs for the Hopkins line at all costs and as a result has limited their total number of faceoffs. In faceoffs per 60 minutes of ice time, Eberle, Hall and Hopkins rank 378th, 386th, and 388th. Only five forwards in the NHL are sent out for less faceoffs than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Mattias Ritola, Andrew Gordon, Brad Staubitz, Cody McLeod, and Kyle Clifford. Kevin Westgarth is between Hopkins and Hall, then Rod Pelley, Kenndal McArdle, Nicklas Bergfors, Tim Brent, Ryan Reaves, Tim Stapleton and Ethan Moreau sit between Hall and Eberle. It's a collection of mostly goons and replacement-level players.
This should come as no surprise: among 88 qualifying forwards, Hopkins is dead last in faceoff percentage at 29.6%. Mike Riberio, ranked 87th, has won 40% of his faceoffs. Hopkins will get better in the faceoff circle. He's 18 years old and smaller than most of his opponents. His weight puts him at a disadvantage against heavier opponents in scrums and in using leverage once the puck is dropped. His age puts him at a disadvantage because not only is he facing off against people who have taken thousands, and sometimes ten thousand, more faceoffs, he's also limited because he hasn't had a chance to learn the tendencies of the NHL's linesmen, something great faceoff men like Ron Francis and Rod Brind'Amour made into an art form. But Hopkins is smart and possesses outstanding hockey sense, so he should get the faceoff thing with a bit of experience and a bit of weight.
Until then, Renney will keep Hopkins out of the faceoff circle and roll Horcoff and Belanger over the boards when he's got a faceoff to win. We'll also see strange things like Magnus Paajarvi 31st in faceoffs per 60, even though he's not a defensive specialist or top line forward (or a linemate of those players) like most of the group of 30 in front of him. That group is populated by names like Koivu, Staal, Plekanec, Bergeron, Ladd, Frolik, Glencross, Moore, Gaustad, Carter, Spezza, Bolland, Malhotra and Smithson.
Tom Renney is finally matching pairings, worrying about zonestars and chasing forward matchups. The sharps have asked for it since Pat Quinn was behind the bench, and begged for it from Renney last year. This year, Renney has delivered. The tactics will require a deeper understanding of lineup management, and a second look at the results the Oilers deliver. Metrics like adjusted Corsi and adjusted Scoring Chances will become more prevalent and the Oilers will generate quirky numbers like those above.