Ben Smith, and the Value of Penalty Kill Faceoffs

The Maple Leafs are currently faced with a problem we knew they would have from the start of the season: they just have too many forwards. If you had told me they’d claim two more on waivers to add to that mix, I would have said you were crazy, but here we are with Ben Smith and Seth Griffith added into the mix.

The Leafs chose to re-waive Seth Griffith, and I’m not going to get into why that itself was dumb. Instead, I want to focus on the addition of Ben Smith, and investigate what kind of effect he is having.

I have a two-part disclaimer for this post. First, if you don’t like math at all, you probably won’t enjoy this piece. Second, I am doing that thing where I already have a conclusion in my mind before I analyze the math, which is bad form, so I apologize for that.

Are you ready to dig into it?


Let’s start with what Ben Smith is. We all know what Babcock said, that he adds depth to the penalty killers. Specifically, that his faceoff ability was an attractive asset. 

We can call back this piece of “vintage” (i.e. pre-2013) analytics work done by Gabriel Desjardins (aka Hawerchuk) on faceoff effects. He broke it up into Even Strength and Powerplay and it looked like this:


So, you can see Babcock isn’t an idiot. The positive effect of winning a faceoff in your own zone does exist. You can also see that for a powerplay unit, it exists for approximately 16 seconds, and then it’s back to normal. That’s a pretty significant advantage! And the fact that we can quantify that advantage means we can extend it to Ben Smith’s time, and determine how much of an advantage he himself is providing.

(A surprising side note: faceoffs appear to be equally if not more important at 5v5 than when on the powerplay)

The issue is that this positive effect happens rarely. On average, a powerplay only gets 2.37 faceoffs in the offensive zone per game. So approximately 35 seconds of advantage are on the line. Let’s imagine Ben Smith takes all of them for the Leafs. Over the last three seasons, Ben Smith is exactly 50% on PK faceoffs so it’s a wash! But let’s be kind to him and use his all situations faceoff percentage – since really it shouldn’t matter – which is 51.96%. That means Ben Smith will gain his team less than one second of net advantage per game. ONE. SECOND. PER. GAME.

Meanwhile, Ben Smith plays no powerplay time (thank goodness) so his impact is contained within 5v5 and 4v5 strengths. Let’s quantify his impact there (all data from 2014-2017):

Strength TOI/G relCF60  relCA60 relGF60 relGA60
5v5 10:08 -11.12 3.98 -0.91 -0.61
4v5 2:04 n/a 26.33 n/a -0.74

So if you care about shot attempts (which you should) Ben Smith is having an astoundingly negative effect both at 5v5 and 4v5. If you only care about goals, though, I guess he’s doing pretty well. (You shouldn’t only care about goals).


The value added of PK faceoff wins is small. To the point where, if you were being extraordinarily stingy, you might say it’s non-existent. Meanwhile, Ben Smith is having a tangibly negative effect in the other areas of the game.

It shouldn’t take much deliberation to decide that playing Ben Smith is not a value added decision, and he should be replaced with a capable option sooner rather than later.

  • DukesRocks

    Since it’s very rare that I ever notice Ben Smith on the ice, seems like your conclusion is fair. Speaking of faceoffs anybody notice Kadri won 60-something percent of his faceoff last night against Philly. While this was nice to see, it was the way he was doing it that was interesting. Kadri was not crouched for the draw, he was kinda standing straight and slapping (slapshot-esque) at the puck in the faceoff dot. I guess whatever works keep doing it.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      A couple of games ago I heard the announcer say: ” Kadri has won 2 of 15 faceoffs so far. It is good to see him improving. Constantly giving the opposing team a slight edge will come back to bite you in the ass over 60 minutes.

  • Tigon

    It’s sad that the Leafs may end up losing Griffith and Leivo to obtain Smith. Or Griffith and Leivo to keep Hunwick. Or maybe it’s Griffith and Holland or Griffith and Corrado. Either way it’s poor moves. Id rather keep Griffith, Holland, Leivo and Corrado over Hunwick and Smith.

    (We lost Griffith to activate Hunwick, one of the others could be lost on waivers with the Leivo situation and I doubt it’s Smith being waived… so Holland, Leivo or Corrado). Bad “Trades” the Leafs would have lost if you look at it that way.

    • FlareKnight

      Frankly if that’s the saddest thing we deal with this season I’m loving it. Griffith was alright and Leivo has shown potential….but neither is a core guy for the future. The majority of the guys in the bottom 6 or that we’ve waived aren’t part of the plan and are easily replaced by numerous guys currently on the Marlies.

      No point getting attached to guys that aren’t important.

      • Tigon

        It’s about asset management. I don’t care if they aren’t part of our core, they still have value. Look at a team like Chicago that has to purge every offseason; they get value for their non-core pieces. Even Pittsburgh got a 5th for Condon. Kassian for Scrivens – two non-core pieces moved for something else that might work better; but not just thrown away for nothing on waivers.

        I’m annoyed because they are giving these non-core pieces up to keep worse non-core pieces. Smith is a fringe NHL player in his late 20s and you’re keeping him over the likes of Leivo and Griffith, both 23, who have not even been given a chance yet. Their track records prove they have higher upside, or as you said, have potential. Hunwick probably won’t even be here next season (please hockey gods) and he is playing over a guy who could easily replace him in a younger, probably better, Corrado.

        It’s not an attachment issue, it’s an asset management issue and usage issue.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          The value of bubble players on successful teams that are either contenders or have won a Stanley Cup is high. Conversely the value of bubble players on teams at or near the bottom of the league is negligible. Holland is a great example. As a bubble player with the Anaheim Ducks, he was traded to Toronto for Jesse Blacker and two draft picks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. This summer he was waived and no one claimed him for free.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        One could include that because of our prospect pool of high speed, highly skilled, highly motivated players, Babcock may be the first coach that goes with a top 12 near equal time, forward line up. This year we are definitely seeing a top nine set up.

  • LukeWarmWater

    I tend to trust that this current management truly knows what it is doing and has been stated we have a good nucleus of youngsters down on the farm unlike the Jays. That being the case somebody will be expendable.

    I want to pontificate from Mount Sinai to give a sermon on the mount on the importance of a line having all three players on the same page. I thought brother Luke brought up a good point on J.V.R. as tho whether he is fully recovered from his injury last year. But I’m sure these two off the record are saying that they are very excited about playing with a dynamic youngster who has God given offence talent but who also plays a 200 foot game, he back checks, he blocks shots at one point early in the year he had the most block shots by a leaf forward. Obviously this helps improve this line’s defensive record.

    Now compare that to their previous sea gulling team mate, yep neither J.V.R. or Bozak will win the Frank Selke trophy but how much were they hurt by the selfish play of Kessel when it came to the line’s defensive record.

    If you have ambidextrous eye balls you can watch a very talented forward in the N.B.A. Carmelo Anthony, who similar to Phil the thrill plays strictly an offensive game. Team mates this season are finally speaking out saying he really hurts our defence. Last night he got into a hissy fit and got thrown out in the second quarter.

    How often have you seen a good pitcher watch some stumbling bum out fielder who with lack of effort allows catchable balls fall in for doubles and triples.

    In all sports the name of the game is to attempt to play a complete game. In Marner, J.V.R. and Bozak truly have a beauty for a line mate.

  • STAN

    I’m also a little baffled at Ben Smith’s presence in the lineup and Seth Griffith’s banishment and subsequent relocation to Florida. On the other hand, Leivo’s return could see Smith put on waivers and if no one wants him, sent across town to the Marlies. But two Marlies, Kapanen and Leipsic, should soon get promotions and that will likely spell the end of Holland. And what’s the deal with Kari Ramo? Might they sign him and send Enroth down, or trade him in a package of surplus forwards for a top four defenseman?

    Lou hasn’t made any awful moves, at least not yet, although the Matt Martin signing was a little weird.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Which one will be playing center taking the draws on the penalty kill. Kapenen or Leipsic or Leivo? Enroh has looked very pedestrian in goal. If Ramo is a better back up then the smart thing to do is sign him. Winnipegs asking price for Trouba was aproximately JVR or Marner, plus Neilson and next years number one draft pick. So trading Enroth and a package of surplus forwards will not get you a top four four defenceman in this league. It might get you you a bottom six guy if your lucky.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Re – “Smith should be replaced with a capable option sooner rather than later.”. Who? Your premise is anyone can win 50% of the faceoffs. I don’t believe that to be true. Smith is often taking defensive zone faceoffs against the other teams top line. Winning 50% of the faceoffs is far better than winning 20%. Using one of your top nine to take the draws messes up how you deploy your lines. Byron Froese was with the Leafs last year strickly on his abliltiy to win faceoffs. Yes you could use Matthews on the penalty kill and the power play and his regular shift. He won’t have much left in the tank at the end of the game though. Bozak does it now and he does fade in the third period. With the salary cap forcing parity thoughout the league it doesn’t take much to tip the scales one way or the other. As an example. Babcock has been asked all year why Rielly is not seeing much power play time. Finally after last nights game when Rielly scored, Babcock answered the question. He said, it works out if you score on the power play. If you don’t, the next line the penalty killing teams will put on the ice will be their top line. His first choice is to put Rielly on the ice as he is our best defenceman. He can’t do it because Rielly will be exhausted from just playing the power play. I always wondered why teams after killing the power play often come back and score. I always though it was because the whole team got a lift from killing off the penalty. Now I know different. They ice their best line against a weaker defense. It is these tiny details that have made Babcock one of the best coaches in the league. Last year the Edmonton coach decided to use McDavid on the penalty kill. If you watch the replay McDavid is in the offensive zone facing two Boston defenders. Both defenders decide to play the body to take McDavid out, riding him into the boards breaking his collar bone. Even Don Cherry said what have the got McDavid doing on the penalty kill. ” Are they nuts”. Having a fourth line player take those draws and win 50% of them makes a lot of sense. Keeps most of your top nine fresh and available.