How do you measure puck possession, and why are the Sabres so bad at it? - Part I

Jonathan Daniel

The hottest two words in hockey advanced stats these days are "puck possession," and with good reason. Today we take a look at the Fenwick Close stat that drives puck possession stats, and why the Sabres are so darn bad at it.

The Buffalo Sabres have a special connection to the world of advanced stats due to their goaltending coach Jim Corsi's invention of the Corsi number, which is probably the most well-known and widely used advanced stat, even seeing air time on this year's Sabres broadcasts.

The Sabres also have another special connection to the world of advanced hockey stats - over the past two season they've been terrible at pretty much all of them.

While we could spend hours going over every single bottom-10 ranking the blue and gold currently own, today we're here to talk about two of the hottest words in hockey these days - puck possession.

What is puck possession, and why is it so important?

The concept of puck possession is incredibly basic - it's simply the act of one team controlling the puck. The reason it's so important is because if your team has the puck, the other team can't score, while your team obviously can. Still with me so far? Good.

How do you measure puck possession?

It's a bit more complicated than simply counting the number of seconds one team has the puck versus the other, and that stat wouldn't really matter anyway. There's a chunk of time in the game where nobody controls the puck - like during battles along the boards - and there's also some time where your puck possession isn't really doing much - like when a defnseman waits behind his own net for his teammates to complete a change.

No, the stat we're going to use to measure puck possession is called Fenwick Close.

Okay, so explain Fenwick Close?

Gladly - the Fenwick stat is very similar to the Corsi stat, only it ignores blocked shots, leaving it as simply an equation of shots on goal + missed shots. When you divide your team's Fenwick For (the number of shots/missed shots your team took) by the total Fenwick number for both teams, you get a percentage, known as a team's Fenwick For Percentage, or FF%.

The "Close" in Fenwick Close refers only to shots that are taken when the game is tied, or when a team is up or down by just one goal in the first and second period. It attempts to account for teams taking their foot off the gas with a lead (something the Sabres excel at) and only compares teams playing with (theoretically) equal effort.

The most average team in the league should rank 15th with a FF% of 50%. As of this writing, the New Jersey Devils are 15th in the league in FF%, with 49.6%, so we're pretty much right on track.

The Buffalo Sabres are dead last with a FF% of 39.7%.

So How Does FF% Determine Possession Again?

Fenwick helps determine possession because the more shots your team takes, the more they theoretically are controlling the puck. You can't shoot if you don't have the puck, right? If you're a believer in Fenwick, stats like hits and blocked shots actually can be somewhat of a negative stat - the thought being that both stats indicate that your team does not control the puck. Incidentally, the Sabres are 6th in the NHL in hits right now.

OK, I Get It Now, But Is FF% A Good Indicator Of Success?

Yes, it is, and it's a much more repeatable stat than many others. This year, the top two teams in each conference, Pittsburgh and San Jose, rank 7th and 2nd, respectively, in FF%. Last year's Stanley Cup Finals between the Blackhawks and Bruins was a matchup of the 2nd and 4th place FF% teams.

If you want more visual proof, check out this amazing graphic from Eyes On The Prize which relates the last 5 years of FF% to playoff success.

If FF% Indicates Success, And The Sabres Are Dead Last In The NHL, Then...Oh.

Yup. And if that doesn't make you feel good, they were also in the same spot last year.

The reasons why would be things like zone entries, poor passing, and certain players being just horrible at this skill, which we'll dive into in greater depth during Part II later this week.

For now, go bookmark the excellent site ExtraSkater.com, which focuses on more advanced stats such as FF%, features real-time stat updates, and which we (and the rest of the hockey world) will be using and referencing all year. BehindTheNet.ca is another great site for advanced stats, and if you want more to read right now, check out our summer reading article on advanced stats if you missed it in August.

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