What do Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have in common?
They’re poised to make a splash for the Washington Capitals in their first (full) NHL seasons. Neither is a natural centerman, but both have worked to adapt to the position under coach Barry Trotz. And both are in the running for second-line center.
But who is more qualified for the position? Who will be most successful?
It’s tough to predict offensive totals for rookies like Burakovsky, who shone in the uber-inflated OHL. Scoring runs high, and he was one of the league’s strongest offensive players. That’s not to say Burakovsky won’t be successful, but he had incredible linemates during his time with the Erie Otters. In Washington, he won’t be paired with a handful of scoring machines like Connor McDavid or Dane Fox. Trotz has penciled him in as the team’s 3C, where he’ll probably spend most minutes with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera–both effective, grinding, play-driving wingers.
In the OHL, Burakovsky played left wing. The Otters’ surplus of high-quality centers helped set him up (literally) to score 41 goals in 57 games. His 46 assists were also impressive, and hopefully indicative of his. If Burakovsky centers Ward and Chimera, he’ll be aiming to help Ward and Chimera continue their positive trends in scoring. In the preseason, he’s played his new position with a variety of linemates, even on the first line. Trotz is clearly pleased with the results and all but stated that his position on the team is secure.
So how likely is Burakovsky to steal the 2C spot from Kuznetsov?
Let’s turn to the statistics side of things (my efforts to track down fancy stats in major junior have been far from successful.)
Rob Vollman, author of Hockey Abstract, estimates Kuznetsov will score well above 40 points in his upcoming season (the specifics can be found here.) Kuznetsov made his NHL debut last spring, and put up nine points in 16 games. His offensive totals and position have been hotly debated since he was drafted in 2010. At present, it appears that Trotz will employ Kuznetsov as the team’s second-line center, a position that requires superb setup skills in addition to goal-scoring ability.
While Kuznetsov has been guilty of some egregious defensive lapses, Trotz seems fairly unconcerned with these growing pains. He described himself as “patient” in evaluating the rookies’ progress, adding that “in the long run, they’re going to get better and better as they play more and more.”
Slotting two rookie centers into the opening night lineup appears to be cause for concern. Strength down the middle has been lacking for the Caps in recent seasons. But both players have versatility, albeit in different ways. Each could revert to playing wing. And if Burakovsky struggles with bottom-six minutes at the NHL level, he’s still eligible to play in Hershey. Kuznetsov has multiple, successful seasons at the pro level under his belt, and he spent some of that time as a center.
However, a strong center must be able to win faceoffs. Neither Burakovsky nor Kuznetsov has excelled in winning the draw. If Trotz is correct and patience pays off, both will blossom into faceoff-winning machines. Faceoffs in particular seem to be tricky; Eric Fehr cited them as a reason for his discomfort at the center position. But there’s always the possibility that Burakovsky makes a strong case for the 2C role midway through the season, and he gets bumped up at Kuznetsov’s expense. Stranger things have happened (see: Beagle centering Ovechkin.) For the time being, however, Kuznetsov is arguably the best guy for the job.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of time fiddling around on War on Ice since it recently went live. Sometimes I come across some really surprising stuff. My latest surprise was seeing Quintin Laing’s numbers from the 2007-08 season. In 39 games, Laing posted a FF% of 62.28, the highest season FF% of any Caps player (39+ games) on record at War on Ice, which goes back as far as 2002. For more context on just how good a FF% of 62.28 is, only 4 Caps (39+ games) have had a season FF% higher than 60 since 2002.
Here they are:
In the 2007-08 season, Laing’s FF% was the best on the team by a wide margin, with Fehr finishing 2nd at 58.89. Laing did not face particularly tough competition that season, finishing 18th on the team in QoC TOI% at 28.12. However, he was given the second toughest zone starts on the team, with an offensive ZS% of 42.13.
Here’s the Caps player usage chart for the season. You can find Laing on the far left middle, just below Boyd Gordon.
In the 39 games he played, Laing only saw 8:45 ATOI. His close-game numbers, while still stellar, were not quite as strong. His Fenwick % of 55.25 falls to 8th best on the team. Laing’s FenClose rel is 5th at +6.04%.
It’s a shame Laing didn’t play more games for the Caps, or else his possession numbers and zone starts probably would have landed him on the Caps advanced stats All-Star team.
If Barry Trotz gets his way, the Caps will have 25 players on their roster by Friday. This target number will include eight defensemen, 15 forwards, and 2 goalies. Some cuts are more surprising than others, with waivers playing a role in Trotz’s decisions.
Last season, the Caps lacked a true fourth defenseman, and the bottom pairing was typically an amalgam of rookies. This time around, the issue is how Trotz will construct all three pairings, given the rich talent available and competition for the sixth, seventh, and eighth blueline slots.
Let’s take a look at some of the most notable cuts, all of which are defensemen.
After four seasons with the Miami RedHawks, Schilling was targeted by several NHL teams. Yet he signed with the Caps in 2012 and inked an extension this summer. He’s one of the few defensive defensemen in the Caps’ system and has played in only one NHL game. Schilling is hardly a top prospect, yet he shows promise.
The 25-year-old may be a target for a claim by another NHL club. Sending him at this point of the preseason, when NHL rosters are full and depth charts deep, may reduce the chances of a waiver claim.
Expect Schilling to spend the majority of his upcoming season in Hershey, where strong play could earn him a call-up to D.C. However, he must clear waivers to resume play with the Bears. Given the number of Schilling’s previous suitors, however, it’s unlikely that he’d make the cut later in the season, especially when teams are adjusting their defensive cores and must cope with injuries.
Copley’s strong training camp earned him two games in the Caps’ preseason. The first was the Caps’ preseason opener, a 1-0 win over the Sabres. Copley stopped all six shots he faced before his next outing, the first of the Caps’ back-to-back matchups with the Bruins. The game ended in a 2-0 loss for the Caps, and Copley allowed one of nine shots.
Before training camp, Copley was expected to compete for the starting job with the Caps’ ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays. But an injury to Eddie Pasquale, the projected backup for Philipp Grubauer, may give Copley to chance to compete for the backup job. However, it’s also possible that both goalies see time in both the AHL and ECHL throughout the season.
Though consistently ranked one of the Caps’ top prospects, Bowey was a long shot to make the roster. He didn’t survive the first round of cuts and will foreseeably spend the upcoming season with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, where he’ll enter his second year of captaincy.
Bowey needs additional seasoning before he’s ready to compete for an AHL or NHL job, an assessment he believes accurate. But his strong performance at rookie camp was indicative of his development. He and Christian Djoos were regular partners on the top pairing, and he saw his share of power-play time. One highlight was a wicked pass during the Fan Fest scrimmage–one example of the types of plays Bowey hopes to make.
Since his return to Kelowna, Bowey has made his presence known. He notched three power-play assists, helping guide the Rockets to a 8-2 win. Should the Rockets bow out of the playoffs early, Bowey could see time with the Bears. He’ll turn 20 in late April, a milestone and exemption from the CHL-NHL agreement.
Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRGB Photography
In previous posts, I’ve discussed certain line combinations and made a case for why some make sense and others should be avoided. One of the conclusions I’ve made is that Eric Fehr should be on the first line alongside Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Another post looked at the fact that Troy Brouwer should be a winger on the 2nd line and Brooks Laich should center the 3rd line.
Barry Trotz has said that the 2nd line center job is essentially a battle between Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov and that the loser of the battle will likely be shifted to the wing. So where does the loser fit best? All sample sizes involving Kuznetsov, he of the 17 NHL games, are entirely too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, so I’m not going to focus on him for now. Instead, I want to look at Johansson.
I’m skeptical of his ability to be an effective 2C for any team that hopes to compete this season. Johansson is an alright player, but he’s yet to become the player the Caps hoped he would when they made him a 1st round pick. But even if he loses the 2C job, if Trotz sticks to what he says and puts Johnasson on the wing, it’s hard to believe he won’t be on the 2nd line (or maybe the first, but I’m going to hold out hope Fehr gets that spot). The 3rd line wingers are almost certainly Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and it’s hard to see Johansson demoted to the 4th line in favor of any of the remaining wingers.
As I’ve said, Kuznetsov’s sample sizes are too small to draw much from. So, if Brouwer and Johansson end up on the 2nd line together (whether MoJo is a C or W), is this a duo that’s likely to be part of an effective 2nd line? Here’s a look at their CF% together and when apart.
Brouwer and Johansson together are sub 47%. This is not a good start to the makings of an effective 2nd line. That’s not to say a change in systems or a boost in chemistry from the 3rd player on the line couldn’t help things, but this is starting behind the 8-ball, so to speak.
But what’s really interesting here is that Johansson’s CF% isn’t good with or without Brouwer (Brouwer’s overall CF% w/out Johansson is solid). In his career, over 3411 minutes of play, Marcus Johansson is only a 47.6% CF player. Johansson has played 191 or more minutes with 20 different players during his NHL career. He has a CF% of 50 or greater with just one of these players, Nick Backstrom. Only 1 of these players, Jay Beagle, has seen an increase in CF% with Johansson than without him. In general (as in, 95% of the time in our sample) Johansson is a sub-50% CF player and drags down his teammate’s possession numbers.
But, a closer look is cause for some hope when it comes to Johansson’s possession. Here’s his career FenClose rel numbers by season.
So, after being a negative possession player, relative to his team in his first two seasons, Johansson has been a positive possession player in the two seasons since. This won’t necessarily show up as a +50% CF since Johansson was a positive possession player on relatively weak possession teams. This isn’t a knock on Johansson, in fact it’s a credit to him for doing more with less, so to speak.
What to expect moving forward
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Johansson is only entering his age-24 season (determined by the player’s age on Feb 1st of that season). Since 1998, 4 other players have played at least as many career minutes as Johansson (4327) with his point total (139) or less by the end of their age 23 season. Taking a look at these players in their age-24 seasons can help us see if it’s realistic to expect any sort of jump in production from Johansson this year or if he is what he is at this point, so to speak. Here’s each player’s goals, assists, and points per 60 minutes entering their age-24 season, which Johansson is about to enter.
Johansson has been the most productive player/60 minutes of play among those who met the criteria. It should be noted that all players on this list are former first round picks. Further, all of these players except Brown are listed as Centers. But what about production when these players enter their age-24 season? Can it tell us anything about what to expect from Johansson this year?
|Through age-23 season||0.55||0.83||1.38|
While the goals and assists were distributed a little differently, the overall production is within .02 P/60, an insignificant difference. So, those expecting a drastic uptick in production from Johansson will likely be disappointed.
But, his improved relative possession play over the past two seasons is encouraging. Can this result in better possession from him and Brouwer a a duo? I’m not sure, but my guess is that we’re going to find out, whether Johansson plays as the C or W on the line.
To recap this and other posts, here are the conclusions I’ve reached about the Caps lines so far:
Johansson (as W or C)-?-Brouwer
I’ll have some thoughts on the 4th line next week.
War on Ice, Hockey Analysis, and Hockey Reference all used as resources for this article
Barry Trotz has said not to read too much into his lines for the first 3 preseason games. He has also dropped a few hints as to what the regular season lines may look like. He has said Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin will play together, as will Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. He has also said that the 2nd line center battle is between Maruc Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, with the loser likely being shifted to the wing. This is music to my ears. What this hopefully means is that the loser will shift to wing and not the 3C slot because Brooks Laich will be the 3C. This would eliminate an issue that Trotz has that revolves around the fact that there is not room for Laich and Troy Brouwer in the top-6 because, as I’ll spell out below, it will result in non-optimal line combinations.
I’ve already written about the fact that I think Eric Fehr should be the winger to play with Backstrom and Ovechkin. But for my purpose here, I’ll back up and explain why Laich and Brouwer can’t both fit in the Caps top-6.
First, here’s a look at Brooks Laich’s CF% with and without Backstrom and Ovechkin.
Laich’s possession game suffers when playing with Ovechkin. His possession game improves slightly when with Backstrom. Now, let’s look at how Ovechkin and Backstrom do with and without Laich.
This chart is about all I need to see that Laich shouldn’t be in the running for playing alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom. He’s dead weight to them. He drags their possession numbers down drastically. Yes, Laich’s possession numbers see a slight improvement when playing with Backstrom, but this is more than offset by the much larger dip in possession Backstrom sees with Laich relative to without him.
So what about Troy Brouwer? Maybe he can play alongside the Caps dynamic duo.
Brouwer’s possession play suffers when playing with the Caps two best players. This doesn’t bode well for him being a viable option as the RW to play alongside them come opening night. But, for the sake of thoroughness, let’s see what playing with Brouwer does to Backstrom’s and Ovechkin’s possession.
I think these two charts show that playing Brouwer with Ovechkin and Backstrom is a possession disaster, which would make it pretty tough for this line to be successful.
So, if neither Laich nor Brouwer are a fit to play RW on the Caps top line, one possibility is that they will play on the 2nd line together. As has been well-documented by many of those around the Caps Blogosphere, these two together are a DISASTER. In case you’re not convinced, here’s another fancy chart.
Laich and Brouwer are not a good combination on a line together. Neither fits on the top line. That leaves room for one of them in the top-6 on the second line. Laich’s versatility and the Caps lack of depth at Center make him the clear candidate to be used as the 3C instead of in the top-6. This puts Brouwer playing wing on the 2nd line.
To reiterate, putting only one of these two in the top-6 makes sense on multiple levels:
-It keeps either player from dragging down the Ovechkin/Backstrom duo.
-It keeps the two from playing together, which is a disaster.
-Placing Laich at 3C helps shore up the Caps lack of depth down the middle.
All stats from Hockey Analysis
Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
There have been no shortage of opinions offered on the Caps off-season signing of Brooks Orpik, including here at BrooksLaichyear. I’ve been clear that I think this is the wrong player at the wrong price. Others have said the deal will be fine for 2 or 3 years, and will only look bad for the last couple of years as Orpik inches closer to 40. Is this really true? What can we expect from Orpik as a 34 year old, which is the age he will be on opening night? To get a feel for how defensemen perform as Orpik’s age, I looked at all defensemen in the last 5 years who played 1500+ minutes in their age 33 season to see how their production fared the following season. Including Orpik, there are 14 defenseman who qualified.
To start, we’ll look at possession. Here are the 14 defensemen (Orpik included with age-33 numbers only, obviously) and how their FenClose Rel in their age-33 season compared to their age-34 season.
This is a little bit of a mess to make sense of, so here’s the average 33 & 34 numbers.
The group of defenders were about 3.5% worse, possession-wise, relative to their teammates, in their age-34 season compared to age-33. If Brooks Orpik were to see a 3.5% relative decease in his possession, he will have a FenClose Rel of about -10.5% next season. Ouch. It should be noted that 5 of the 13 defensemen did see an improvement in their possession in their age-34 season. But overall the possession numbers don’t bode well for Orpik.
So, how about minutes? Have players in their age-34 season been able to handle the same workload as the previous season?
This chart is a bit easier to look at than the possession one but a chart displaying the averages will still make the numbers easier to assess.
While history may tell us to worry a bit about Orpik’s possession, it appears that he can likely still handle the same amount of minutes, albeit not as well.
But what about the type of minutes? Based off of recent comparable players, is Orpik likely to receive minutes against similar competition?
While there were some individual differences in competition level faced, on a whole the difference was very slight. Players faced about the same competition in the two seasons, with a slight edge going to age-33 seasons.
Players faced slightly tougher relative zone starts in their age-33 season compared to their age-34, but the difference isn’t much.
Possession is the one area where there was a noteworthy difference between players in their age-33 season vs. their age-34. What this tells us is that players are less effective at 34 than at 33 but their deployment and usage are not yet being adjusted to their less effective play.
No doubt, Orpik will be a steadier presence on the Caps blue line than the revolving door of defenders we saw last year. And yes, this deal will handcuff the team even more later in the deal than now. But age has already started negatively impacting Brooks Orpik, age 34, in year 1 of a 5 year deal.
All stats from War on Ice. Search done on Hockey Reference
Love it or hate it, the Caps kick off preseason on Sunday with a late-afternoon game against the Sabres. It’s the first of eight contests before their first taste of regular-season action against the Habs. Without further ado, here’s a look at the Caps’ 2014 preseason debut.
9/21 vs. Buffalo
The Sabres won’t contend for much besides the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. Factor in the preseason’s low quality of play, and the Caps should have a fairly winnable game on their hands. Then again, it is the preseason–barely more than a chance for Trotz to implement his system in game conditions, assess players old and new, and tinker with line combinations and defensive pairings.
But watching Sam Reinhart get a taste of action in a Buffalo sweater is reason enough to tune in. And remember Michal Neuvirth? He’s in the last year of his contract and will be battling Jhonas Enroth for the role of starting goaltender. It’s possible that Holtby and Neuvirth could face each other, though offseason acquisition Justin Peters might make an appearance. The Caps invited eight goalies to training camp, and it’s clear where the majority will start the season. However, injuries may shake up the Bears and Stingrays. Seeing how the lower-level goalies hold their own against a blend of rookies and veterans will be an important part of assessing their abilities.
The same can be said of both rookies and veterans. While there’s only one major hole among forwards, it’s a pretty significant one: second-line center. Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, Johansson, and Laich are in the running, and Trotz will definitely try each at the position. How Burakovsky will fare against bigger, stronger competition is unknown. Kuznetsov saw a sliver of NHL action toward the tail end of last season, but the full extent of his abilities against top competition is another question mark. Johansson’s role with the Caps remains murky as ever, despite his history with the franchise. Uncertainty surrounds Laich, once the Caps’ most versatile player. The issue isn’t where he’ll fit; it’s his health.
Yet one player must juggle both concerns, from his role to his health. His name is Mike Green, and today might be his first game under Trotz’s new system–one designed to maximize his puck-moving abilities and offensive touch.
Many have Green pegged as half of the Caps’ bottom pairing. I believe it’s unlikely for the regular season, but Trotz has made clear he’ll be mixing and matching the defensemen. “Don’t read into anything,” he said on the issue of constructing lines and pairings. Erskine-Carrick 2.0 will hopefully be avoided, but watching the Caps’ core defensemen trade places will be interesting. Trotz also stated that the sixth, seventh, and eighth blueline spots are there for the taking–news that should invigorate Orlov, an apparent lock for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, a wrist injury will keep him out of commission until the regular season, but a slew of rookies will be eager to take his place. Schmidt and Carrick both saw significant ice time last season and will be given a serious look from Trotz and his staff–even if they arguably need additional seasoning.
All in all, this first game won’t be particularly telling. It’s the first game of the preseason, which some argue isn’t worth watching. Nothing of merit will be revealed, much less finalized, after a game’s worth of play. New coaches and new players amp up the entertainment value–as does the number of times Ovechkin will inevitably be dubbed enigmatic and/or lazy.
As part of their 40th anniversary season, the Caps are asking fans to help them vote on the 40 greatest Caps players in the team’s history. I’m not asking for your vote and I’m not looking at the entire history of the team. Instead, I am looking at the Caps advanced stats All-Stars from the Alex Ovechkin era (2005-06-present). I am not claiming that advanced stats are the end of the discussion when it comes to player evaluation. However, they are for my purposes here. I also didn’t consider forward specific positions. Instead, I picked 3 forwards and 2 defenseman. I set the minimum games played to a completely arbitrary 115 games.
To rank the players, I looked at FenClose, FenClose rel, zone starts, and quality of competition. If a player ranked 1st, he got 5 points, down through 5th place getting 1 point. This was done for each of the 4 categories.
Without further delay, here are the long-awaited Caps advanced stats All-Stars from the Ovechkin era.
Forward #1-Sergei Fedorov (10 points)
Fedorov finished first in FenClose (56.19%) and FenRel (+4.43%). He wasn’t anywhere near the top in zone starts (0.73%% ZS rel), but did finish 8th in quality of competition (28.82).
Forward #2-Nick Backstrom (9 points)
Backstrom’s FenClose was good enough for 5th (53.44) and his FenRel 3rd (+3.28%). Backstrom’s zone starts were not noteworthy (6.08%). Backstrom really shines in quality of competition, where he finished first (29.63%)
Forward #3-Viktor Kozlov (7 points)
Kozlov finished 2nd in FenClose (54.48%), but did not place in the top-5 in FenClose rel (0.34%), a sign that he benefited from playing on very strong possession teams. Kozlov also didn’t find himself in the top-5 in zone starts (5.58% ZS rel). However, he finished 3rd in quality of competition (29.39), cementing his place on the All-Star team.
Defenseman #1-Mike Green (10 points)
This isn’t surprising to anyone who pays attention to possession numbers. Green finished 1st in FenClose (53.10%) and 2nd in FenClose rel (+3.12%). Green didn’t place in the top 5 in zone starts (4.54%) but came in 5th in quality of competition (28.62%).
Defenseman #2 Shaone Morrissonn (9 points)
This was the biggest surprise to me, by a long ways. Morrisonn finished 5th in FenClose (50.21%) but didn’t make the top 5 in FenClose rel (-1.21%). He faced the toughest zone starts (-4.17%) and the 3rd toughest quality of competition (29.03%).
Here’s a player usage chart of the 5 All-Stars.
Morrisonn was the only negative possession player relative to his teammates. However, this is counter-balanced by the fact that he faced the toughest zone starts and 3rd toughest competition among all qualified defenseman. His inclusion is still shocking to me.
Ladies and gentlemen, the wait is finally over. Let’s hear it for your Caps advanced stats All-Stars of the Ovechkin era.
Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
Since the departure of Alex Semin, Mike Green is the most divisive player among Caps fans. I’m a Green supporter. Yes, he has defensive lapses that are glaring and costly. Yes, his offensive production has dropped off significantly and injuries have mounted. But the Caps are a better team with Mike Green than without him. He’s a possession monster and his skating ability is top-notch. The Caps additions on the blue line this off-season have left Green’s role in question, including who will play the point on the power play.
A lot of things will go into Green’s level of success this year. Perhaps the most important change is that the new coaching staff, led by Barry Trotz, have already said they will move away from Adam Oates’ insistence that the Caps defenders not carry the puck. Allowing Green the ability to showcase his skating a bit more should help his production.
One facet that I wanted to look at is how the coaching changes could affect Green by looking at how other offensive defeseman have fared before and during their time under the guidance of Todd Reirdan, who replaces Calle Johannson in handling the coaching duties of the Caps defenseman. As I said, this is just one of many facets and by focusing on this one facet I am not suggesting that it exists in a vacuum. I’m also not suggesting that the difference in results below are simply because of a coaching change.
Todd Reirden joins the Caps coaching staff after being an assistant in Pittsburgh since 2010. In Pittsburgh, two of the supremely offensively-gifted defenders Reirden coached were Kris Letang and now Cap Matt Niskanen. Here’s how each of these players did, possession wise, before and with Reirden.
Both players saw a significant uptick in possession under Reirden. Yes, both of these guys also happened to enter their prime under Reirden, and these are overall possession numbers, not relative. But Reirden was the defensive coach during the time both players saw a significant uptick in their possession numbers. This can’t be ignored.
Enough about possession, how about production? This is 5-on-5 only.
Given the rise in possession shown in the first graph, the rise in production isn’t surprising. Both Niskanen and Letang saw a rise in production across the board under Reirden’s watch. In fact, both had a higher assists/60 with Reirden than points/60 before they were coached by him.
Simply because two offensive defenders entered their prime years under Reirden and improved their results drastically doesn’t mean that a 28 year old Mike Green is certain to have a return to glory because of the new coach in charge of the defense. But, it’s certainly not going to hurt. And allowing Green the freedom to use his skating ability and creativity is also not going to hurt. While I’m not expecting Green to return to his production levels from the Boudreau years, I do expect an uptick in his production this season.
Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
Barry Trotz has not been shy in heaping praise upon Nick Backstrom since becoming head coach of the Caps. Trotz has also noted how under appreciated he feels Backstrom is around the league. I think Backstrom is deeply appreciated by Caps fans, generally recognized as one of the most important players on this team. But, just in case you forgot about how great Backstrom is, here’s a reminder.
Backstrom’s career usage chart displays a few things,none of which are surprising, but that I think are cool to see in visual form. The first is that he’s only been a negative possession player relative to his teammates once in his career. That is was in 2008-09, and it was by less than 1/4 of a %. Other than that, the Caps, season-by-season, have always been a better possession team with Backstrom on the ice than without him. Backstrom has also faced pretty stiff competition, almost always finishing a season north of 29.2% TOI competition. That’s what we’d expect to find from a 1C who is often deployed with Alex Ovechkin.
Much has been made about the fact that Alex Ovechkin will likely start the season back at LW. It’s a fairly safe assumption that Backstrom will line up at Center on a line with Ovechkin. What potential RW would benefit the most by being centered by Backstrom? And what player would Backstrom most benefit from having on his right side?
I’m making a few assumptions in my considerations. One is that Brooks Laich and Evgeny Kuznetsov are not candidates, as I expect them to fill the 3C and 2C spots, respectively. I’m also assuming that most any winger is eligible. It is safe to assume that Trotz won’t be as obsessed with handedness as Adam Oates was, right? I’ve also excluded Tom Wilson from my list of viable options to play alongside Backstrom because their sample size together is minuscule, so there’s nothing to learn from their history together. Here’s how the remaining options for Trotz stack up, measured in Corsi For with and without Backstrom. These are career numbers.
A note on the sample size here. Minutes with Backstrom are as follows: Brouwer 758:32, Johansson 991:41, Ward 88:53, Fehr 391:26, Chimera 314:37.
Here’s how Backstrom fared with and without each player listed above.
The “with” sample sizes here are obviously the same.
Brouwer and Johansson have by far the biggest sample sizes playing with Backstrom. It’s clear that Brouwer and Backstrom are not a good match as they both see their possession numbers plummet when playing together. Johansson sees his possession numbers improve with Backstrom, but he’s dead weight to Backstrom, who sees a significant jump in possession away from Johansson. Jason Chimera also appears to be a poor fit with Backstrom.
Joel Ward’s sample size with Backstrom is quite small, but the results are decent. That being said, his skill set is one that thrives on a 3rd line and is likely not suited to play with the likes of Backstrom and Ovechkin on a regular basis.
That bring us to Eric Fehr. Fehr’s success with Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski is something we’ve already talked about here in other posts. Fehr’s possession benefits from playing with Backstrom and Backstrom’s possession drops the least when playing with Fehr out of all of the RW options. Long story short, if Eric Fehr is not playing RW alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom on opening night, I’ll consider it a mistake by Trotz.
Nicklas Backstrom is awesome, isn’t he? And boy, an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr line on opening night sure does make a lot of sense.
All stats pulled from War on Ice and Hockey Analysis