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
Some of the Caps fanbase on Twitter and other social media outlets seems a bit uneasy about the fact that the Caps have not yet made a big splash in the free agency market. While certain players may have made some sense (i.e. PA Parenteau), I’m in no way bothered by the Caps lack of activity thus far. I would rather the team save the cap space to address needs at a date later than July 1st than rashly fill a hole in a manner that will likely prove to be inadequate or with a contract that will become regrettable. That being said, there are holes on this roster that need to be fixed, most notably, a winger to replace Alex Semin on the second line.
The Caps filled a major hole on the roster by acquiring Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars. However, with the impending departure of Semin via free agency, the Caps still have some work to do in terms of their top 2 lines. Given the lack of top-6 talent on the free agent market, the Caps may be best served to make a deal for a winger to play on one of the top two lines, which brings us to scenario one…
Trade for Bobby Ryan or a similar player.
This scenario was brought up recently over at Japers’ Rink with the hypothetical package of Dmitri Orlov, Marcus Johansson and a 1st round pick going to Anaheim for Bobby Ryan. For a good debate on the value of that deal, head on over and read the comments section. For my purposes here, I’ll assume the value makes sense for both teams. If this trade were to happen, or one for a player similar to Ryan, the Caps group of forwards would look like this:
Perreault-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Ryan( or similar player)
Is Perreault a top-6 winger? No. But could he be a serviceable option given the quality of the players on his line as well as the quality of the other lines? I would vote yes. The top two lines would have plenty of scoring and prove difficult to play against with physical players such as Ovechkin, Brouwer and a Ryan-type player. I see no question marks with the third and fourth lines listed above, they’d make Dale Hunter proud (and probably be his first and second lines).
However, we can play arm-chair GM all we want, but it doesn’t magically make Bobby Ryan or a similar player available and/or affordable. So what if the Caps can’t bring in a second-line winger? What if the contract or asking price for such a player is currently at a level that will do more harm than good for the Caps? This bring us to scenario 2…
Sign Jason Arnott
This comes with a disclaimer. Ultimately, the Caps need a to acquire a 2W, not Jason Arnott. Without acquiring a winger to play on the second line, the Caps are not legitimate Cup contenders. But what if nothing makes sense? Should the Caps stand pat? Depending on the what’s available, possibly, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. Instead, the Caps should put a band-aid on the situation and wait until a trade for a 2W opens up. A band-aid type fix would involve bringing in a player on a short-term, low-risk deal so as not to handcuff the team should a 2W becomes available. To me, the easiest way to do this is to sign a player to solidify the center spot on the third line to free up Brooks Laich to play wing on the second line. Of all of the available free agents, Jason Arnott strikes me as the player best suited to serve in this role. He’d likely be available on a one-year deal for a reasonable amount of money. The forward lines would then look like this:
I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in this team contending for the Cup, but I don’t think it’d be a disaster over the short term, either. The intention here is to put a band-aid on the 2W situation until a legitimate one hopefully becomes available via trade during the season. This is certainly not an ideal option, but it’s better than signing Player X, who is questionably adequate to play as a 2W for the duration of his contract, to a deal that will be harmful to the team’s cap management.
Regardless of what the Caps end up doing, I like the patient approach they have opted for thus far. Doing nothing to address glaring needs is generally a better approach than addressing those needs in an inadequate or fiscally irresponsible manner. That being said, signing a player such as Arnott makes sense for the short-term. The would allow Laich to fill-in as a 2W while also not handcuffing the team financially when/if a 2W becomes available.
The All-Star break, among many other things, allows fans take a look back on the season that has been while also looking forward to the “second half” of the season. For Caps fans this exercise seems to be producing a lot of anxiety. While this anxiety certainly can be justified, it is also important to be reminded that sometimes a healthy dose of perspective can go a long way. After all, on January 28th, 2009, just a few short months before winning the Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins sat tied for 8th place in the Eastern Conference.
Given that, I wanted to take a balanced look at the team while avoiding doom and gloom but making sure to not paint too rosy of a picture either. I’ve broken this down into three things to like about the “first half” and three things that need to improve as the season moves forward. First are three things to like.
Sure, he only has 1 goal in his past 15 games but if you told me at the start of the year that Jason Chimera would be tied for second on the team in goals after 48 games (and have the team lead for much of the first half) I’d either think Chimera was going to have a career year or I’d tell you that this team should be worried about its offensive output. Turns out that I don’t have to pick, they can both be true! Despite the recent drop off, Chimera is still on pace for 24 goals and 38 points, both of which would be career highs. He also finished with 4 shots in each of the two games before the break. Chimera seems to be taking the puck to the net with more confidence and authority this season, and with his size and speed, that makes him a tough guy to defend. As if Chimera’s offensive production didn’t give us enough to like about him, there was also this gem.
There was plenty not to like about Vokoun’s play early on. And the soft goal he allowed on November 26th to Zack Kassian was a huge turning point in the game that turned out to be Bruce Boudreau’s last behind the bench for the Caps. But over the past month Vokoun has been the Caps best player. In the thirteen game span since coming on in relief of Michal Neuvirth on Decemeber 26th, Vokoun has posted a .931 save %. During that span he and the team have had a 4 game and a 3 game winning streak. When you imagine where this team may be without Vokoun over the past month, it starts to get scary. While his recent save % may be unsustainable, Vokoun has earned a lock on the #1 spot in net for the Caps at this point.
#3-Playing in the Southeast Division
Okay, so this is not something to like just about the first half, but in general. Sometimes I feel as if the mediocrity of the Southeast is exaggerated, but at this point you’d be hard pressed to find evidence to support that. The Caps are in first place in the Southeast with 55 points, 5 less than any other division leader in the NHL and 9 less than any other division leader in the Eastern Conference. Not a single team in the division is a positive in the goal differential department, an honor no other division can claim. The Caps are the only team even within the neighborhood of even in that department at -1. It may seem as if this is trying to shed a positive light on what should be an embarrassment for the 5 teams in the division but the bottom line is this benefits the Caps. We have a potentially easier way into the playoffs and we get to play 13 of our finals 34 games against our divisional “rivals”.
Given all that this team has been through in the first half (coaching change, injuries, lack of production from stars etc.) things could be A LOT worse. While there are legitimate concerns about this team moving forward, there are also plenty of reasons, including these three, to appreciate where this team is despite a tumultuous first half.
In my next post, I’ll look at three things I’m hoping to see improve as the season resumes.