Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
The Caps trio of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward, has remained largely intact since they were put together on December 2nd. Understandably so, as the three players provided a stabilizing presence in the Caps lineup. While it’s not nearly time to sound the panic button, recent trends in both process and results show that it may be time for Barry Trotz to consider more frequently experimenting with different combinations for his third line.
Here’s a look at how the Caps third line fared from December 2nd until the All-Star break, a span of 23 games. All Caps forwards are included for context. (Thanks to War on Ice for the graphics.)
Fehr, Laich, and Ward faced competition on par with Backstrom and Ovechkin, while facing the toughest zone starts of any forward on the team. Possession-wise, they were strong as well. After adjusting for score effects, only Fehr was a negative possession player, as the Caps were a negligible 0.1% worse in terms of possession when he was on the ice. Laich and Ward were both positive possession players, and each member of the third line was among the Caps’ top 6 possession forwards during this run.
The Caps third line has been facing easier competition and had slightly easier zone starts, yet their possession numbers are not as strong, particularly Ward and Fehr.
For a different angle, here’s a look at each player’s 10 game rolling, relative, score-adjusted possession numbers.
This shows that the recent dip in possession could be nothing more than a bad string of games for the line. They’ve had other dips in possession, both when playing together and apart. On the flip side, this also shows that this line shouldn’t be considered largely untouchable when Trotz tinkers with his lines.
All three players have also seen a drop in production during the second segment of games.
As J.P has already astutely pointed out, it’s important to note that the line hasn’t seen as much puck luck recently, shown below in their on-ice shooting percentages.
The third line got off to a great start, but both the process and the results have been trending in the wrong direction for the last month. While this may be just a blip on the radar screen, Barry Trotz should not be so steadfast in keeping this trio together, relative to his other line combinations. It wouldn’t hurt to try Fehr in a top-6 wing role or give third line minutes to Tom Wilson or Michael Latta.
Even if juggling the third line proves that the current trio should be put back together, their recent play hasn’t demanded they be kept together. Trotz should use this as an opportunity to try other combinations on the third line.
Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
Marcus Johansson’s ice time vs Tampa last night, the second straight game he’s been below the 14:00 mark and fifth time in the past six games his ice time has decreased. The third line has been great since the return of Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera is rejuvenated and helping the fourth line. But Johansson has taken big strides forward this season and it would be a shame to see that stunted by limiting his ice time.
The average time on ice per game for Joel Ward, 4th among all Caps forwards behind Nick Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Troy Brouwer. I like Joel Ward and think he’s an effective hockey player. But he’s a bottom-6 forward. Why is Joel Ward the 4th most used forward by Barry Trotz? He’s also 4th in terms of 5v5 ice time, so it’s not as if his penalty kill time is inflating his numbers.
The average 5v5 ice time per game for Backstrom this season, which leads all NHL forwards. His linemate Ovechkin is second. Trotz looks like he’s going to ride his two horses as much as he can. It’s easy to like this strategy.
We didn’t post very much last season. Personally, I didn’t post much the past two seasons as I navigated my way through Grad school while working a full-time job. But we’ve started posting more this summer and plan to be much more active this season. We’ve even added a new writer, Margaret Stuart, who you should follow on Twitter. So thanks for reading. Check back often throughout the season for more frequent posting than last season.
There is no shortage of season previews available on the Caps. Given that, this preview isn’t meant to be an exhaustive recap of the summer or of story lines certain to arise during the season. Instead, I wanted to give answers and opinions on a few things.
Additionally, some of our recent posts have covered preview-ish type material.
First, here’s a question we got on Twitter
Pat Holden: I’d expect a defensemen to get dealt before a forward, but sticking to the subject of the question, my guess would be Marcus Johansson. Johansson has had 4 seasons to find his niche here in Washington and he’s yet to do so. Barry Trotz has already said that Johansson will be used at wing this year, not the greatest vote of confidence for a guy on a team lacking Center depth who was drafted to play Center. If Johansson doesn’t have a coming of age prior to the return of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson, he’s going to be fighting to get a sweater each night. Johansson is an asset who probably has some value on the trade market. If he can’t realize that value here in Washington and becomes scratched on a regular basis, he will be dealt.
Margaret Stuart: The easy and accurate answer is Marcus Johansson. A quick look at the roster sets him apart from his teammates, and not in a positive way. Who else is a viable trade candidate? The Caps can afford to ship him off–he doesn’t fill a specific, in-demand need. Every other forward on the team has a clearly-defined role, even if his place among the lineup is undefined. Johansson, on the other hand, lacks this clarity.
Is he a center or a left wing? Having scored eight goals last season, where does he fit on a team in need of secondary scoring? His lack of physicality isn’t ideal for a bottom-six player, and his even-strength production doesn’t merit top-six minutes.
With a cap hit of $2 million, Johansson won’t be difficult to take on. A change of scenery might benefit Johansson, although it’s unclear what exactly a team would acquire him for. His all-around play is solid, and his relative Corsi was positive. The latter will help the Caps shop Johansson, given the rise of advanced stats. But Johansson deserves another shot to slot into the lineup, and a handful of new coaches could mold him into the type of player the Caps can’t afford to lose. If this isn’t the case, he’s in the last year of a two-year deal–he’s a natural choice for trade bait.
One optimistic prediction about the season
Pat Holden: Braden Holtby will be widely considered an elite goalie around the NHL by the end of the season. (Peter from RMNB covered this in his predictions. I pinky swear this was in my draft of this post before reading that. I was going to remove it from my post but decided not to. Because really, Holtby’s play took such an undeserved beating last year that it doesn’t hurt to hammer home the point that he’s quite good).
Last season, Holtby caught a lot of heat for the Capitals problems. Last season, ultra-tinkerer Adam Oates messed with his style and Holtby played in front of a defense often comprised of multiple players who should have been in Hershey or the press box. Yet, Holtby still finished 8th in 5-on-5 save% of all goalies who played in 41 games or more. His 92.89 mark finished just below Henrik Lundqvist, who posted a 93.06%. Was Holtby shaky at times last year? Absolutely. But Holtby wasn’t the problem in Washington. In fact, Holtby has never been the problem.
Holtby is now being coached by Goalie Whisperer Mitch Korn. The defense in front of him is stronger than any other defense during his time here in Washington. This is Holtby’s year.
One less optimistic prediction about the season
Pat Holden: Joel Ward, meet regression to the mean. Regression to the mean, Joel Ward.
Ward was great last season and figures to play a big role on the Caps 3rd line again this year. However, if you’re expecting Ward to match the 24 goals and 25 assists that he piled up last season, you’re going to be disappointed. Ward shot 18% last year, which is well above his career mark of 11.1%, and about 10% above the league average. Ward’s PDO of 102.66 last year is certain to come back down closer to 100. This is not a knock on Ward or to say that he won’t play well this year. Ward was a good player last year and will almost certainly be a good player again this year. But he was also lucky last year. That luck is likely to regress a bit and it’s not because of a drop in quality of Ward’s play.
For example, last year Ward had 133 SOG and shot 18% for 24 goals If Ward again manages 133 SOG again but shoots at his career mark of 11.1%, he will score 15 goals. Ward will still be a contributor to this team, but his offensive totals are all but certain to drop.
Margaret Stuart: Caps trade Green and get little in return. To state the obvious, defense has long been an Achilles heel for the Caps. MacLellan addressed this weakness by signing Niskanen and Orpik to long-term deals. The moves raised questions about Green’s role with the team, given the capabilities of the former Pittsburgh defensemen.
Green is the epitome of an offensive defenseman, but the past few seasons have signified a drop-off in his scoring abilities. Enter the fancy-stats argument: last season, Green had some of the highest possession numbers on a lousy possession team. If the Caps wanted to trade Green tomorrow, they’d find some takers. His stock has gradually fallen, but he’s still a valuable asset.
What could the Caps get in return for Green?
Worst-case scenario, they receive a meaningless draft pick or two, coupled with a bottom-four NHL defenseman. The Caps have enough budding young blueliners in their system to fill that role. Calling for trades is premature, but the Caps should receive a high-quality offensive talent in return for Green. Parting ways with No. 52 means losing a veteran leader and weakening the defense. But if the Caps are struggling enough to trade him, they probably can’t afford to be choosers.
Where will the Caps finish this year?
Pat Holden: I’m not big on predictions of where a team will finish in the standings, but this is a season preview so I feel some sort of obligation to provide one. The only team in the division that I think will definitely finish above the Caps are the Penguin (sorry!). But the only team in the division I think the Caps are certain to finish above are the Hurricanes. I’d say it’s unlikely that the Caps will finish above the Rangers. In the end, I think the Caps will end up in a tight battle for 3rd in the division/a Wild Card spot with the Islanders, Devils, Blue Jackets and Flyers. How’s that for vague? Fine. In the end, the Caps will grab the 2nd Wild Card spot in the East with 95 points (41-28-13).
Margaret Stuart: The Caps will finish among the top-four Metro teams. The Metropolitan Divison is unique in that it lacks a truly elite team. The Penguins are still in the running for a Cup, but they’re arguably on their way to becoming fringe contenders. Even the Rangers, who made it to the Cup Final, look weaker on paper than they did a year ago. Beyond these “frontrunners,” the rest of the division is up for grabs–only Carolina is poised to be a true basement-dweller.
If the Caps can patch up the 2C situation, their revamped blueline makes them a far greater threat. And the penalty kill and shots-allowed, two areas in need of fixing, are being addressed. The preseason is…well, the preseason, but it’s yielded mostly positive results thus far.
On the offensive front, Burakovsky may be the team’s most pleasant surprise, providing secondary scoring to supplement Ovechkin. If Trotz & Co. can elicit a Young Guns-era performance from Green, that alone is a red flag to other teams.
Given their improved play in both zones, I predict the Caps will finish fourth in the division, and their 96 points will qualify them for the postseason via the first wild-card spot. Their record will be 42-28-12. (Bear in mind predictions are notoriously inaccurate.)
Thanks again for reading and be sure to come back and visit us often 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
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.