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On Nick Backstrom, appreciation, and linemates

Backstrom_1

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.

backstromusage

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.

backstromwowy

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.

Backstrompart2

 

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 

 

Examining the Caps’ possible line combinations

Barry Trotz’s projected lines are still a mystery, but his Q&A with Dan Rosen shed light on possible combinations. Trotz revealed who he’d like to keep on the wing and try at center, in addition to his vision for the Caps’ fourth line. With this new information in mind, here’s a look at mixing and matching certain players.

 

Who will play alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom?

While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have two of the top line’s three slots locked up, questions still abound. Will Trotz play Ovechkin as a right or left wing? Once that’s decided, who will complete the trio?

Marcus Johansson typically played with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but Trotz plans to try him at center. Should Johansson perform well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see him playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom–he’s a viable candidate for second-line center, and it’s possible that Trotz will move Ovechkin back to left wing to account for the Caps’ surplus of right wings.

Should Ovechkin line up on the left, Troy Brouwer seems like the Caps’ go-to guy. He’s seen plenty of ice time as a second-liner, so making the transition to top-line minutes is feasible. However, the majority of his production came on the power play–a problem that plagued Ovechkin and Backstrom. Furthermore, Brouwer’s Corsi-for with Backstrom was 49.5%.

So, is Brouwer really the best fit to play right wing on the top line? Given the excess of right wings in the Caps’ system, I say no. Throw in Trotz’s belief that Tom Wilson should play top-nine minutes, and it’s almost difficult to see where Brouwer fits into the equation. He could very well be a trade candidate. Second-line center, anyone?

This leaves Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, and Wilson. Trotz expressed his desire to keep Ward on a line with Jason Chimera, so Fehr and Wilson are probably the most likely options. Wilson isn’t a likely choice, given his relative inexperience. On the other hand, playing Fehr and Ovechkin saw time together as wings and boasted a Corsi-for of 50.9%.  Fehr and Backstrom are an even more promising combination, as their career Corsi-for clocks in at 54.4%. (Last season’s 47.6% was a bump in what’s been an otherwise smooth road.) Statistics aside, Fehr is a creative player and good skater. He can get the puck to his teammates and capitalize on chances himself. Should Ovechkin return to left wing, I’d like to see Fehr as one of his linemates.

 

What if Ovechkin remains a right wing?

Of course, the above scenarios assume that Trotz doesn’t keep Ovechkin at right wing. An opening still remains, so who fills it? We can rule Johansson out for aforementioned reasons, thus leaving Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brooks Laich. Note: even if Andre Burakovsky cracks the lineup, I’m skeptical of how he’ll handle top-line minutes during his rookie season. As I said earlier, Trotz would be foolish to split up Ward and Chimera. However, he stated his intentions to try Kuznetsov and Laich (assuming he’s healthy) down the middle. Both are promising options.

However, someone will be the odd man out, and in turn, likely play an important role on the second line. The need for a 2C is no secret, and Johansson could trump Kuznetsov and Laich in that department. If he can’t find his scoring touch as a winger, he might be more successful at setting up plays than finishing them. He also has previous experience playing center and tallied 36 assists last seasons, second only to Backstrom.

If Trotz wants to use Kuznetsov to supplement the top line’s offense, he’s narrowed the search down to Laich and Johansson. Since there are no guarantees of Laich’s health, Johansson might be the better option–it’s hard to find good centermen, and the Caps need consistency down the middle. Johansson’s also in the last year of his contract, and his role with the Caps is still uncertain. If he succeeds as a 2C, he’s made a strong case for a contract extension.

 

Where do Burakovsky and Wilson fit?

Two players I haven’t discussed in detail are Burakovsky and Wilson. Trotz has made known his plans for each: Burakovsky is a possibility down the middle, while Wilson should see top-nine minutes. The former will, at the very least, begin his season in Hershey. If he sees NHL ice time, I’d prefer it to be at his natural position, left wing. If the Caps wish to mold Burakovsky into a center, Hershey is the best place to make that happen. A player of his talents shouldn’t be stuck on a checking line.

That statement also applies to Wilson, who saw minimal ice time last season. Since Chimera and Ward will likely comprise two-thirds of the third line, that leaves an opening for Wilson on the second line (granted, Brouwer would have to be playing on the top line or with a different team for that to happen.) Wilson cannot spend another season trapped on the fourth line, and it appears as though Trotz will give him the chance to step up offensively with increased minutes and tougher competition.

TONIGHT! Win this Caps prize basket and help raise money to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease

IMG_1814This is a cause that has special meaning to the two of us that started this blog…

Come win this Caps prize basket—which includes an autographed Troy Brouwer picture (thanks to the Caps for donating that!), four bobbleheads, a Caps scarf, blanket and more—and help raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation and Parkinson’s research.

Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011, our mother has been working tirelessly to raise money for TEAM FOX, to help the Michael J. Fox Foundation in their efforts to help find a cure. In just her first year doing this, she raised nearly $8,000 through events like the one tonight in Baltimore.

Please join us for this fundraiser as we help her continue to raise funds for the cause:

TONIGHT!
Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 5 pm

Our Lady of Victory School
4416 Wilkens Avenue
Baltimore, Maryland 21229

The cost is $20 and tickets are available at the door. There will be 18 regular bingo games plus three special games. Prizes are bags (Vera Bradley, Coach and 31) & baskets (Longaberger) filled with a theme of goods & services.

There will also be various raffles at the event, including a 50/50, and food & drinks will be available for purchase, with those proceeds going to the cause as well. Door open at 4 pm and games start at 5 pm. If you can’t make the event but would still like to make a donation, you can do that here.

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The issue in the Caps’ top six forwards

Ovechkin and Backstrom

Oveckin and Backstrom (Photo: Mike Holden)

There are many ways to win consistently in the NHL. One of those can be by having the right talent, another by having a great system and sticking to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s offense or defense-oriented or a little of both, a team with a solid approach that plays it well game-after-game can sometimes make up for talent issues on a roster. And even teams with the best players need a good plan.

In this lockout-shortened season that came without a proper training camp and preseason, it’s apparent that the Washington Capitals could have used that time to learn their new coach’s system. It’s also clear that Adam Oates and the Caps could use a bit more talent in certain areas, one of them being within the six forwards on their first two lines.

With the Caps coming off a 4-0 win in Winnipeg Thursday night, now might seem like an odd time to talk about one of the areas where the team is lacking. But, if the Caps keep winning and make the playoffs or even just miss it, the issue could rear its head again. And, going into next season, it will likely need to be addressed for the team to become a true threat.

In their top six forwards, the Caps have three very talented skill players in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro. They also have several wingers who are top six material as a compliment to these players.

For example, Brooks Laich, just back from an injury, is a talented and capable left wing that the team can try pairing up with the Ovechkin-Backstrom duo. 22 year-old Marcus Johansson has struggled to develop further as a player while showing promise at times in his still-young NHL career, but he may be another who can be plugged in alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin as he was on Thursday.

Matt Hendricks has also been tried on the top line, though he may deliver better value skating on a lower one. And it appears that Wojtek Wolski and Jason Chimera are done, at least presently, getting time with the top unit.

On the second line with Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer is a solid choice at right wing. With 11 goals and 21 points in 29 games this season, Brouwer is putting up numbers that justify his $3.6 million cap hit and the move the team made to acquire him two summers ago.

On the left side of the second line, Oates can plug-in any number of players, such as he did with Laich last night while skating Johnasson in that spot on the top line. Eric Fehr is also an option as are some others. However, with their current roster of players, it is here on that left side of Ribeiro that the Caps run into the hole in their top six.

Washington has good players that can be used in this second line role, but they are guys that, when put in a top six spot, should mostly be used to complement a skilled duo. The top line currently has Backstrom and Ovechkin. The second has Ribeiro and needs someone else in the highly skilled department, even with Brouwer putting up some nice numbers this season.

In past years, the Caps had a legitimate goal-scoring threat on the left side of their second line in Alexander Semin, but he rarely had the opportunity to play with a second line-caliber center. The Caps now have that center in Ribeiro, but let Semin go and have yet to properly replace him.

Should Washington play well the next week or so and decide to become buyers at this season’s April 3 trade deadline, a deal for a sniping or highly skilled left wing should be high on their list. And going into October and the 2013-14 season, it’s an issue they should eliminate if they are to become a top team again.

The Caps could get by without this player, if they execute Oates’ system consistently. But even then, to take the team’s play to the next level and make them tougher to shut down, the Caps could use someone to fill this gap in their top six.

What’s next for the Caps?

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:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Perreault-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Ryan( or similar player)

Chimera-Laich-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

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:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Laich-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Perreault/Johansson

Chimera-Arnott-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

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.

Possible free agent target: Brad Boyes

The Capitals top-6 forwards are in need of reinforcements. With Alex Semin set to become an UFA and depending on if the Caps have Brooks Laich penciled in as a 2W or 3C next season, the Caps currently have as few as 4-top 6 forwards on their roster right now (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Brouwer, and newly acquired Mike Ribeiro).  These kind of players don’t come cheap, via trade or free agency.  With a particularly thin free-agent market this year, the price for top-6 forwards is likely to be even more inflated than usual.  The Caps have smartly not locked themselves into any crippling free agency deals with such players in recent memory, and it wouldn’t be smart to start now.  That being said, George McPhee would be smart to look for a player with top-6 potential but who has certain questions marks that will keep the money and term of the deal within reason.  On the free agent market this year, a player that fits that mold is Brad Boyes.

Over the course of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Boyes played in all 164 games and totaled 76 goals and 62 assists (a 0.84 PPG average).   However, in the 3 seasons since then, Boyes has totaled just 38 goals and 91 assists in 210 games (a 0.61 PPG average).  Boyes was particularly mediocre this season in Buffalo when he totaled 8 goals and 15 assists in 65 games.  So why should the Caps take a look at Boyes?

At 29, Boyes is unlikely to again reach the numbers of 4 years ago, but he is plenty young enough to still be a productive player when put in the right situation.  Last season, Boyes played just 13:10 per game and spent time on the Sabres 4th line.  While some may see a player whose production has fallen off a cliff, I see a player with a lot to prove who could be had on a cheap one year deal.  He likely will be signed to a low-risk/potential high value type deal.  Another positive is that Boyes, while primarily a winger, can play center when called upon.

There are reasons to hesitate signing Boyes and there are certainly valid concerns that his days as a top-6 forward are behind him.  However, in a day and age when many free agent contracts get bloated to regrettable levels, taking a flyer on Boyes, if he is under the radar, may be worth the risk for the Caps.

Troy Brouwer’s game winner seemed familiar

Troy Brouwer’s game winning goal in Saturday’s Game 6 for the Caps in Boston…

…was reminiscent of this Game 7 game winner in 2009 by Sergei Fedorov for Washington against the New York Rangers:

Looking back on Winnipeg, looking forward to Chicago

There was a lot of talk after the Caps 3-2 loss in Winnipeg last night about a possible suspension for a Jets player and a stick-holding incident, but there were a couple of things that bothered me more than either of these because they were within the Caps control:

  • Why was Troy Brouwer sent out to take the offensive zone faceoff at the start of the Caps PP with 2:22 remaining in the game and the Caps down a goal?  The Caps lost the draw and the puck was cleared, ticking off the first 20 seconds or so of a PP with the game on the line.  One reason for this, directly or indirectly, is the decision to scratch Jeff Halpern. It’s doubtful that Halpern, who is one of the top faceoff men in the league, would have been out because of the PP and the need for a late goal.  However,  him not being in the lineup pushes everyone up a spot on the faceoff depth chart that led to a winger, who took one other faceoff the entire game, on the dot at a crucial time in the game.  Mathieu Perreault was also on the ice, and may have been tossed out before the CSN camera panned to the dot, but the fact that Brouwer was even put in that spot, whether being first or second choice, is questionable coaching.
  • The Caps were rightfully upset with Mark Stuart for his high and late hit on Marcus Johansson in the 1st period.  Unfortunately, we only came to find out after the game that the Caps were upset, since there was absolutely no visible response from the Caps during the game.  Is this team aware that you don’t have to wait for a player to be traded to Montreal in order to respond to a dirty play on a teammate?  The Caps and Jets meet again next Friday and there may be a response then, but why didn’t that happen last night? That’s the kind of hit where I’m okay with a Caps player immediately charging at Stuart and risk giving the Jets a five minute PP.
  • Let’s be totally clear about this, Caps fans:  “Crosby Sucks!” is not an appropriate chant on Friday when the Jets visit DC.  I’ll be at the game and will personally remove anyone from the arena who participates in this.

Overall, I’m still upbeat about the Caps chances of making the playoffs.  There is plenty to like about the way the Caps have played in this most recent stretch of games.  Additionally, Nicklas Backstrom has been skating and ramping up his workouts.  While no return date has even been discussed yet, this is significant progress for the Caps number one pivot.

The Caps now look forward to the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday night.  Almost two years ago to the day, on a Sunday in Chicago, Backstrom provided the Caps with a thrilling overtime goal to end a game that is one my favorite post-lockout Caps memories.

Some highlights from Saturday’s Caps win over the Bruins

The Caps did a lot of little things well in yesterday’s 4-3 win over the Bruins in Boston. Here are a few of them that really jumped out at me:

  • The Caps stood up for their goalie beginning early on in the game, shoving away many Bruins that got near Tomas Vokoun
  • John Carlson was especially impressive during one segment of a first period penalty kill, tying up the puck along the boards to waste some of the Bruins’ power play time, then roughing up Lucic a bit in front of the net as he tried to settle in there, and stepping up to block a shot to close out the sequence
  • As Russian Machine pointed out on Twitter, Mike Knuble had some great puck possession time in the game.
  • Alex Semin’s pass to Jay Beagle for Washington’s 3rd goal was excellent, not to mention the work to get that puck before making the pass
  • Brooks Laich’s tip-in for the 4th goal was nice to see — he was set up by Alex Ovechkin for what appeared to be an even easier tip-in the previous game but missed
  • Troy Brouwer’s play with one second left to knock away a puck that was about to become a shot on goal showed the Caps fighting until the very end.

I did get nervous when the Bruins pulled within one, especially after the Caps’ third period collapse at home versus the Jets a few weeks ago. But the Caps held on. We’ll see if playing back to back days affects the team’s ability to stay focused on the important details during today’s game against Toronto, who’s coming off a Saturday afternoon game against the Flyers.

Check out yesterday’s Caps-Bruins highlights on NHL.com.

Other Notes: For some great analysis, check out this post by WNST’s Ed Frankovic and his theory on why the Caps have played better this week. >>> I was really impressed with Dmitry Orlov in overtime during the Caps win against Tampa on Thursday night. Mike Vogel has a nice look at the rookie defenseman on the Dump ‘n’ Chase blog. >>> Finally, what would it take for CSNWashington to give us a Caps pre-game show before every game? As I noted on Twitter yesterday, it seems there’s been enough interest in the Caps to justify it and these five minutes intros we get before the puck drops  for some games, like yesterday’s, feel very rushed.

Caps-Bolts: Ovechkin’s other options with 25 seconds left

With about 25 seconds to go in last night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals down by a goal, I would have liked to have seen Alex Ovechkin pass the puck to a teammate rather than hold it and eventually shoot from a bad angle (see video embedded below).

Troy Brouwer was open and then, after Ovechkin comes out from behind the net, John Carlson appears to have been open as he was cutting in from the point. Carlson might have had the whole top right corner of the net open for a quick shot, with Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon down in a butterfly position and over toward the left post.

Just putting the puck on net like Ovechkin eventually did isn’t a bad idea in that situation, but he had better options and they would have involved some puck movement, which is often a very good thing—in fact, it’s what led to the Caps only goal of the game.

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