“I think he’s playing great. He gets us going with a power-play goal last game, he scores again tonight, another power-play goal. Alex has game-breaking abilities. I don’t think the criticism in the past has been really justified. He’s playing great for us right now. He’s moving his feet and he’s getting chances, and when he does that and gets enough looks, he’s got a good enough shot he’s going to score.”
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.
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
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
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.
This weekend on Twitter we asked what roster moves you make would this off-season if you were the GM of the Caps. None of the answers were too shocking, and there were a few answers that were pretty popular. Below are a few quick thoughts on some of those answers that popped up more than once.
Re-sign Mikhail Grabovski
Yes, yes, and more yes. There seems to be a lot of agreement here amongst Caps fans. It’s easy to understand why, as during Grabovski’s absence from injury Jay Beagle was centering Alex Ovechkin. The Caps revolving door at the 2C position has been one of the perennial shortcomings of the latter half of the McPhee administration. In Grabovski, we’ve got a guy who can lock that position down for a few years and, thanks especially to the deadline deals, we’ve got the cap room to pay him a deserving salary (not sure what he will bring in, but I’d guess 4 or 5 years at around $5 million per). Evgeny Kuznetsov could mature into a player capable of filling this position, but as a team with a finite number of prime years left of Backstrom and Ovechkin, the time to reload this roster as a true contender is now and the best way to do this at 2c is to re-sign number 84. Oh, and apparently this could happen sooner rather than later.
Trade Mike Green
No, no and more no. To be clear, no player should be untouchable, and if there is a trade involving Green that will help this club, I’m all for it. But I’m not part of the crowd that thinks this team is better off without Mike Green than with him as a fact in and of itself. Yes, he makes egregious mistakes in his own zone, but I still believe this team is better off with Mike Green than without him and there are numbers to support this claim. Yes, during close games during 5-on-5 play, only one player sees more shots go for the Caps than against the Caps when he is on the ice than Mike Green, and that player is Dmitry Orlov. I just don’t see how getting rid of a player like this is beneficial to a team that generally gets out-shot so handily. I don’t like the Green-Orlov combo because I think they play the similar high-risk/high-reward style. Give me Mike Green and a partner that isn’t just breaking into the league and isn’t named John Erskine, and I think you’ve got a very good NHL defensive pair. (side note: How have John Carlson and Karl Alzner largely escaped blame during this debacle of a season? I’m not so sure their development as a top D pair is trending in the right direction this year)
Re-sign Jaroslav Halak
This is another one I’m not on board with. In fact, I don’t think the trade for Halak was as much about getting him than it was about trading our disgruntled, oft-injured backup Michael Neuvirth, as well as gaining cap space this summer. I am 100% comfortable with Braden Holtby being this team’s number 1 goalie. I’ll say the same thing that I told Ravens fans who complained about Joe Flacco before the Ravens won the Super Bowl: Holtby may not win you a Cup all on his own, but he certainly won’t be the weak link on a Cup contender. Braden Holtby is fully capable of being the Number 1 goalie on a Stanley Cup team. The money it would take to bring back Halak would be better spent elsewhere. After all, Holtby ranks 12th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage, while Halak comes in at 21st.
Use the team’s last compliance buyout on Brooks Laich
The water is a little murky here on whether this will be allowed since buyouts of injured players are not allowed. However, there are a lot of technicalities not readily available to us that may or may not make this an option. If it is allowed, as painful as this is to say because Brooks Laich is one of the more likable guys in the league, I think the Caps have to pull the trigger on this (though I would bet against them doing it). That $4.5 million per year for the next 3 years can be much better spent than on a guy who has played 60 games and totaled 19 points over the past two seasons. On top of that, we have plenty of players (Brouwer, Chimera, Ward, Fehr) who can fill the roles Laich would be asked to fill on this team. Like I said above, this may not even be an option, but I haven’t done the necessary digging to sort out the injury/buyout technicalities.
Thanks to extraskater.com for always being a great resource, to RMNB for their Weekly Snapshot (my favorite weekly Caps read), and to all of you who interacted with us over the weekend on this topic.
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.
- The case for trading Mike Ribeiro (brookslaichyear.com)
- A look at next season’s Washington Capitals defense and Jeff Schultz (brookslaichyear.com)
- Soon might be the time for Caps to trade goaltender Michal Neuvirth (brookslaichyear.com)
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.
If you check the tape, I didn’t come out and say I guarantee we’d make the playoffs, I just said I was confident in our team, but in a weird way you guys blew it up to something bigger than it was.
- Full audio of Laich interview provides context on playoff comments (brookslaichyear.com)