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Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan’s Interesting Comments on Brooks Orpik’s Role with the Caps

Defenseman’s Large Contract Even More Puzzling Now, Two Years Into Five-Year-Deal

In the summer of 2014, Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan inked rugged, nearly 34-year-old, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik to a five-year, 27.5 million dollar deal. Despite needing to fill gaping holes in their defense, the choice of Orpik at that price and length of contract was an odd move.

In the years leading up to the Orpik signing, the NHL had begun a shift toward a style of play that places more value on smoother-skating, puck-moving backenders, things Orpik —more of a throwback to the days of crease-clearing, “HIT SOMEONE!”  defensemen—really is not.

Perhaps more importantly, by the time he received that long-term contract from the Caps, Orpik had reached an age when most NHL players experience a decline in their performance. Locking up a player who no longer fits the modern day blue-liner mold, through the season when he’ll be 38-years-old and at such a high salary, didn’t seem like a great idea.

Hours before the Caps and Orpik struck that deal two summer ago and not knowing who the team might make offers to, my brother Pat tweeted, “We all agree that the worst possible thing the Caps could do today, including standing pat, is to sign Brooks Orpik, right?”

But, maybe MacLellan saw the former Boston College player as a guy who could deliver value worthy of the contract that currently makes him the second-highest-paid Caps defensemen, just $250,000 a year behind Matt Niskanen. The 2009 Stanley Cup winner may have fit into the team’s plans in ways some outside the Washington front office couldn’t see.

If that was true at the time of the 2014 signing, recent comments by MacLellan make it hard to believe. The GM’s May 2016 remarks better support the thinking of those who’ve been skeptical of the Orpik signing for the past two years.

Addressing the media a few days after this season’s second round playoff loss to Pittsburgh, MacLellan spoke about the Caps’ trade deadline acquisition of defenseman Mike Weber. “I mean, did we need a higher-caliber defenseman? Maybe. But it was difficult to trade those off because you’re going to bring in a guy that’s going to jump in front of [Nate Schmidt] and jump in front of [Dmitry] Orlov and jump in front of Orpik,” he explained.

It was clear this season that Orpik was at-best the fourth defensemen on the Caps depth chart, with Niskanen, John Carlson and Karl Alzner ahead of him. MacLellan’s comment regarding the Weber acquisition hints he may feel similarly about Orpik’s place on the team.

At times, it could also have been argued that Schmidt ranked ahead of Orpik, with Orlov showing flashes of potential to do so as well. With a little more experience, both of those young players may soon remove any doubt they’ve surpassed Orpik in the value they bring to the Washington lineup.

In a May 24 radio interview, MacLellan touched on a piece of this, saying, “There’s an offensive upside to Orlov and there’s ability for him to move up in our lineup, and we’ve got to be careful that we don’t limit him in his ability to move there. I would count on him developing and getting to that next level. I mean, the idea would be, Brooks Orpik plays a little less minutes and Orlov plays a little bit more, maybe he moves into the top four for part of the time. That would be ideal situation, but we’ll have to see how he comes into camp.”

Clearly there’s the possibility in MacLellan’s mind that, as early as this coming season, the fourth highest paid skater on the Caps roster is playing in the team’s bottom defensive pairing, which brings to mind the question: If MacLellan is thinking that now, what was he thinking when he signed Orpik just two years ago? A player recently handed one of the biggest contracts on the roster shouldn’t fall down the ranks to fourth or lower on the depth chart so quickly, unless maybe he shouldn’t have been given that lucrative a contract to begin with.

Even as a fifth or sixth defenseman, could Orpik still provide valuable minutes as a penalty killer? Sure. Did he provide an immediate upgrade to a thin defense that badly needed it going into the 2014-15 season? Yes. Does he bring leadership and experience as a Stanley Cup champion to the Caps locker room? Most certainly. Could he likely be helping some of the team’s younger defensemen adjust to the NHL? Absolutely.

However, none of those needs requires a five-year, $5.5 million cap hit to address it. Players filling Orpik’s role in Washington can be had for far less and, just two seasons after losing him to free agency, Orpik’s former team in Pittsburgh is back in the Stanley Cup Finals without him. Like most players, Orpik is replaceable, regardless of what intangibles he may have brought to Washington.

If the Caps win the Stanley Cup next season, none of this may matter much in the short term. But, if Washington loses in next year’s playoffs due to not having enough of the right kind of talent in the lineup, and wishes they’d had room under the salary cap to add another piece or two, the Orpik contract could be pointed to as Exhibit A for why they weren’t able to do that. It could be argued it already was an issue this past season, possibly preventing the Caps from acquiring the aforementioned “higher-caliber defenseman” than Weber or another player.

Given his recent comments about the team’s plans, the guy who signed Orpik to that deal could be thinking similar thoughts, which raises the question of why MacLellan—who’s otherwise made shrewd moves since being named GM in 2014—didn’t see this coming two years ago and implement a different solution for filling the Caps’ needs on defense.

Pat Holden on Japers’ Rink Radio Talking Karl Alzner, Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky and John Carlson

BrooksLaichyear co-founder Pat Holden joined Adam Stringham on Japers’s Rink Radio to talk Karl Alzner, Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky, and John Carlson. Stream it at the link below.

And if you missed it earlier this month, Pat was also on Episode 84 of the PDOcast with Dimitri Filipovic.

 

Pat Holden talks Boudreau, Caps/Pens, Wilson and Burakovsky on the PDOCast

BrooksLaichyear founder and Russian Machine Never Breaks/Today’s Slapshot writer Pat Holden joined Dimitri Filipovic on Episode 84 of the PDOcast. The two discussed the firing of Bruce Boudreau by Anaheim, the Penguins and Capitals Round 2 series, Tom Wilson and whether he crosses the line, how good Andre Burakovsky is and more. Stream it below or on iTunesSoundcloud, Stitcher and at hockeypdocast.com.

 

The Definitive Guide to Unofficial 2016 Washington Capitals Out of Town Stanley Cup Playoffs Viewing Parties

Fans have been posting online about getting together in various cities to watch Caps games during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here you’ll find all the viewing party-related posts we know about so far.

Some of what’s listed below are gatherings that have already been coordinated and others are as simple as fans asking who else near them knows of a good place to meet up with other Caps fans to watch the games.

Want a gathering added to the list? Please use the comments or send us a tweet with a link to details. Tweet us a picture at @brookslaichyear from your viewing party too if you can.

Austin/San Antonio
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gpt5j/austin_tx_area_watch_party/

Boston
http://www.japersrink.com/2016/4/26/11513774/out-of-town-caps-watch-parties-in-boston-other-cities
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gscp0/watch_party_in_boston_for_games_12_at_lir/

Cincinatti
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gps24/any_caps_fans_in_cincinnati_ohio/

Denver
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4grd4g/watching_in_denver_sobo_151/

Los Angeles
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gp7r6/caps_fans_in_la/

NYC
nyccapscrew.tumblr.com/post/142750045733/meet-us-at-kellys-if-you-live-in-nyc-or-just

Tucson
twitter.com/mattmugmon/status/725215185523204096

 

Evgeny Kuznetsov vs. Andre Burakovsky

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.

Getting to know Justin Peters

The Caps off-season signings of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen rightfully drew a lot more attention than the signing of Justin Peters as the teams’ backup goalie. Peters comes to the Caps from the Carolina Hurricanes, who drafted him in the 2nd round (38th overall) of the 2004 entry draft. In Carolina last year, Peters went 7-9-4 with a 2.50 GAA and of 91.9 save%.

The chart below, tweeted by Rob Vollman just before free agency opened, gives some context to Peters’ box score stats. Peters faced the toughest competition (the Y-axis in the chart below, determined by the average shooting % of opponents faced vs. the league) of any goalie who hit the open market on July 1st while also receiving relatively little goal supports (x-axis) Embedded image permalink

While the ability to measure the true quality of a goalie without factors such as team-effects skewing the numbers is difficult, 5-on-5 save %, while not perfect, is generally agreed upon as the best measure. The numbers below are combined totals from the past two seasons, showing how Peters compares to, for the sake of familiarity, Braden Hotlby and Michal Neuvirth.

Name 5 on 5 shots faced 5 on 5 save%
Braden Hotlby 1976 93.0%
Michal Neuvirth 617 91.9%
Justin Peters 895 91.1%

Small sample size warnings obviously apply here. Both the lockout and the fact that none of these guys held a job as a #1 goalie for the entirety of the two seasons limited the quantity of shots they each faced. However, the quick takeaway is that Holby is the superior goalie of the 3, while Peters is a backup-quality goalie.

Peters annual cap hit of $950,000 for the two years is currently 50th among NHL goalies, certainly a very reasonable contact. I consulted capgeek.com for a list of cap hit comparables for Peters. The chart below shows how Peters compares to 4 of those goalies since the start of the 2012-13 season.

Player Cap Hit Shots Faced 5-on-5 Save %
Thomas Greiss $1,000,000 619 93.4%
Ray Emery $1,000,000 893 92.2%
Justin Peters $950,000 895 91.1%
Anders Lindback $925,000 935 91.0%
Dan Ellis $900,000 1,070 90.2%

Again, sample size warnings apply. Peters 5-on-5 save% falls right in the middle of the 5 goalies, just as his cap hit does.

Justin Peters is a perfectly capable backup goalie, signed to a fair and reasonable contract.  Signing him sends the right message to Braden Holtby (that the #1 job is his) while also allowing Philipp Grubauer to get plenty of playing time as the starter in Hershey.

Buying Blackhawks-Caps 2015 Winter Classic tickets via the secondary market

Those looking to buy 2015 Winter Classic tickets through resellers like StubHub or NHL TicketExchange should focus on two things right now if they’re wondering how much they might have to pay for tickets:

  1. Where the game will be held: The venue for this game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the host Washington Capitals has not been determined but, when it comes to ticket prices, a football stadium would be preferable over a baseball stadium. As you’ll see below in data from SeatGeek, this often results in lower secondary market ticket prices since the football stadiums have a larger seating capacity. 

  2. When to buy tickets: Based on previous Winter Classics, the key to buying tickets through the secondary marketing will be to wait. History shows that if you can wait until just under a week before the Winter Classic to buy your tickets, you’ll likely pay less for them.

Here’s some data and insight from Jason Weingold at SeatGeek that dives deeper on this:

  • “The Washington Capitals will be participating in the Winter Classic for the second time, and will be hosting the game for the first time. While the location is yet to be announced, prevailing speculation says that the game will take place at Nationals Park over FedEx Field, which does not bode well for fans hoping to score cheap tickets. Nationals Park can hold 41,418 fans — less than half of FedEx Field’s capacity of 85,000 — which means there would be less supply and higher prices on the resale market. For the last Winter Classic held at a baseball stadium (Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia in 2012), the average price paid for a seat on the secondary market was $471, nearly double the combined average ticket price of the 2011 and 2014 games held at football stadiums ($245). [Author’s note: See the next bullet point from SeatGeek for how last year’s game in Michigan had a big effect on this].”
  • “An average ticket for the 2011 Winter Classic featuring the Penguins and Capitals at Heinz Field (capacity of 68,111) cost fans an average of $409 on the secondary market, and there were a total of about 11,000 tickets resold. The 2012 game pit the Rangers against the Flyers at Citizens Bank Park (seats 46,967) in Philadelphia, and the average price of a ticket rose 15% to $471; there were also more tickets resold — an estimated total of 13,000. The next Winter Classic in 2014 featured a long-anticipated matchup between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs at the Big House, Michigan Stadium, which welcomed a record 105,491 fans, and that increased supply of tickets (an estimated 24,000 were resold on secondary markets) brought the average resale price down to $172 per seat.”
  • “The NHL has also experimented with other outdoor games in the past. The 2013-2014 season featured five other outdoor games: the Heritage Classic in Canada and four games in the United States collectively called the “Stadium Series.” The first Stadium Series game took place at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, where the average ticket cost $190. The Rangers then played twice at Yankee Stadium — first against the Devils (average ticket price of $231) and second against the Islanders ($141). The fourth game was between the Penguins and Blackhawks at Soldier Field in Chicago (average ticket price of $248). The 2011 Heritage Classic featured the Flames and Canadiens at McMahon Stadium in Calgary (average ticket price of $253), and the 2014 game set the Canucks against the Senators at BC Place in Vancouver (average ticket price of $153).”
  • “The 2015 Winter Classic should end up being a record-breaking home game for the Capitals in terms of demand. Since 2010, the most in-demand regular season home game for the Caps was on Feb. 6, 2011 against Pittsburgh, when fans spent an average of $166 per ticket on the secondary market. Even in the playoffs, the highest average ticket price we’ve recorded for a Caps game at the Verizon Center is $221 for Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Rangers.”
  • “The Capitals have only hosted the Blackhawks once since we began collecting pricing data, and that came on April 11 earlier this year. The average ticket to that game at the Verizon Center cost $122 on the resale market.”
  • “By taking a look at pricing trends for the past three Winter Classic games, we’ve found that the best time to buy a ticket has been a little less than a week before the game. In 2011, the average ticket price bottomed out at $343 five days before the game, having fallen 24% in 17 days from a peak of $450. Prices for the 2012 game followed a similar pattern, dipping to a low of $391 six days before the drop of the puck (down 22% from $500 with two weeks to go before the game). Last season, the average price fell continuously throughout December, dropping 57% from $239 with 30 days to go before the game to just $103 per ticket the night before.”

Thanks to Jason and SeatGeek for pulling that all together. They also provided the chart below, which illustrates how waiting until just under a week before the game is often the best approach for finding the lowest secondary ticket market prices for a Winter Classic.

 
Winter Classic resale ticket prices
 

Advanced stats highlights from the Caps 2010-11 season

Advanced stats for the 2010-11 season are now available on ExtraSkater.com. I highly recommend visiting Extra Skater to see the stats for yourself, but below, after a quick refresher on the season, are some Caps highlights I pulled from a glance at the new stats on Extra Skater.

With a record of 48-23-11, the Caps were not only Southeast Division champs, but finished first in the Eastern Conference, with 107 points. The Caps discarded the Rangers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs before being swept by the #5 seed Tampa Bay Lightening in the second round. This was also the season during which the Caps, under Bruce Boudreau, shifted to a more defensive-oriented system. The Caps defeated the Penguins 3-1 in the 2011 Winter Classic and were featured on the HBO series 24/7.

 

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-The Caps finished 15th in Fenclose%, tied with the Kings at 50.4. The two teams have gone in opposite directions since, with the Caps (47.5%) finishing 25th in 2013-14 and the Kings (56.7%) finishing first.

-Nicklas Backstorm led all qualifying (41+ games played) Caps in FenClose rel at +5.0%, followed by Alex Ovechkin at +3.9% and Alex Semin at +3.5%. The top Caps defender was John Carlson at  +1.9%.

-Alex Semin’s PDO of 107.7 ranked highest on the team, aided by his teammates’ on-ice shooting % of 10.5%, 1.8% higher than any other Caps player.

-Marcus Johansson had the highest ZS% at 58.1%, while Boyd Gordon faced the toughest zone starts, with a ZS% of 41.8%

-As would be expected, the Caps top forward line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Mike Knuble faced tougher competition than any of their teammates. Carlson and Karl Alzner faced the toughest competition of any Caps defenders.

-To the surprise of absolutely no one, Mike Knuble had the shortest average shot distance (24.7 feet).

-Alex Ovechkin was on the ice for 82.4% of the Caps PP minutes during the season (this past season Ovechkin saw the ice during 93.2% of the Caps PP minutes).

This was after a quick look at the stats. If you look through Extra Skater and find any interesting tidbits, leave them in the comments below or give us a shout on Twitter.

Taking a closer look at Brooks Orpik, Part 2

In my last post, I took a look at how Brooks Orpik’s possession stats compared to defensemen around the NHL who faced similar minutes in terms of quality of competition and zone starts during the 2013-14 season. The contract Orpik signed with the Caps on July 1st has been met with a lot of criticism, and I am certainly among those who don’t like the deal for the Caps.

However, some context can help us better evaluate the Orpik contract. Below I’ll take a look at how Orpik fared compared to the top 5 Caps defenders in terms of games played in the 2013-14 season.

Key

FF%-FF% (Fenwick For %) is the percentage of unblocked shot attempts a team takes when that player is on the ice. Think of it like +/- but for shots. Instead of 0 being even, like with +/-, the 50% mark is even. It is a metric used to measure puck possession. If you’re skeptical as to how much this stat matters, here is a chart showing the top Fenwick teams of recent years.

ZS%-This is the percentage (ratio) of offensive zone to defensive zone face-offs for a player. A lower percentage indicates a player is assigned “tougher” minutes as he is on the ice for more defensive zone face-offs.

QOC TOI%-This is the quality of competition a player faces as measured by the average time on ice of the opposing players he faced.

“Close” game situations are games within a goal or tied in the 1st or 2nd period, or tied in the 3rd. It is used so score effects don’t inflate or deflate a player’s numbers in blowout situations. All FF% and ZS% below are in close-game 5-on-5 situations only. QOC TOI% is from all situations at 5-on-5

As noted in my last post, Orpik started more shifts in the defensive zone during close-game situations and also faced tougher competition than any other Penguin defender. Here is how he stacks up against the Caps defenders last year.  The players are in order of FF%, best to worst, but I’ve also noted their ranks in QOC TOI% and ZS% (ranked toughest to easiest).

Player ZS% QOC TOI% FF%
Orlov 50.1% (3rd) 28.0% (5th) 52.5% (1st)
Green 53.2% (6th) 28.5% (4th) 52.0% (2nd)
Orpik 48.2% (1st) 29.3% (3rd) 47.6% (3rd)
Alzner 49.1% (2nd) 29.4% (2nd) 47.3% (4th)
Carlson 51.3% (4th) 29.6% (1st) 46.3% (5th)
Erskine 52.8% (5th) 27.7% (6th) 45.1% (6th)

-Orpik was a better possession player last season than Alzner and Carlson, who are generally considered to be the Caps top-pair defenders that play the toughest minutes among Caps defenders. Orpik did this while having a tougher ZS% than either of the Caps defenders. Carlson faced the toughest competition of the three with Orpik finishing 3rd barely behind Alzner. One important thing to remember in terms of FF% is that the Penguins were a better FF% team than the Caps, so Orpik has an advantage there. FenClose rel % is a stat that can be better to compare possession stats of players on different teams, but I chose not to include it in this post, for the sake of simplicity.

-Orpik ranks 3rd in FF%, but it’s a distant 3rd. Green and Orlov are significantly better possession players than the other 4 defenders listed.  Green and Orlov did face far easier ZS’s than Orpik, which isn’t particularly surprising since they are thought of as more offensively-minded defenseman. Green and Orlov also faced weaker opponents than Orpik.

So, while I still don’t like the Orpik contract, there is no debating the Caps have improved their defense this off-season. Hopefully the last two posts have provided some insight into what exactly to expect from him moving forward with the Caps.

 

 

 

Caps aggressive in first day of free agency

Brian MacLellan’s first day of free agency as GM of the Caps was anything but quiet. MacLellan handed out over $69 million on July 1st, more than any other GM in the league. MacLellan said his priorities were to bring in a veteran goaltender and to bolster the Capitals defense. While the effectiveness of the moves is up for debate, MacLellan certainly made moves that he feels addressed his priorities.

Justin Peters

Justin Peters comes to the Caps from the Carolina Hurricanes to serve as the backup to Braden Holtby. MacLellan was very clear in stating that he wanted to bring in a goalie that sent the message to Holtby that he is the Caps number one guy and that the organization believes in him.  This is refreshing to hear after the disastrous way Adam Oates handled Holtby and the effect it had on him. While it remains to be seen how new coach Barry Trotz handles his goalies in Washington, the fact that the organization is doubling down on Holtby as their guy is a step in the right direction.

Last season, Peters played in 21 games for the Hurricanes and posted a 7-9-4 record. Peters’ 5 on 5 save % of 92.3 ranked 33rd among goalies with 21 or more games played.  According to Rob Vollman, Peters faced the second toughest competition last season of all the goalies that were available as unrestricted free agents. The money on this deal makes sense as well, as Peters annual salary for the 2 year deal is $950,000, which currently ranks 48th among all NHL goalies.

Brooks Orpik

So that’s where we’re starting from. Not only did the Caps sign the one guy I singled out to avoid, they signed him to an absolutely insane 5 year, $27.5 million dollar deal. Brooks Orpik will be 34 before the season starts. While this deal may not kill the Caps immediately, the thought that in a couple years the Caps will have a defender on the wrong side of 35 taking up $5.5 million in cap space is troubling, to put it mildly. Yes, Brooks Orpik fits the bill of a “tough” and “hard-nosed” defenseman that many Caps fans have long called for. However, Brooks Orpik has never been a positive possession player in his career, meaning his team has always been out shot over the course of a season while he’s been on the ice. However, to be fair to Orpik, some context on these numbers is helpful. For example, this past season, Orpik started more shifts in the defensive zone than any other Penguins defender who played in at least half of the team’s games. Orpik also faced the toughest competition among this same group of Penguins D, and finished 26th overall among all NHL defenseman in terms of quality of competition faced. So, while Orpik’s team struggles with puck possession while he’s on the ice, some of this, at least from this past season, can be attributed to the fact that Orpik is given tough assignments.

There were a couple things MacLellan said about the Orpik signing that were troubling.

“The total dollars were centered around Brooks” (Alex Prewitt, Washington Post)

The fact that the Caps’ entire off-season plan revolved around a 34 year old defender, and giving said defender a 5 year deal with an expensive cap hit, is very troubling in terms of what it says about the vision of the Caps new management. In addition, the fact that Mikhail Grabovski (or any adequate second line center) was not in any way the focus of the “total dollars,” (thus far), is cause for even more alarm about MacLellan’s vision as GM.

I’ll skip over the fact that he used the phrase “the corsi.” Could coming to Washington and playing with an offensive, puck-carrying defender help Orpik’s possession numbers? Hmm, if only the Penguins had such a player like, I don’t know, Kris Letang. Over the past 3 seasons, Orpik has played with the offensive-minded Letang for 496:46 (less than 40 minutes of this time comes from this past season, due mostly to Letang missing significant time because of injury). When on the ice together, Orpik and Letang saw 49.5% of shots go in the Penguins favor. Perhaps MacLellan has a point, because Orpik’s shot for % when separated from Letang drops to 48%. But a stronger case could be made that Orpik will weigh down an offensive defender because Letang saw his shots for % jump to 53.4% when separated from Orpik.  I could go on and on. Bottom line, I think this is a terrible contract for the wrong player, a double-whammy. Orpik could provide decent (but overpriced) play for the Caps for a couple of years, but there will be many people, myself included, in line to say “I told you so” when he is bought out in the Summer of 2017.

Matt Niskanen

Not long after landing Orpik the Caps landed another ex-Penguin by signing Matt Niskanen to a 7 year, $40.25 million deal. The inherent risk in any 7 year deal is cause for concern, but apparently Niskanen is the player the Caps identified as worth this type of deal, so while the deal is risky, it’s not outright ridiculous like the Orpik contact. Niskanen posted impressive offensive numbers this past year with 10 goals and 31 assists in 81 games, after never topping 6 goals or 29 assists in a season since entering the league in 2007. Some of this rise in production can be attributed to the increased opportunity Niskanen received due to Letang missing so much of the year. Niskanen was on the ice for 55.4% of the Penguins power play time this past year after never topping 39.8% during his time in Pittsburgh. It will be interesting to see how the Caps divvy up their PP time among their defense this season, but it’s likely that Niskanen’s PP time will decrease in Washington. This is one factor that will likely lead to a decrease in Niskanen’s offensive numbers this season. Another factor in this is that the Penguins shot 10.3% with Niskanen on the ice this past year, while stopping 93%, for a PDO (combined on-ice shooting and save %) of 103.1, that is almost certain to regress closer to 100.0, no matter how well Niskanen plays. In short, don’t evaluate this deal solely based off of the offensive numbers Niskanen puts up next season. For reasons not within his control, they are almost certain to drop, even if he is playing well. 

Niskanen, as opposed to Orpik, has very strong possession numbers. He has consistently, over the course of his career, seen his team have more shots for than against when he’s on the ice.  This past season, Niskanen saw 53.3% of unblocked shot attempts in all 5-on-5 situations go in his team’s favor when he was on the ice. This would not only lead the Caps’ defense, it would lead the Caps’ team. The Pens saw 6.3% more of these shot attempts go in their favor with Niskanen on the ice than without him, which is also better than any Caps’ defender performed, relative to their team.

Brian MacLellan was anything but dull or quiet on his first day of free agency as an NHL GM. He got nice value in a backup goalie with Peters, signed Orpik to an absolute monstrosity of a contract, and signed Niskanen to a risky deal, but one that improved the Caps’ defense corps. He also made what could prove to be a major blunder in letting Grabovski walk, but I’ll withhold judgement on that to see if the 2C situation improves. The aggressive approach proved for an interesting day, but the shrewdness of said aggression is questionable, especially as it pertains to Orpik.

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