Photo: Amanda Bowen
Editor’s note: Pat Holden has written about Caps hockey over at Brooks Laichyear since 2012. We’ve asked him to pitch in here at RMNB to smarten us up a bit. Please give Pat a warm welcome. Follow him on Twitter.
During the preseason, Barry Trotz said that he prefers to keep forwards in pairs when shuffling lines. So far, that has proven to be the case. The Caps’ four persistent pairs through the first five games have been Ovechkin-Backstrom, Burakovsky-Johansson, Ward-Chimera, and Kuznetsov-O’Brien.
There’s a lot of noise in the numbers this early in the season, but with that disclaimer, a look at Trotz’s deployment so far shows many things we’d expect and some things we wouldn’t. But the biggest story is that the Caps fourth line is struggling, and Barry Trotz clearly doesn’t trust them.
In order to maximize the sample size, I’ve included all 5-on-5 minutes. Here’s a look at the pairs via a player usage chart.
As you would expect, the players who are paired together are in similar areas of the chart, but the 4th line is a bit of an exception. Kuznetsov has faced tougher competition than O’Brien. Perhaps Kuznetsov’s role on the second power-play unit and his shifts following the expiration of 5v4 might account for the difference in competition between him and O’Brien.
As would be expected, the first line has faced the toughest competition, indicated by their position on the y-axis. This will be the case throughout the entire season, not because it’s Trotz’s preference, but because the opposition’s coach is always going to be diligent in deploying the player’s of his choice against the Caps superstars.
In terms of zone starts, displayed on the x-axis, Backstrom and Ovechkin face easier deployments than the third line, but far tougher assignments than the 4th line. As a line, I would expect that the zone starts will get easier, relative to their teammates, throughout the season. The Caps have struggled on draws, but if that can stabilize then Backstrom can be called upon for even fewer defensive zone draws than he’s seen thus far. Finding a more trustworthy combination of players on the 4th line would also allow the first line to see even more favorable zone starts.
The size of the bubble indicates that, to no one’s surprise, Trotz is playing his first line the most. The deeper the blue shade the bubble is, the better the possession of the player. As Peter pointed out in his snapshot, the top line is doing just fine in terms of possession.
Photo: Luis M. Alvarez
The second line falls where I expected them to on the y-axis. The first line sees the opponent’s best defensive players, and the third line is often deployed against the opponent’s strongest offensive units, leaving easier competition for the second line.
I was surprised to find the second line’s zone starts are about the same as the first line. I would have guessed the the second line, due to Burakovsky being a rookie center, was being given far easier zone starts than the first. The zone starts aren’t particularly tough for any line at this point because the Caps have been driving the play through 5 games, but relative zone starts are what’s telling of Trotz’s trust here.(Relative zone starts use 0% as a starting point and shows how many offensive zone draws a player is on the ice for vs. his teammates. Burakovsky and Johansson are just about even, at -1.07%.)
I can’t explain the difference in possession between Johansson and Burakovsky. But, if you check out the scale, it’s not a huge difference. There’s a lot to like when watching Burakovsky play, and his possession numbers support the eye test.
The twins are facing tough competition. That makes sense. The third line is often the “shutdown” line, deployed against the opponent’s best offensive players.
It also makes sense that the third line is facing the toughest zone starts. This is another thing that is common among third lines across the league. They handle the “tough” minutes, and being assigned a lot of defensive zone draws is a part of this. Further, the Caps have two very young centers in their lineup, so whatever veteran centers the twins (so far it’s been both Eric Fehr and Brooks Laich) have, are going to be called upon for a lot of defensive-zone draws.
Possession-wise, the third line is doing okay, but not great. Within the context of the zone starts and quality of competition, having a third line that can stay around 50-percent possession is great.
Photo: Alex Brandon
And here’s where our fairy tale ends.
The fourth line is not facing tough competition, as Kuznetsov and O’Brien are clearly the two lowest player’s on the y-axis. That part isn’t a shock; it’s what you’d expect from a bottom line.
The fourth line is seeing incredibly easy zone starts, starting over 80 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone. On Saturday against the Panthers they saw all of their zone starts in the offensive zone. While it’s not shocking to see a team’s fourth line get easy zone starts, the exaggerated position in which these guys sit on the x-axis shows the lack of trust Trotz has in them to get the job done.
The size of the bubbles represents time on ice, which is another indicator of how little Trotz trust these guys. While we expect the fourth line to see the least amount of minutes, these guys are playing sparingly even relative to those expectations. The red shade of their bubbles, particularly Kuznetsov’s, is troubling. They are facing weak competition and getting favorable zone starts, and they are still getting crushed in shot-attempt differential. Hopefully the depth added to the lineup once Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson return will help Trotz find the right combination for a more trustworthy and effective fourth line.
Given that a fourth line plays the least amount of minutes, questioning how much of an impact an effective fourth line can have vs. an ineffective one is a fair point to raise. Tyler Dellow did a piece on this before being hired by the Oilers. The difference between the best fourth line (53% CF) vs the worst fourth line (41.5% CF) is worth 9.91 goals over the course of a season. I’d also add that a more effective fourth line is a more trustworthy fourth line, which can help to not max out your top players every game in terms of ice time.
So, there isn’t anything too shocking about Trotz’s deployment so far, but there are certainly things to keep an eye on. One thing I’d like to see happen is increasingly easier zone starts for the first line.
But the real story here is how poorly the fourth line is doing and that the way Trotz deploys them shows he doesn’t trust them. While an in-depth look at how much of an impact a fourth line has on a team is a topic for another time, a quick look at Dellow’s work shows that an effective fourth line can make a meaningful difference to a hockey team. Hopefully, improving team health can allow Trotz more options for the fourth line in order to form an effective unit.
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