Photo: Amanda Bowen
Last week we looked at the Caps forward deployment thus far under Barry Trotz. This week, I’m going to take a look at the defense. In doing so, we’ll find the Caps have a shutdown pair fairing questionably, a steadying pair that may be better suited to shutdown than our current shutdown pair, and then a pair of possession monsters who are owning the minutes they are being given.
This is a much different defense than last year. Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen were brought in on big money deals via free agency. Mike Green is healthy, so far. Nate Schmidt is deservedly in Washington instead of Hershey, so far. Todd Reirden, formally a Penguins assistant, is now in charge of the defense, replacing Calle Johansson.
In order to maximize the sample size, I’ve included all 5-on-5 minutes. Here’s a look at the defense via a player usage chart.
The size of the bubble is the amount of ice time a player gets relative to the other players on the chart.
As you can see, the pairings used for the majority of 5-on-5 minutes are near-ish each other on the chart.
If the Caps deploy a “shutdown” pair, this is definitely it.
The first indication is their position on the X-axis, zone starts. Orpik and Carlson, as indicated by their position towards the left hand side of the chart, have faced tougher zone starts than any other Caps D– by far. Orpik has started 5.96 percent more zone starts in the defensive zone than the average player on the Caps roster, while Carlson has started 14.27 percent more relative to his teammates.
Carlson’s zone starts are particularly tough. He has faced the twelfth toughest relative zone starts among NHL defensemen who have played 20-plus minutes on the season. He has the sixth worst possession among those twelve D. Orpik’s relative zone starts are the fifty-third toughest among the same group of D. Only eleven of these fifty three D have worse possession than Orpik. So, Carlson is facing particularly tough zone starts and doing just so-so with them possession-wise, while Orpik is facing tough, but less so, zone starts with poor possession numbers.
The other indication of Orpik-Carlson being deployed as a shutdown pair is their position on the Y-axis. Being the two players closest to the top of the chart indicates that they see the toughest competition of any Caps defenders. Both find themselves in the top forty, in terms of competition faced, of the 222 defensemen to play a game so far this season. However, of these forty defenseman, Orpik has the fifth worst possession numbers and Carlson the eleventh worst. So, they are being trusted against the other team’s top players, but don’t handle the minutes particularly well relative to other D around the league who also face top competition.
Given the, at best, mediocre possession numbers above, it’s no surprise that both these guys have red shaded bubbles, indicating poor possession numbers relative to their teammates. While a red-shaded bubble may be excusable given they are facing tough competition and zone starts, a comparison to similarly deployed defenders throughout the league shows that this pair is struggling possession-wise regardless of context. Further, previous Caps teams have had defenders capable of being positive possession players, despite being the “shutdown” pair.
I’m calling this our “middle of the road” pair.
Alzner and Niskanen are seeing about average zone starts, with Alzner 3rd among all Caps D and Niskanen 5th. This isn’t surprising. They are not the shutdown pair, so they aren’t going to face the toughest zone starts. They are also more experienced than Nate Schmidt and less offensively-gifted than Mike Green, so their minutes are likely to be less sheltered and not as offensively-optimized.
They are also average in terms of competition faced, placed 3rd and 4th among the 6 Caps defenders. Again, about what you’d expect from our middle of the road pair, who are not asked to play shutdown minutes and are also much more experienced than Nate Schmidt.
Hey, guess what? These guys are doing okay in terms of possession, about middle of the pack. Not great. Not bad. Just okay. The Caps see 1.23% more shot attempts with Alzner on the ice than when he’s on the bench and 2.16% less shot attempts when Niskanen is on the ice compared to when he’s not.
I hope these two stay together over the long haul. I think they have the potential to be a very steadying pair. Alzner and Niskanen might even be a more successful shutdown pair than the guys currently in that role. From my trusty eye test, they appear to have good chemistry and communication in the defensive zone.
This is the Caps’ awesome pair.
Their zone starts have been easy, particularly Green’s. Deploying Green in the offensive zone is a smart move, as it allows him to utilize his offensive talents more often. Although, starting him in the defensive zone more wouldn’t be a bad thing, as his breakout skills are second to none on this blue line. It’s also not surprising to see Schmidt getting pretty easy zone starts, although they are actually tougher than Niskanen’s. Schmidt is far and away the greenest (see what I did there?) member of this defense, so if anyone is going to be sheltered, it should be him.
This pair is also facing the easiest competition. For the same reasons above, this is a good thing. Schmidt is young and Green can totally pwn weak competition while letting less offensively gifted teammates do the heavy defensive lifting.
Speaking of pwning, look at these possession monsters. The Caps see 8.76% more of the total shot attempts with Green on the vs. when he’s on the bench and 2.77% more when Schmidt is on the ice. Green improves the team’s possession more than any other player. Schmidt is the 6th best relative possession player on the Caps, 2nd only to Green among the defense. Simply put, this team is better when Green and Schmidt are playing.
Orpik and Carlson aren’t doing so poorly that I’m sounding any alarms, but I’m not going to endorse them as our number-one pair either. Trotz might get better results if Alzner and Niskanen played tougher minutes, lightening Orpik and Carlson’s load somewhat. As for Green and Schmidt, keep doing what you’re doing fellas, and you’ll be getting the good kind of powderpuff pink in Peter’s snapshots all season long.
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