Lines aren’t everything. The players a team chooses to ice are more important than the manner in which they get iced. Still, when the beat writers tweet the morning lines, it’s fresh grist for the anguish mill. It’s an infinite stream of content to react to– our of excitement or despair. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else.
Though it’s not as if Barry Trotz has been particularly good at assembling his lines effectively, at least according to the evidence. After twenty games, the Capitals’ best lines have been used irregularly at best. Their most effective trio of forwards hasn’t even skated together since game eight, though Trotz has also found some surprising strength in the team’s depth.
Before we dig in, here’s the starting line up for every game this season. I’ve color-coded it to make the divisions between lines a little clearer. This obviously doesn’t take into account mid-game adjustments.
You can also see that data in this spreadsheet, which I update before every game.
Japers Rink’s Muneeb Alam, who is the freaking man, shared with me the shot-attempt data for Caps forward trios. Let’s take a look at the highs, which are really darn high, and the lows, which are like “Daddy Sang Bass” low.
61.9% possession in 70.2 minutes
There has been no better trio for the Washington Capitals in years. For seventy minutes of 5v5 play, mostly in the season’s first three games and again in games 7 and 8, these three controlled 61.9 percent of the shot attempts on the ice. They outscored their opponents 4 to 2. But Eric Fehr had an assist on only one of those goals, and by game four they were broken up.
Since then, Fehr has been scratched from the lineup a few times, and Ovechkin and Backstrom have had a cast of characters take the right flank– to varying results.
57.8% possession in 97.2 minutes
Adding another bruiser to the top line in Tom Wilson has yielded good results so far. This line has controlled 57.8 of the shot attempts over nearly 100 minutes of 5v5 play. While Wilson doesn’t shoot as much as Fehr, his physical play has added its own kind of dynamism to the top line. That hasn’t resulted in goals yet; the Caps have scored 3 and been on scored on 3 times with this line on the ice.
Worth noting: the Caps got similar results out of a similar player: when Troy Brouwer took the right wing in games four, five, and six, the Caps had 58.6 percent possession over 42.4 minutes of 5v5.
28.8% possession in 33.9 minutes
Of all the line combinations including Alex Ovechkin for anything longer than three minutes, this is the worst by a country mile. When Jay Beagle took the top line in games 15 and 16, the Capitals were outshot 37 to 15. That’s 28.8 percent possession over 33.9 minutes of 5v5 play– unspeakably awful for a top line.
There’s a lot of reasons Adam Oates deserved to be fired, but top-line Beagle was the best. I hope Barry Trotz learned his lesson, but Jay Beagle is still anchoring what might as well be the team’s second line, so I doubt it.
55% possession in 133.3 minutes
If this is truly the Capitals’ second line, it is terrific and it is a surprise– perhaps the biggest of the season to date. Two players, Johansson and Brouwer, considered passengers with some offensive deficiencies, have combined with an unknown quantity in rookie Andre Burakovsky to outshoot opponents 122 to 100 and outscore them 7 to 4. I have no idea how that happened, but I very much like it.
The second line has been interrupted only on a few occasions, namely the abbreviated return of Brooks Laich and Burakovsky’s audition on the top line in games 9 and 10. Trotz seems to know he’s got some magic here, as he’s kept these three special players together even when other lines are shaken up. Good.
47.6% possession in 80.6 minutes
My Eric Fehr is bacon bits, he just makes everything better hypothesis got tested here and failed. Taking “third-line” (but actually the 2b-line) duties in games 4-6 and 14-17, these three got outshot 66 to 60. They squeaked by with a positive goal differential (4 to 3), but 47.6 percent possession looks dismal when you know what those players are capable of otherwise. Plus, it’s not a great look to have a 7.4 percent drop-off in shot-attempt differential from your second (2a) to third (2b) lines.
Here’s the part where I brazenly advance my pro-Fehr agenda: the problem here probably doesn’t lie with him. No trio that has included Jason Chimera has outshot their opponents this season. With Jay Beagle taking shifts between the twins, possession dropped to 45.3 percent over 35.4 minutes. With Brooks Laich on the pivot, possession was 42.1 percent over 35.3 minutes. Even studly Andre Burakovsky got lit up with just 37.9 percent possession over 18.2 minutes, though there’s a super-small sample size warning on that one.
Basically: the twins don’t work. It’s probably not Joel’s fault. When Ward has played away from Chimera this season, his possession jumped from 44.8 to 61.0.
62.1% possession in 60.7 minutes
I’m kind of cheating here. I have to because the fourth line shakes up so much, though two guys who earn a combined $1.2M have done real well down there. In the combined 52 minutes that Liam O’Brien and Michael Latta spent on the fourth line with guys like Joel Ward, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Jay Beagle, they outshot their opponents 57 to 32. That’s 64.0 percent possession, and it’s kind of nuts.
Like, that’s so good that I’m skeptical about it. We already know Barry Trotz uses his fourth line sparingly and against weaker competition, but those numbers are resilient. Stephen Burch’s dCorsi stat has both Latta and O’Brien in the team’s top five.
What am I missing? Is this a trick of small sample size and or is their sheltered deployment driving this? Could be. Or maybe Barry Trotz has found another gem buried in the lineup. Maybe he should give his fourth line some more ice time and find out.
Alright, that does it for this and the whole Twenty Games In series. I hope it’s clear, in summary, that this is a well-built team that could and should be far better than their record shows. The bounces will soon start going their way, and by then hopefully Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz will have made some adjustments as well.
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