Opening night is fast approaching and the Washington Capitals’ roster is taking shape, especially on the defensive end where there were no personnel changes during the offseason. However, it appears that a fairly significant change is coming to the back-end pairings. Dmitry Orlov will begin the season paired with John Carlson on the second unit while Nate Schmidt will start the season with Brooks Orpik. Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzer will remain together as the team’s shtudown pair.
Moving Orlov up in the pecking order to play with Carlson suggests that the the Caps are comfortable placing a greater deal of trust in him. Trust in a defenseman means putting him on the ice for big minutes and game-breaking situations, and believing that the good will outweigh the bad in both zones.
Let’s take a look at which of last year’s defensive pairs were the most utilized and trusted in terms of deployments, and how much that might have to change with Orlov no longer on the third pair.
Ice time and pairings are very fluid, and ordering them from top to bottom is not always a clear-cut exercise. Since pairings may specialize in certain roles, some games may see the first pairing get the second-most minutes, and vice versa. Injuries and on-ice performance may also mix things up. We can start to get a sense of what to expect in the future by looking backward at the six Capitals defensive pairings that played at least 200 minutes of 5v5 hockey last year, via puckalytics and corisca.hockey.
|Defensive Pairing||5v5 TOI||Shot Attempt Percent||Percent Defensive ZS|
An important caveat is that significant injuries to John Carlson and Brooks Orpik mangled these a bit throughout the year, and in a healthy world they likely would’ve been different.
In terms of raw performance, it’s actually the pairing of Orlov and Nate Schmidt who come out on top possession-wise, with a stellar 58.6 percent of shot attempts in nine percent of the team’s total ice time. They did this not only by helping the team produce 62 shot attempts per 60 (third most), but also by limiting shot attempts against more than any other pairing at 44 per 60.
But the true workhorse and only universal constant was the pairing of Alzner and Matt Niskanen, who together managed to eat 33 percent of the Caps’ 3873 minutes of 5v5 ice time. They also took the largest share of the team’s defensive zone draws at 38.8 percent. While there is pretty conclusive evidence that zone starts don’t significantly impact a player’s big picture results (largely because most shifts actually start on the fly), it does clue us into one important factor: coaching.
Defensive coaching is largely about trust, and we can look deeper into Trotz’s mind by examining one of the most high-stress and high-leverage coaching situations: who is sent over the boards on a defensive zone draw, at home, when the score is close. Here is the same pairings table, except in that high pressure situation when the coach is much more likely to stick with what they know and trust, and when they have the advantage of last change.
|Defensive Pairing||5v5-Close Home TOI||Shot Attempt Percent||Percent Defensive ZS|
Again, we can see that the pairing of Alzner and Niskanen took the lion’s share of the ice time and lined up for defensive zone draws most frequently. And we can see a huge dropoff for the youngsters, who barely started in the defensive zone half as often.
We can control for injuries by looking at the percent of defensive zone starts per game started by each individual player, in the same high-leverage situation. Sure enough, Niskanen and Alzner both lead the way with 23 percent each. Next are Carlson and Orpik with 20 percent and 18 percent respectively, and Orlov is all the way down at 10 percent. Individually, Orlov was also 6th in percent of ice per game in these situations with 30 percent (and 6th in all 5v5 ice time percent per game).
For all intents and purposes, Alzner and Niskanen were last year’s clear-cut first and most-trusted defensive pairing. And overall, they did fair rather well, staying afloat possession-wise while seeing the toughest deployments. This pairing has also played together regularly in the preseason, and it’s not easy to imagine the team breaking them up as the year progresses.
In contrast, Orlov was the least trusted defenseman in a lot of metrics despite garnering some of the best 5v5 possession results and producing primary points at an elite rate of 0.84 per 60. The Caps have been clear about their commitment to turning Orlov into a top-4 defenseman, with Trotz recently commenting on the young defenseman’s new pairing:
Orly’s been good through the end of the World Cup of Hockey, I thought he really got his game going and he’s brought it right here… continues to get good minutes and there’s good trust with him, so to me that’s a real good pair.
This move will surely come with tougher deployments and more responsibility, and would be a major departure from what we’ve seen to date. It will be interesting to see if this pairing finds success – they had all of 31 minutes of 5v5 ice time together last year, far too little to draw meaningful conclusions. But in total they scored 32 primary points at 5v5, with 17 for Orlov and 15 for Carlson – the top-two Caps defensemen in that statistic. We will have to see if Trotz doubles down on the trust he puts in his top pairing of Niskanen and Alzner, or if he’s willing to shift some of the duties to a more offensively inclined second pairing.
It may not be an immediate transition, but the coaches’ preference appears to be pairing Orlov with John Carlson on a nightly basis. While there are some questions to be sorted out with how the bottom pairing of Orpik and Schmidt might be used, it’s clear that Orlov’s results last year do merit this promotion. Part of the luxury of being such a dominant team is having the freedom to experiment, and there is no better way to figure out what works than by throwing Orlov into deeper water and helping him learn how to swim.
What about you – who do you think of the Capitals’ new defensive pairings?
Headline Photo: Amanda Bowen
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