Jay Beagle has been on for 250 of the Capitals’ 637 defensive-zone faceoffs during 5-on-5 this season. It’s easy to understand why: Beagle wins 57.6 percent of puck drops, fifth best in the league, and he’s long enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a sound defensive player.
But 2017-18 has been unkind to Beagle, who has dealt with a rotating cast of linemates and increased defensive usage. To his credit, coach Barry Trotz seems to be aware of the position he’s putting Beagle in. “I haven’t done Beags a lot of justice because I think he’s on his 18th different winger right now,” Trotz told the Washington Post in December.
But regret doesn’t change the fact that Beagle is struggling mightily, and it’s probably not his fault.
Everything is down, and down big. These line graphs show the percentage of offensive events that belong to the Capitals during Beagle’s 5-on-5 play. We want a player to be above 50 percent, because that means his team is getting more offense than the opponent. Sixty percent would be great, but 40 percent is sometimes called the Mendoza line, the threshold below which a full-time NHL player should not fall. Beagle’s flirting with the Mendoza line in shot attempts (39.9 percent), shots on goal (40.1 percent), scoring chances (39.4 percent), high-danger chances (34.2 percent), expected goals (41.2 percent) and goals (43.8 percent).
Those are among the lowest percentages for any forward in the league, but that broad kind of context isn’t useful when considering Beagle, who might have the toughest job in the NHL this season. He’s got unproven linemates, lots of penalty killing work, and tons and tons and tons of shifts starting in the defensive zone. Literally no one takes a bigger share of his team’s defensive zone starts than Jay Beagle. More than half of Beagle’s shifts (excluding on-the-fly changes) begin near his own net. Nearly 40 percent (39.2) of the Capitals’ total defensive faceoffs during 5-on-5 see Beagle on the ice. He’s far and away the league’s number-one defensive specialist forward.
The implication there is trust. Barry Trotz trusts Jay Beagle to win faceoffs and make smart, reliable plays to get the team back on attack. And while Beagle is certainly winning faceoffs this year, the team is rarely on attack. There’s a cost to all that trust, and it’s high.
Here’s a scatter plot of the league’s 144 most defensively utilized forwards with at least 400 minutes played. The y-axis means how many of their shifts start in the defensive zone (higher means more defensive usage). The x-axis means how many shot attempts belong to the team while that player is on the ice (right means more offense).
Beagle is the extreme top-left corner. He’s used defensively more than any other forward in the league, and his shot share is worse than any other forward in the league aside from Minnesota’s 41-year-old Matt Cullen, whose 38.2 percent of shot attempts with just 33.0 percent defensive-zone starts is literally off the chart – to the bottom left.
With Beagle’s shot-attempt numbers plummeting as his defensive specialization spikes (up seven percentage points from last season, which was already up seven percentage points from the season before that), one can’t help but wonder if one is a consequence of the other. Has Beagle been specialized so much that it’s hurting him and his team?
Before we can assess that with any confidence, we should first check to see if there are any red flags among Beagle’s rotating cast of linemates.
|Linemate||TOI||SA%||DZone%||Caps Goals||Opponent Goals|
It’s pretty uniformly bad. Beagle’s line has been dominated (as measured by shot-attempt percentage or SA%) with every linemate who has shared at least a half hour with him, and they’ve been outscored in nearly every example.
It’s worth noting that these players almost all have a lower defensive-zone start percentage (DZone%, i.e. the percentage of total non-on-the-fly shifts that begin in the defensive zone) than Beagle’s overall number, 50.6 percent. That’s likely because Beagle often takes cameo defensive-zone faceoffs with other lines. That’s probably crucial context in helping us understand why players tend to do worse when with him.
But that linemate analysis leaves us no convenient scapegoats for Beagle’s deterioration. There’s no apparent bad chemistry driving his drop-off, which leaves us with two options:
I doubt number two – or, at least I doubt it’s the primary factor. When Karl Alzner‘s play dropped off last season, it was readily apparent to casual observers (right after bright analysts like Pat Holden noticed it). Alzner had lost a step and could not enforce the gap control that had served him so well. I have not seen the same with Jay Beagle. He seems, anecdotally, to be the same quality player he always has been. A quantitative look at Beagle’s on-the-fly shifts (independent of his defensive-zone deployments) might help us validate that idea – but I don’t have the resources for that kind of study these days.
But instead, there’s a simple way the team could find out if Beagle’s drop-off is being caused by the overwhelmingly defensive deployments his coach gives him: Stop it.
This doesn’t have to be an experiment. This isn’t, I wonder, what if…?
It could just be a reasonable course correction: It’s abundantly and painfully obvious that Jay Beagle and the fourth line are not succeeding in their current workload, which is the most overwhelmingly defensive workload in the entire league, so I, as head coach of the Capitals, will share that burden more evenly with the top nine.
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk
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