Before Evgeny Kuznetsov went down with a concussion in game 19, the Capitals had a surprisingly stable squad of centers. Really, since Lars Eller joined the club in 2016, the team has been able to depend on him, Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom to anchor the top nine nearly every game.
But this season has seen lots of changes on the wings, and more recently the defense, as Todd Reirden has dealt with missing Tom Wilson, Brooks Orpik, and a general underperformance up and down the line up. And now, with Kuznetsov out, we’re seeing bold lineup changes for the first time. It’s exciting.
Caps senior writer Mike Vogel is a mandatory follow for any Caps fan on Twitter. In addition to having his finger on the pulse of all team happenings, Vogel shares the starting lineup for every game in a convenient format that I’ve been exploiting for years. Here are the starting lineups for the first 20 games of the season.
For me, the most interesting changes have been the various experiments on the top line right wing, next to Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin. There have been five different players in that spot:
|With Ovi and Kuzy||TOI||SA%||WSH goals||Opp goals|
No matter who Todd Reirden played with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, the line struggled. Those were all wretched numbers for what should be the most dangerous line in the NHL. Reirden eventually recognized this and stopping swapping wingers futilely. He started double-shifting Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom more often, and on November 11 he officially broke up the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov pair. A short reunion happened on November 14 when Wilson returned, but Evgeny Kuznetsov left that game with a concussion. It was an awful way to end the Ovi-Kuzy pairing, but at least it’s really ended.
|Ovi and Kuzy||TOI||SA%||WSH goals||Opp goals|
Ovechkin has been thriving away from Kuznetsov. I’ll have a lot more on this in a future article in this series, so for now we will pivot to one of my favorite visualizations.
This next table shows us what percentage of shot attempts the Caps own when each forward and defenseman are on the ice together. The rows and columns are ordered by ice time per game, so we can see the most-used combos at top left and least-used at bottom right. Ideally, you would see greenest boxes (i.e. shot-attempt percentages above 50) at top left. But that’s not what we’re seeing.
Three important players jump out to me: defenseman Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen and forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. We already know Kuznetsov is having a tough time, but the drop of Orlov-Niskanen is even more worrying. After a compelling shutdown performance last spring, they’ve clearly lost a step or two.
Reirden’s been using them separately since game 16, which might suggest where the trouble lies.
|Niskanen and Orlov||TOI||SA%||WSH goals||Opp goals|
Something is wrong with Matt Niskanen. I have no idea what it is, but he plays such an important role for the team that identifying and resolving it should be priority one.
On the positive side, I hope that Nicklas Backstrom and Christian Djoos stick out to you in a good way. Backstrom’s defensive usage has increased this year. He, along with TJ Oshie, have been carrying a heavy load and carrying it well. On the defense, Djoos has made a convincing case that he’s ready for bigger assignments.
Meanwhile, forwards Chandler Stephenson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Travis Boyd (who does not have enough ice time to appear on the chart) are all getting caved in. I’ll have more on them when I write about the bottom-six forwards in a couple days.
Lastly, Brooks Orpik has been a curious case. That’s a lot of green for a 37-year-old stay-at-home defenseman who has been deeply in the red in the last few years. Even though he’s been well under 50 percent when on the ice with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, Orpik’s overall numbers are pretty strong. It seems like Todd Reirden has deliberately lessened the number of shifts the top line takes with Orpik compared to previous seasons — so those bad Ovi-Kuzy numbers drive Orpik’s overall numbers less.
Orpik was on the ice for 29 percent of Ovechkin’s shifts last season, but this season it’s just 19 percent. Whatever has been depressing Ovechkin’s numbers hasn’t been able to do the same for Orpik, who has spent most of his shifts with the bottom six.
Below is a similar visualization, but it shows the total ice time each forward and defense pairing shared. I don’t put much stock in pairs with under 30 minutes (in gray).
As we’d expect, there’s a ton of Carlson-Ovechkin ice time, and a lot of Nick Backstrom doing his typically understated and typically excellent job carrying the team. I’m excited to see how Backstrom will perform in a different-yet-familiar role: as center for Alex Ovechkin.
It’ll be a big change, and I suspect we’ll see lots of lineup changes as we head into the heart of the season. Where will Kuznetsov slot in when he returns from injury? How will the Caps deal with Niskanen’s lowered performance? Can Djoos and Vrana stick in bigger roles? How long will the team tolerate mediocre-to-terrible performances from Smith-Pelly, Stephenson, and especially Travis Boyd?
At morning skates and pregame warmups over the next few weeks, we are going to learn a lot about this team and particularly its new head coach. Buckle up.
By the way, if you’re interested in these visualizations, I recorded myself compiling them using Google Sheets and using Natural Stat Trick as a data source.
Next up: The top-six forwards
Photo: Cara Bahniuk
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