Todd Reirden‘s lineup changes at Saturday morning’s practice might be the biggest move of his coaching tenure so far. Reirden is motivated to get the Caps scoring again, and the new top nine just might do the trick.
Aside from the top line, we haven’t seen much of these forward combinations together in the past. Here are numbers from their time together over the last few seasons.
|Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie||704||51.2||52.7||49.2||38||25|
|Vrana – Eller – Wilson||60||60.4||69.8||52.9||3||4|
|Burakovsky – Kuznetsov – Connolly||16||65.4||66.7||50.0||1||0|
Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie were Washington’s marquee line a couple seasons back, and with 60 percent of on-ice goals and it’s plain to see why. Backstrom is an elite puck carrier who is also defensively responsible, a massive improvement at 5-on-5 compared to Kuznetsov’s disappointing 2018-19 season so far. Alex Ovechkin remains the G.O.A.T. even if his shot volume has declined a bit — and it’s unclear if that downturn is due to the elusive aging curve or just reduced offensive-zone time. Meanwhile, TJ Oshie has quietly increased his individual offense rates to where they were a few seasons ago. Though this line’s past numbers came while backed up by a much stronger defensive corps, they’ve still got the skills for a multi-dimensional attack. I expect them to drive play and outscore opponents.
We’ve seen much less of the lower lines, but I’m still optimistic.
Vrana, Eller, and Wilson have a compelling combination of traits, and their underlying percentages together (more 60 percent of shot attempts and nearly 70 percent of scoring chances) are tantalizing. But with just an hour of time together we can’t put much stock in past performance. Still, I have a lot of confidence in them as players. Vrana and Wilson are both enjoying breakout seasons, with the latter finally transformed in a genuine top-six scoring forward. And to put it simply, Lars Eller is the best 3C Washington has ever had. Some folks might worry about this line defensively, but I don’t. Instead, their biggest hazard is discipline — the three of them individually commit more penalties per hour than any Caps forwards except Kuznetsov and Dowd.
With just 16 minutes together, the third line of Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Connolly is virtually untested. Their assembly is a high-profile move by Todd Reirden — a kind of rehabilitation project almost. Kuznetsov is conspicuously demoted (even if it’s well earned), while Andre Burakovsky gets one last chance to fight back against recent scratches and trade rumors.
During Saturday’s media time, Coach Reirden was asked specifically about Burakovsky and how his improving underlying process hasn’t led to actual results. Reirden’s answer was thoughtful, expansive, and applicable to the team as a whole:
At the end of the day, when you score four goals in your last four games, you gotta start to look at some statistics of who’s been able to generate actual goals and assists.
I use analytic numbers a lot. I study them from a number of different angles. I enjoy that process and using it as an evaluation tool, and we have our own in-house, and we use a number of different things.
But at the end of the day you gotta score a goal. Or as a goalie you gotta make a save.
It still hasn’t changed. . .on the scoreboard if they put four high dangers to two high dangers. They still put goals for one team and goals for another.
We gotta get ourselves to some more dangerous areas around the net and not be so perimeter and simplify our game a little bit until we get out of this little rut that we’re in.
You can take this as a critique of Burakovsky or the entire Capitals team. Both have put up impressive rates of offensive microevents (e.g. shots, scoring chances, high-danger chances), but now neither is scoring actual goals. During five-on-five play in their last four games, the Caps have scored just one goal on 87 shots. That’s a shooting percentage of 1.1, down from their 10.8 percent before the recent slump. Reirden gives credit to process, and he admits the Caps are in a rut. But ultimately goals are all that matters.
Kuznetsov and Burakovsky together could bring those badly needed goals. It’ll take some work though, as Kuznetsov has had dire defensive problems and has scored just one 5-on-5 goal, back in early December.
Meanwhile, Burakovsky’s offensive volume has withered this season, and he’s been unable to score a single five-on-five goal in his last 13 appearances.
But aside from the recent cold streak, Kuznetsov has always had a compelling talent for increasing his team’s shooting percentage. Burakovsky could benefit from Kuznetsov’s increased threat as well as having a lighter load in carrying zone entries (which Kuznetsov does more often than Eller).
Reirden said he’s “looking for different ways to get [Burakovsky] going,” and this just might be it. Whether that’s enough to keep Burakovsky in a Caps jersey or merely improve his trade value is another matter, and it might already be too late for the former. But hockey is an unpredictable sport, and I’m excited to see what happens next.
The Caps play on Sunday morning against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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