Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Martin Fehervary were paired together by head coach Peter Laviolette for the entirety of Fehervary’s rookie 2021-22 season. The duo shared the ice at five-on-five for over 1,048 minutes and only separated for COVID or injury-related issues.
They remained together for the first four games of the 2022-23 campaign until being split at Wednesday’s practice. Now, it looks like Carlson could skate with Dmitry Orlov and Fehervary with Nick Jensen on Thursday in Ottawa.
So, what brought about the change?
Up until about mid-December of last season, the team’s de facto top pairing of Carlson and Fehervary looked like a great match. That’s outlined by this image Peter put together for Fehervary’s season review that shows how the young defenseman’s play started to degrade right about after he returned from a COVID-protocol-forced break.
If you wanted to see that in pure numerical form, here’s a table from that same post. His numbers and by extension the pairing’s numbers fell off a cliff.
When RMNB’s Ian Oland spoke to Fehervary at this year’s Training Camp, he talked about what he thought was the main factor.
“Maybe that first year or whatever, maybe we were a little bit tired,” Fehervary said. “I noticed that. I feel like more my body were a little bit tired. I played 20 games the season before and then right away getting that type of schedule, it was like really hard for me. Hopefully, we’ll be better this year.”
The league’s 2021-22 schedule was condensed and full of rescheduled games due to COVID-19. Rookies that haven’t played a ton of professional hockey tend to struggle with a regular schedule’s length, let alone having to deal with one so jammed pack with games in such a short time span.
With all of that being said, there are no restrictions this year and both players entered the season healthy after a normal offseason.
So how have they played together through the first four games? Not great. With the pairing on the ice at five-on-five, the Caps are seeing just 47 percent of the shot attempts, 39-percent of the expected goals, 44.7 percent of the scoring chances, and 33.3 percent of the high-danger chances.
It isn’t just the stats that say they’ve started poorly, you can see it on game tape as well. Against the Bruins, Fehervary aggressively tried to step up on a play exiting the Boston zone. He lost his stick, Carlson over-committed to the puck, and they had no forward help due to a line change. Taylor Hall scored an easy one.
In that same game, Carlson got caught in no man’s land in the neutral zone which allowed David Pastrnak a semi-breakaway that Darcy Kuemper came up big against. The problem was that Carlson also didn’t backcheck nearly hard enough and basically just watched David Krejci score the rebound goal that sealed Boston’s victory.
Against the Canucks, Fehervary got caught in two minds about whether or not to step up into the oncoming attacker, leaving him in no man’s land in the neutral zone. He then did not stay with his man on the zone entry and it led to a rebound goal for Bo Horvat.
Some of the most convincing logic behind separating the two comes when taking a look at how the Capitals fared (measured in shot attempts) when Carlson and Fehervary were together last season compared to when they were apart. When Carlson was with anyone else, the Caps absolutely dominated play.
“We shook it up a little bit in the third period (of the Canucks game),” Laviolette said of the pairing at practice Wednesday. “From a production standpoint it just hadn’t been there, so Kevin McCarthy and I talked and he thought switching the pairs would maybe create a spark. I thought it did. I thought we played much better in the third period so we’ll leave it for a bit here and see how it goes.”
The vast majority of the evidence that we have says this move has been a long time coming. It could purely just be that the two do not fit as well with one another as once thought and really has nothing to do with some of the other contextual questions (COVID, energy levels) stated earlier.
Trying something else seems like the right move by Peter Laviolette.
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