Photo: Chris Gordon
Sergei Fedorov left the Capitals in 2009, leaving a hole in the middle of the second line that the team hasn’t been able to keep filled since. There’s been Brendan Morrison and Eric Belanger and Jason Arnott and Mike Ribeiro, but no player has stuck at 2C for any length of time.
Looking at his options on Friday’s free agency frenzy, general manager George McPhee saw nothing to fill that hole. “We didn’t think it was a great class of players,” McPhee told the press after development camp practice on Monday afternoon. McPhee admitted he had a few discussions, but said that contract term was a frequent deal-breaker. “Salary you can compete with,” McPhee said, “but when people get into term that’s too long, you can ultimately hurt your competitiveness down the road.” That’s certainly in line with owner Ted Leonsis’ edict regarding signing veterans.
And so the club looked inward to fill its abscess at 2C. A nation’s capital turns its lonely eyes to Brooks Laich.
“You need a really good two-way player to play there,” said of the second line center position, “which is why we’re looking at Brooks Laich to play there now.” And with that we had our answer to the biggest question of the last five years. A Washington Capital through 2017, Brooks Laich is definitely a long-term solution to the second line center problem.
I’m not sure he’s the best one though.
That’s not to say BL21 is a slouch. He has served 565 games in a Capitals sweater, playing an average of 13 minutes a night in recent seasons– about what you’d expect for a player hopping between the second and third lines, according to a big data exercise by Tyler Dellow. He’s acquitted himself well in those circumstances, tilting the ice towards the opponent’s net in each of the last four seasons except for 2011-12, when he took a ton of defensive-zone faceoffs with sorta crummy teammates.
In 2013, Brooks Laich missed 39 games and the playoffs with a pestering groin injury, allegedly sustained during his time wearing a flame-decaled helmet with the Kloten Flyers. Laich says he is ready to play now– and perhaps could even have been ready at the end of the quarter finals.
Brooks is certainly a proficient, defensively oriented forward, and I’ve always fantasized a roster that uses him as a third line center who plays a lot of special teams and carries the team’s defensive burden, freeing up the top six for offensive zone faceoffs and scoar-moar-goals. But on the second line, GMGM says BL21 is our guy, and our guy he is.
Speaking to the press on Monday, George McPhee said:
We don’t see any real difference in terms of ability to play between a Brooks and, if you look around the league, a Mike Fisher in Nashville, Mike Richards in L.A. or David Backes in St. Louis. Same type of players. [emphasis mine]
Just for fun, let’s add to that list the diminutive joculator Mathieu Perreault, whom I’d prefer to see anchor the second line next year, and Mikhail Grabovski, an unsigned free agent recently bought out by the Toronto Tire Fires.
Let’s break down those player’s purely by the best predictor of future success: puck possession– by shot attempts, leaving out stats that fluctuate based on shooting and save percentages like raw goals and plus/minus. I’ll use a stat called Relative Corsi, but you can think of it as the player’s shot-attempt differential compared to the rest of his team. I think this is the best stat to use in evaluating second line centers because A) it’s a measure of “playmaking” (denying opponent attempts and generating shot attempts), probably the main virtue of a center; B) the “relative” part will mitigate the distortion of playing on an overwhelmingly offensive or defensive team; C) it shouldn’t punish players too much for missing games; and D) it won’t make a player look like a total stud just because he shared a line with some freak who scores on every fifth shot, or a dud because his goalie is an escape goat.
I’m pulling all of this data from Behind The Net, whom I really should buy a beer. Positive numbers indicate tilting the net towards the opponent’s net.
Grabovski, who was unceremoniously bought out by his team, has actually been the strongest player in the list. Fisher in Nashville has been problematic, posting just one positive number (from this past season). Laich is in the middle of the pack.
That’s not the whole picture. In fact, the anti-intellectual troglodytes who malign using numbers to help understand reality would suppose that our discussion stops at this single statistic. It does not. This next table shows qualifying factors for those same players over the same period: how good their teammates were, how good their opponents were, and how often they started in the offensive zone. These numbers illuminate and qualify the numbers above– giving us an understanding of how circumstances drove the possession above. If I had included retrospective goal counts above (kind of specious as a predictor of future goals), I would also include shooting percentage in the table below.
Positive numbers indicate good competition or teammates. Numbers above 50 for zone starts indicate getting deployed near the opponent’s net more often than not.
|Player||Competition||Teammates||Zone Start %|
The numbers are pretty uniform, which I suppose they would tend to be over four seasons, though there is still stuff to grok here. Grabovski, who looked like a play-driving maniac above, benefited more from good teammates than any other player in our list– though not by much, as he rarely played with Phil Kessel (real smart, ‘ronto) and he was started in his own zone a lot.
Really, all our potential 2Cs seem to get a bunch of defensive assignments based on those zone starts, except for Mathieu Perreault, whose ice-tilting powers as measured in the table above should be somewhat qualified by what you see here.
Mike Fisher kinda gets hosed, but I bet he’s not unhappy with his life overall, despite any deficits in Corsi Rel or ZS%.
I think Brooks Laich is a tremendous player, and he stacks up favorably to the comparables that George McPhee offered on Monday. Still, there are other options out there. It seems inevitable to me that some enterprising GM will snatch up Mikhail Grabovski before October and reap the rewards, but Grabo may be too pricey for DC. In a hockey world forever under the shadow of the salary cap, teams like the Capitals are incentivized to grow from within. Mathieu Perreault, in my estimation, has over the last few seasons grown in every way except vertically.
Eighteen months ago I said “any team that utilizes [Mathieu Perreault] as [first line center] is fundamentally broken.” I don’t feel so strongly about it anymore. At this point, I’m excited to see how he might perform on the second line, paired with Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer. Brooks Laich, then, would lock down the third line as a defensive stalwart and special-teams specialist, eating up defensive-zone faceoffs so that the top-six can spend more time closer to place where moar goals get scoared. But that’s just me spitballin’.
Entering the 2013-14 season, Washington can keep a bit of salary cap space. They can give either Brooks Laich or Mathieu Perreault a shot at second line center while also keeping their options open for a blockbuster trade– where McPhee is likely to find more value than on the seller’s market bonanza that was July 5. I think Laich and Perreault are both up to the task, and while I have my preference, I’m eager to see how either plan plays out.
All stats pulled from Behind the Net. My copy of the data is available on Google Drive. If you have issues with my math or conclusions, let me know in the comments.
UPDATE 9:45am: RMNB alum Neil Greenberg offered criticism for my choice of Relative Corsi, which is essentially a counting stat. Here is the Corsi For% for the same players, which you can think of as “how they tilt the ice”– above 50 means more shots on the bad guy’s net.
The conclusions are very similar, but this is freer of the distortions inherent in Relative Corsi and might be easier to digest for some. Stats taken from HockeyAnalysis.com.