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.

Player Relative Corsi
Fisher -7.12
Richards -4.07
Laich -1.08
Backes 5.30
Perreault 6.92
Grabovski 12.70

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 %
Fisher  1.1  0.07  44.7
Richards  0.77  0.63  49.9
Laich  0.91  -0.70  48.6
Backes  1.16  1.05  46.45
Perreault  -0.25  -0.12  53.8
Grabovski  0.69  1.29  48.75

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%.

Photo: Jamie Squire

Photo: Jamie Squire

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.

Player CF%
Fisher 0.464
Richards 0.495
Laich 0.510
Backes 0.532
Perreault 0.541
Grabovski 0.538

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.

  • Brouwer Rangers

    What’s an escape goat?

    But seriously, nice work, Peter. I’m not sure I totally understand it, but I feel smarter after reading this. One of these days I will comprehend what the heck Corsi and Relative Corsi actually are. Relative Corsi Twice Removed …

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Relative Corsi is really simple, just the name sucks: the player’s shot-attempt differential compared to the rest of his team.

  • yv

    I always like MP85 but he’s especially grown a lot as a center last season with AOates as a coach and closely watching and learning from Ribeiro.
    Grabovsky would be ideal to have, but analysis like this, scare Caps GMGM even more, because he probably wants to have him for what Schultz has signed for with LAK.
    Nothing against Laich, but Caps already tried him there for many games with not much success. Looks like GMGM is operating not with these fancy numbers but according to salary sheet he has signed players before.

  • John Atchison

    Great article, but means little. This team (front office and owner) both believe that this team is set. I got confirmation of that this morning. They believe this team is fine, plus they will be left with money at the trade deadline to make acquisitions. Not sure how that might matter if there out of it by then, but it is what it is.

  • Brouwer Rangers

    I’m dumber than you might think … I usually need it spelled out much more simply, ha.

    As I understand it, Perreault’s Coris Rel means that for every 60 minutes he was on the ice, the Caps directed 6.92 more shots on the opponent’s goal than when he wasn’t on the ice? Or is that for every 60 minutes he was on the ice, the Caps directed 6.92 more shots on goal than their opponents?

    Then the other numbers indicated that Perreault’s Corsi Rel is high in part because his quality of competition is low and his offensive zone starts are high?

  • Annie

    The anti-intellectual troglodytes link isn’t working for me.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett
  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Yeah I don’t pretend like my articles will change things, it’s just analysis to try to understand the situation in new ways.

    But I suspect GMGM might not have to wait til the deadline to make a trade– if he wants one.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Lemme get you a better link explaining Corsi Rel. I sympathize because I find the number as expressed pretty hard to intuit. I use it here because it made sense comparatively between the set of six players.

    BRB– getting you a link.

  • BJ Robey

    Corsi is basically your normal +/- stat, but for shots instead of goals. And then Relative Corsi is just the stat compared to the rest of the team.

  • chris

    Why does Laich have to be slated as the third line center? When the Caps turned around their season last year it had a lot to do with Oates putting Backstrom, Johansson and Ovechkin together on the top line, but it also coincided with Laich’s return to the ice and being paired with Ribeiro and Brouwer. Laich seemed to act as that line’s center, taking a majority of the faceoffs because Ribs is horrible in that department. I’d love to see a second line with Erat, Laich and Brouwer.

  • Troy

    It’ll be like Bolland’s short time around as Chicago’s 2C between the playoffs last year. (Which was actually pretty damn competitive with Vancouver, the team just didn’t wake up until game 4.) I like it, I really do. Give him the reigns and see how much more he can progress his game, and he has shown a ti-bit of a scoring in a couple of the past seasons.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Fair point about coincidence of BL21 returning and Ovi doing well.

    I don’t have a big problem with either scenario right now– I just wanted to share my pipe dream of Brooks getting a defensive gig forever and ever.

  • Hale

    Have to say, one of my favorite malapropisms to come out of hockey (Cherry?) is “escape goat.”

  • Annie Lockyer

    Oh, barf.

    No, you know what, I’m not going to do a whole “GTFO you nincompoops that use Moneyball as a proxy for everything you don’t like about baseball or smart people” thing because I have stuff to do today and this isn’t the proper forum for me to discuss how the As have the fourth smallest payroll in the MLB and a 53 – 37 record so EAT IT HOSERS.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Neil Greenberg had a point about use Rel Corsi, which is a counting stat, to evaluate centers. A fair point. Below are CF% (shot attempt differential as a percentage) for each player.

    Above 50 is good.

    Fisher 0.464
    Richards 0.495
    Laich 0.510
    Backes 0.532
    Perreault 0.541
    Grabovski 0.538

    Similar conclusion, but good information to have. Data taken from http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/ratings.php?db=200812&sit=5v5&type=corsi&teamid=0&pos=forwards&minutes=100&disp=1&sort=HARTp&sortdir=DESC

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    I upvoted my own comment.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Go As.

    My #3 team behind BAL and NYM.

  • Annie Lockyer

    Game recognize game. We’re basically the west coast version of the Os. Except that we don’t have a super human swamp monster cyborg hitting twelve home runs every week (god I’m so jealous).

  • chris

    My only concern with MP85 is, based on the numbers in your article, he was deployed mainly in the offensive zone at face-offs. I would not like to see him in the defensive zone faceoffs against divisional opponents: Evgeni Malkin, Vinny LeCavlier/Brayden Schenn, Jordan Staal, Derek Stepan, Frans Nielsen, Traviz Zajac and Ryan Johansen…not to mention conference opponents Patrice Bergeron, Mikhail Grigorenko, Henrik Zetterberg, Mika Zibanejad, David Bolland and Nick Bjugstad. The only player he matches up with in size as a 2nd line center in Montreal’s David Desharnais. Even when deployed on the offensive zone he’ll have a tough time maintaining puck possession against these centers. Time and time again he gets knocked off the puck.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    welcome to the bandwagon, East-coaster.

  • Annie Lockyer

    Ha! I have nothing to prove. I am forever immune to accusations of bandwagoning after cheering for the Oakland Raiders for two of the most consistently wretched decades a professional sports franchise has ever endured / brought upon themselves.

    So just let me have this, Peter. I deserve good things.

  • jeremiah

    remember that time when they said that Fleishmann a playmaking wing was going to be there 2nd line center? well at least they have learn from that and not say you can’t move a wing to center. good work on the piece

  • BoostinWickedHigh

    “No real difference between Laich and Richards.”

    Numbers aside, is there any Caps fan, GM in the league or simply non-brain dead hockey fan alive who wouldn’t make that trade yesterday then.

    Can’t believe he said that let alone gets a pass on it.

  • Snow-Ape

    Peter, Ive been thinking about that as well… My hope is that they believe this is a team that can and will make the playoffs without big moves, and is securing the Cap space to go next level once they have 30-40 games under their belt and understand where we’re weak and can target candidates for trade.

    I’ll hope in one hand and crap in the other and see which fills up first.

  • Rhino40

    • All things are relative,
    • All Relatives are things,
    • my Relatives took all of my things…

  • maveric101

    Escape goat? Don’t you mean ‘scapegoat?’

  • Rhino40

    Al Davis and Dracula (as portrayed by Gary Oldman): Separated at Birth?
    I kid, Annie…During the late 1970′s growng up in Santa Cruz county, it was considered fashionable to claim that one’s family was “Part-owner of the Oakland Raiders”, to which I–being decidedly unfashionable–would respond: “Really? Which part? Ken Stabler’s knee or Cliff Branch’s shoulder?”–which made me a very popular guy (NOT!). Scarred me for life.

  • Rhino40

    While I am enthusiastic about a full-time return for Le Brooksi, I worry that he, too will fall victim to the Sixth Law Of DC Ice, which states that:

    “Groins never really heal in Washington”

    Don’t mind the Grumpy Old Man, folks…that’s just my Cupless depression talking.

  • Pat

    Im sorry to tell you, the only thing they believe is that this team will make Ted money. The owner is content with just packing the house every night and until that stops happning, GMGM will be here and nothing will change.

  • Rhino40

    We didn’t think it was a great class of [free agent] players. It wasn’t a great pool of players to invest in, so we didn’t,
    –George McPhee

    Maybe not, George. But signing a player–any player–to wear the Caps colors for the first time is something of a gamble, regardless of whether the player in question is a youngster coming up through Juniors or an illustrious veteran.
    Thing is, I somehow get the feeling that even if this free agent class had included (Mario) Lemiuex, Gretzky, Orr, Stevens, (Ray) Borque, and (Patrick) Roy–all in their primes and all willing to sign one-year deals for league minimum–then you, George, would still have taken a pass on all of them. Too, one must take into consideration that few players are as well prepared as you were for life after hockey–they have to get what they can, while they can…
    I can understand the reticence to gamble on your part, George–particularly in the wake of the Jagr debacle (combined with the fact that relatively few “name” players seem to perform up to expectations once they don the Red). But at some point you gotta take a chance.

  • Annie Lockyer

    Ha, I’m a child of the 90′s, so by the time I laid eyes on him, Al Davis was a dead ringer for Emperor Palpatine.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    I’ve had very few conversations with Ted Leonsis, but I really do not think that’s true.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    bit of an inside joke– a typo from Don Cherry’s twitter account. I’ve been saying it a bunch on RMNB over the last year.

  • Pat

    Im sure that Ted cares about winning. I just think he puts a higher value on making money then actually trying to win a cup. After all, he was a business man before he was a hockey fan.

  • maveric101

    Gotcha, thanks. I was gonna call you out on it, but you have a pretty good vocabulary, so I figured there was another explanation.

  • Catherine__M

    I promise you I am far from That Girl (the one who is rabidly obsessed with professional athletes for their looks and physique). Seriously, half the time I couldn’t pick these guys out in a lineup, but could probably give you a fairly accurate and detailed rundown on how their last season went.
    That being said….there is just something about that Brooks Laich that is endlessly distracting. I start reading an article, and the only thing that registers is “oh, my, how handsome!”. It’s a real problem.
    Also, also (and totally unrelated)! If anyone reads this: can we have a goodbye party for Hendricks? I already miss that guy :(.

  • Rhino40

    Ah, yes…Don Cherry: a man whose Twitter account (some say) should be classified as performance art…

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    Now me on the other hand…

  • Rhino40

    “Young Sky-Wo-Ka…you do not know the Powah of the Dahk side of the Foss!!”

  • David Rothman

    Time and time again he leads the team in possession numbers. His quality of competition was tougher this year than in previous years, not surprising given that Stamkos, Evander Kane, and Marty SL were in his top 10 opponents faced this year.

    http://www.behindthenet.ca/nhl_time_on_ice_stats.php?ds=8&f1=2012_s&f2=5v5&f5=WSH&c=0+1+3+5+8+29+30+31+32+33+34+35+36+37+38+39+40+41+42+43+44+45+46+47+48#

  • brian!

    Michael Scott also says in on The Office at least once (specifically, in the episode Product Recall). I’d always assumed that was where the reference came from.