The struggles of Troy Brouwer have been a long-running subplot in our weekly stat snapshot series. With just two goals and one assist at 5-on-5, Brouwer’s production has been way below what had been expected for him, and his underlying stats have been among the lowest on the team. Indeed, the numbers have been quite unkind to Troy, and at times they have even endangered our friendship with the Brouwer Rangers.
But I think it’s all about to turn around.
To recap: Brouwer’s puck-possession numbers have been in the basement all year, but they’ve been masked thanks to the excellent Capitals goaltending he’s seen while on-ice. He’s spent the majority of his 5v5 time with Brooks Laich, who has also been struggling. In hopes that he’d turn things around, Martin Erat was assigned as their center for a while. When that didn’t work, Adam Oates tried– and I hope you’re sitting down for this– swapping Erat and Laich at center and wing. Yeah, that did nothing.
Speaking with CSN’s Chuck Gormley at the beginning of the month, Brouwer had a good attitude about his struggles:
“You know things are going to turn around if you just keep working hard and doing the right things.”
That’s true, but in addition to perseverance, it would probably help to have good linemates.
Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer skated together for almost four hours of hockey, and they got positively walloped for the duration. While on ice together, only 43.6% of 5v5 shot attempts and 45.5% of goals belonged to the Caps. Dubbed the Black Hole Line, Laich, Brouwer, and the Siege Perilous were routinely unable to establish quality zone time. As a result, Brouwer– once known as a kanooblian net-crasher– now has the highest average shot distance among all Capitals forwards. It just wasn’t working.
Not sure why, but Adam Oates finally split Laich and Brouwer up for the Maple Leafs game on November 23rd. Laich’s lingering groin injury re-asserted itself a couple days later. The two haven’t played together since, and Brouwer’s fortunes have changed dramatically.
This next chart shows the difference in 5v5 shot attempts when Troy and Brooks are on ice compared to shot attempts when they’re off. If the bar goes up, that means they improved the team’s possession while playing. If not, that means they dragged it down. The yellow shade shows the percentage of time Troy spent with Brooks.
Laich and Brouwer were split up after game 23. After bringing down the team’s puck possession in all but four games, Brouwer has been pulling it up ever since, and he’s tilted the ice in the Caps’ favor (i.e. shot attempt % > 50) in every game except for Tuesday’s game against the Lightning.
Apart from Laich, Brouwer’s on-ice shot attempt percentage is 54.1%. That’s a stunning improvement for a player who has been in the red since 2011 and was a startling 43.6% with Laich.
I’d bet his new linemates have a lot to do with that turnaround.
Mikhail Grabovski and Eric Fehr have been Brouwer’s most common linemates since game 25. Individually, Fehr and Grabovski have put 51.6% and 50.1% of shot attempts in the Caps’ favor this season– and that’s despite lots of bottom-six assignments early in the season. Since they’ve been together and on the second line, Fehr and Grabo have combined for –wait for it– 58.2% puck possession. Boom.
That’s why we’re now seeing series like this one, where Brouwer converted following an extended offensive-zone session:
Or this one, where a nice Grabovski pass gave Fehr and Brouwer a pair of golden chances to score:
Or this one, where a clean zone entry by Grabovski set Brouwer up again:
Detecting a pattern? With Grabovski’s puck-handling skills and Fehr and Brouwer’s proclivity to shoot, the Caps’ second line is now a bona fide scoring threat. They’re among the top 15 most productive lines over the last 10 games, and they’re primed to climb even higher.
You can chalk it up to Troy Brouwer’s relentlessly positive attitude. Or the mysterious synergies of line formulations. Or the opposite-of-a-pyrrhic-victory that was Brooks Laich’s #brittlegroin. Or the not-a-day-too-soon discovery by Adam Oates that Fehr and Grabo are true top-six talents. Whatever the reason, Troy Brouwer is about to make stuff happen.
Take it to the bank. Or the disco.
Post script: While it’s tempting, I don’t think these data should be used to trash Laich. His on-ice performance has been dreary, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad player– just a player who is performing badly right now. The groin injury that kept him out of all but 9 games last season only flared back up last month, but Brooks indicated to Katie Carrera that he had been feeling tightness for days before it became untenable. Laich’s skating may have been hindered without his knowing. He has never been known for strong puck possession, but Laich has often been a solid two-way forward and excellent penalty killer. If he can return to health and find complementary linemates, Laich may find a renaissance of his own.
Just keep him away from Troy.