The Washington Capitals’ defense was really bad last season. Adam Oates and George McPhee suited up fourteen (!) defensemen over the course of the season and got little success for their effort. Fixing the blue line was priority one in free agency for new GM Brian MacLellan, and he delivered in a big way, bringing ex-Pens Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to town (as well as their former defensive coach, Todd Reirden).
The new Caps D-corps is definitely improved– but at a great cost. Orpik and Niskanen cost a combined $11.25M per season. Washington now sports the most expensive defense in the league (more than Philly once you factor in Chris Pronger’s sadly never-ending LTIR). With all that– rather pricey– new blood, let’s explore how the Caps might line up in October.
I guess I should start by acknowledging that this is a tough break for Connor Carrick, Steve Oleksy, Nate Schmidt, Patrick Wey, and the thirty seven other guys who played defense last year. The depth chart, which we’ll explore below, has been changed dramatically. Barring injuries to multiple players, I’d find it very unlikely any of those players gets a jersey this season.
To imagine how Trtoz might use his D corps, let’s take a look at how they were used last year. Here is ExtraSkater’s player usage chart (a visualization pioneered by Rob Vollman). Guys at the top of the chart face tougher opponents than guys at the bottom; guys at the left of the chart get deployed in the defensive zone more than guys at the right of the chart. Blue guys outshoot their opponents; red guys get outshot. The size of the circle represents ice time.
There are just three who were “in the blue” possession-wise– Niskanen, Orlov, and Green– and they all saw somewhat favorable deployments. (We’ll investigate how Orlov got that blue circle a bit more below.)
It should come as no surprise that most of the Caps defenders were outshot last season. The team as a whole got just 47.6 percent of unblocked shot attempts during close games. The preeminent source of optimism for this coming season is that all Caps players will improve merely because of the removal of Adam Oates from his job.
Up in Pittsburgh, Brooks Orpik was deployed defensively last season. He started 45.8 percent of his non-neutral shifts in Pittsburgh’s zone, where he faced tougher players than anyone except Alzner and Carlson. Many people, especially Brian MacLellan, chose to excuse Brooks Orpik’s awful possession numbers because of those deployments. There is some dispute about that point, which Tyler Dellow did a bang-up job explaining over the weekend. Also, it bears mentioning that Orpik gets outshot even when zone starts are controlled for.
But back to the task at hand: how will the Caps defense line up this season? I’ve collected some information for the likely suspects and ranked each by their average time on ice.
CF% rel is relative corsi. It shows how much more or less the player’s team controls possession when he’s on the ice compared to when on the bench. ZS% is zone start percentage, the percentage of non-neutral faceoffs the user takes in the offensive zone. QualComp is a quality of competition, based on the average ice time of the player’s opponents (the higher the number, the tougher the competition).
Worth mentioning: three righties and five lefties would have sent Adam Oates into a frothing panic. I suspect Trotz also prefers his defenders to line up according to their handedness, but perhaps he’ll be a bit more lax. More on that below.
So here’s the most likely lineup for the defenders:
That’s a breakup of Carlzner. Over the past three seasons, Alzner and Carlson have performed slightly better when separated, though the effect is minor. This split would pair each with someone in a similarly corresponding role: Alzner with the attacking Niskanen, Carlson with Orpik as the stay-at-home anchor.
Outside of the top 4, you’d have Mike Green paired with Dmitry Orlov (or perhaps Hillen or Eskine). And right there we have our first problem.
Mike Green will make six million dollars this season (the last year of his current contract), and under this formulation he’d be on the least-used defensive pairing. That’d also mean the Caps’ two most effective possession players (Orlov and Green had a 55.9 corsi% last season) would see the least ice. That might run contrary to the new GM’s stated goals.
“[Green] had a little bit of struggles with injuries last year,” MacLellan told the Washington Post. “He had an okay year. But we’re hoping to get him back on track.”
Deploying Green with Orlov might allow him to continue dominating puck possession, but he’d have a much lower profile. This doesn’t seem like an an optimized defensive lineup.
Here’s another take:
Well, I’ve got the same problem.
I’ve kept Carlzner together in this formulation. Mostly I’m just curious if– now free of Oates and Hunter– they can perform as well as they did a few years ago under Boudreau. I’ve got Green and Orpik– the strongest and weakest possession players– together on the second pairing. And I’ve got Niskanen paired with Orlov, where the young Russian might benefit from another offensively minded player.
But again: that’s nearly 8 million dollars in salary on the third pairing. And while Orpik-Green might mitigate some damage on the second pair, l it’s unlikely that putting the pairing would get Green “back on track” as MacLellan hopes.
One last try, this time with some more fanciful ideas:
I’ve moved two players (Carlson and Orlov) to their weak sides and fed Orlov to the wolves, but this lineup could be fun.
Dispensing with the axiom that an offensive defenseman must be paired with a stay-at-home guy, I’ve combined Carlson-Niskanen– ideally to be deployed offensively along with the Ovechkin line as much as possible to stack the deck. I’ve put Alzner and Green together to face the other team’s best players with a combination of puck handling and puck distribution skills. And I’ve put Dmitry Orlov on the third pairing with Brooks Orpik– two defensive defensemen (Orlov doesn’t shoot enough to be considered anything else) where they’ll do the least damage.
This could wreck Orlov’s career. Orlov saw a 45.1 percent possession score when apart from Green last year— a 10-point drop-off from when they were together. I’d save some of the softer starts for Orlov-Orpik to keep their heads above water, but this is definitely a weakness.
This lineup has a more even distribution of salary (~9 million for the top pair, ~10 million for the second pair, and ~7.5 million for the third), and there are clearly defined roles and expectations for each. And while there are obvious negatives (playing guys on their weak side, Dmitry Orlov’s imminent collapse once he leaves Green’s side), I think this could be viable.
Of course, it will never happen.
We know nothing for sure, but it seems likely that the Caps will be deploying some well-paid defender for limited minutes on the third pairing. Maybe that will cause Trotz to distribute ice time more evenly among the pairings. Or maybe he’ll rotate pairings. Or maybe someone will get traded before October.
I don’t know, but two things are for certain: 1) this defense will be better than last year’s, and 2) it’s going to be an interesting time on the Capitals blue line.