With just a few days left before a trade deadline, managers around the NHL are comparing their teams to the rest of the league and looking for the pieces needed for a playoff run. With the new playoff format, it’s especially important to overmatch the division rivals you are likely to face early in the postseason.
The Caps, despite sitting just fourth in the Metropolitan division, keep up with the teams above them in most statistical categories. But there is one area in which they are struggling: the second line.
Ed. note: Peter here. One of my favorite reads this season has been Derek Miller’s Capital Precession. Derek crunches hard team data, visualizes them handsomely, and then talks about them like an actual human. It’s very refreshing. I’ve asked Derek to give us a report on the Caps as we head into the trade deadline. Where do they stand? What’s working? What’s not? Derek’s got the answers.
I’m going to make what is probably a very safe assumption and say most of those reading this on RMNB have never seen one of my posts before, so I’ll explain the format quickly. I’ll throw up a few graphics that are typically related, and each data series will have two graphs– one will display the season cumulative data, and then below it will be a plot of the same data but just of a 10-game rolling average. Then I’ll provide some commentary on what I’ve observed.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman released his latest 30 Thoughts article this morning. There are two big nuggets of news. First, he believes Mike Green will be staying in DC for the rest of the year, which corroborates recent quotes from Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz. He also believes the team will try to add a veteran defenseman and a winger to play with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.
Hockey legend Igor Larionov captured the hockey news cycle on Monday with a provocative article in the Players Tribune. Larionov’s thesis is that coaches are so stuck on hockey orthodoxy or so fearful of risk that they stifle and select against “creative” players.
The pullquote: “There’s a reason why Pavel Datsyuk went undrafted in 1996 and 1997.”
I’m skeptical about that example, but I think Larionov is spot-on about conservative coaching in general. We see it in all sports, but hockey seems to have a particularly pernicious strain of Goodoldboysclubitis, wherein exciting, finesse players are considered too “European” and risky, and safe and pedestrian players are wildly overvalued. I suspect that disease is behind symptoms like Top-line Beagle.
It’s a chronic infection that takes the form of valuing of a player’s characteristics over his actual effectiveness. Adding hard-working, “spark”-y Jay Beagle to the Capitals scoring line despite an embarrassingly convincing body of evidence that he actually hinders scoring– that’s an acute case.
If the point of hockey is to win games, why do so many people care more about a player’s description than a player’s production? The only answer is Goodoldboysclubitis.
We’ve seen itcreate necrotized flesh on the Philadelphia blue line after an injection of Andrew MacDonald, and in coming years we will see similar morbidity with the addition of Brooks Orpik in Washington.
“The effect is not going to be in goals and assists,” Brian MacLellan said in July. “It’s going to be in culture and winning and attitude, and that’s what Brooks Orpik does.”
That quote, likely uttered in the throes of a Goodoldboysclubitis fever, sums up the affliction perfectly. It’s like the brain is not able to separate the ways we talk about players (“gritty,” “hard-working,” “last name is also a breed of dog”) from the things those players do to actually help win games.
The teams who can rid themselves of the disease are the ones who do best in this league.
The only cure is information. Let’s do the snapshot.
Braden Holtby has appeared in 49 of the Caps’ 58 games, which has him tied with Cory Schneider for the league lead among NHL goalies. This puts him on pace to play in 69 games this season, a total that would be the fifth most all-time by a Caps’ goalie.
As the games get more meaningful down the stretch, Holtby’s workload isn’t going to decrease. Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post noted this before the Caps win over the Ducks on Sunday.
Written plenty on the goalies already, but gist is this: If Holtby's healthy, whoever's behind him isn't playing much from here on anyway.
If Holtby sits just two times the rest of the way, he will finish the season with 71 appearances. Let’s split the difference between his pace and Alex’s higher estimate and say Holtby will end the season with 70 appearances. A heavy workload, for sure. Some Caps’ fans have expressed concern over Holtby’s regular season workload hindering his playoff performance.
There’s a great Mark Twain quote about weather in New England, but it sort of applies to how the Caps organize their forwards. If you don’t like the lines, just wait a few minutes.
Barry Trotz’s forward lines, which I’ve been tracking all season, get announced once or twice a day– at practice or morning skate and during warmups before games. And each time they’re followed by a chorus of criticism from professional and amateur hockey watchers, including me.
There’s always something to rail against: the guy on Alex Ovechkin’s opposite wing, who’s getting stuck on the fourth line, which pairings don’t work, who deserves a scratch but isn’t getting one, and who deserves a sweater but isn’t getting one. It’s instant fodder for content, fresh grist for the anguish mill, and an easy conversation starter.
But it’s also sort of cheap. Because there is no optimal line combination for Barry Trotz. If twenty of us were to make up our ideal lines, I doubt any two would match. There is no magic Rubik’s cube of forwards that make everyone love him and shut up. It just doesn’t exist. The lines are a loser every time, and Trotz, a coaching veteran with three decades of experience, knows it.
Every day he’s got to set back a rookie or piss off a forward. He’s got to give a sweater to a player he’d rather see traded, and maybe he’s thinking about how great some other player on some other team might be in that same spot. Even MacLellan has limited control over his roster considering the market forces and freak injuries that determine it.
That doesn’t mean we should hush up about the lines. I think we’ve got an exceptionally informed and passionate community here. We all know what it means for Evgeny Kuznetsov’s development when he takes shifts with Jason Chimera, and we should talk about it. (Though I bet Barry Trotz probably already knows as well.)
While it’s good for us to discuss and debate it, I’m going to always try to acknowledge that the lines will never be totally perfect and they’ll never be totally broken.
In this week’s snapshot, we explore the great space between those two extremes.
From a team perspective, the Caps obviously generate more shots on controlled zone entries than uncontrolled entries, as does just about every hockey team on the planet. Some of the Caps power play struggles in December can be attributed to them not attempting to carry the puck in as much.
Individually, that story highlighted Marcus Johansson‘s role on the power play as Plan A for zone entries. Johansson was responsible for the puck on entry 44.6 percent of the time he was on the ice in the 10-game sample, nearly 20 percentage points higher than any other player on the top unit. Johansson was very successful, entering with control 89.3 percent of the time he was responsible for the puck.
That’s a pretty impressive run for the Caps. Here’s each Metro team’s record from December 4 to February 6.
A few days removed from Adam’s tweet, the Caps now sit three points behind the Islanders and two behind the Penguins. Let’s take a look, at the team level, at some of the possible underlying factors behind the Caps’ substantial gains in the standings since early December.
My educational background is in literature and my day job is in information architecture. In both pursuits I spend much of my time thinking about how people think. Understanding how they learn, what their different perspectives are, and what unconscious biases they may hold made me a better writer and a better software engineer.
Now that I’m doing the hockey thing, I see those same biases in play– especially concerning younger players. Most of the furor about the Erat-Forsberg trade was rooted in a (now verified) belief that Forsberg had the potential to be a star.
Were those angry people right or did they get lucky? When do our aspirations for a player hinder our ability to discuss him accurately? And what kind of new information is most likely to make us revisit an opinion of a player?
In this week’s snapshot, let’s talk about Evgeny Kuznetsov.