Week 17 Snapshot: If You Don’t Like the Lines

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.

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Patrick Smith

Photo: Patrick Smith

Previously, I looked at the Caps power-play zone entries.

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.

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What’s Behind the Caps’ Rise in the Standings?

standings

After Friday’s Caps’ 3-2 win over the Ducks, Adam Vingan of NHL.com put out this tweet:

(If you’re not already following Adam on Twitter, please do so now.)

That’s a pretty impressive run for the Caps. Here’s each Metro team’s record from December 4 to February 6.

Team Record Points
Caps 18-5-6 42
Penguins 13-9-6 32
Islanders 15-10-1 31

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.

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Week 16 Snapshot: Aspirational Evaluation

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.

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Week 15 Snapshot: Throwing Away the Halo Effect

burra

There’s this one peccadillo in hockey discourse that is bugging me more and more. I don’t know if anyone else experiences it this way; let me know.

If I say a player had a bad game, people might hear me say that the player is bad. If I say I’d rather someone not play on a top line, people might hear me say I don’t like that player. If I say a player’s contract is very bad, people might hear me say that player himself is very bad.

But I didn’t say that, and I definitely don’t think that.

I’m not sure how to do this more precisely in the future. How can we offer a criticism (or a joke) about Jason Chimera without committing character assassination? How can we separate discussions of Jay Beagle’s deployment and Brooks Orpik’s contract from descriptions of those player and those persons?

Because I like Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera and Brooks Orpik. A lot. They wear the right colors. They’re my guys.

In this week’s snapshot, we go a little bit deeper– because “this guy sucks” is never helpful to the discussion and almost never correct.

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Ovi-carry

Photo: Patrick McDermott

The Caps’ power play is rightfully considered one of the most dangerous in the NHL. As of the All-Star break, the Caps sat third in the league with a 24.4 percent conversion rate when up a man and they generate more unblocked shot attempts than just about any team on record.

But that’s not to say that the PP doesn’t have its cold spells. In December, the team went just 6 for 43 during the man advantage. Japers’ Rink touched on some of the possible explanations for the December PP struggles, primarily focusing on how the Caps’ lack of PP face-off success related to the lack of PP conversions.

Another important aspect of a power play is zone entries– that is, how a team enters the offensive zone. This generally happens in one of two ways:

  1. a controlled entry, when a player crosses the offensive blue line with control of the puck, or
  2. an uncontrolled entry, dump-and-chase style.

The Caps’ recent hot and cold streaks have had a lot to do with how they enter the zone.

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alex-ovechkin

Photo: Julio Cortez

Alex Ovechkin can score goals. Everybody knows that. His lamp-lighting ability is unmatched in this generation (sorry, Stamkos). And as Ovechkin takes aim for Peter Bondra’s Capitals franchise goal record (472, just 23 away), I asked myself how the Russian machine stacks up against the league’s all-time greats.

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ovi-and-barry

Photo: Doug Pensinger

With the All-Star break upon us, I’m going to use the opportunity to check in on a few stories from earlier in the season and give a quick update. Specifically, I’m going to look at the Caps shot generation and suppression, as well as special teams.

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Patrick McDermott

Photo: Patrick McDermott

The Washington Capitals are a dangerous team when they’re trailing. We saw this twice last weekend as the Caps erased multi-goal leads by both the Predators and the Stars. And though they lost both those games, we learned a lot about how the Caps can perform when facing adversity.

When down a goal, the Capitals are the fourth most aggressive team in the league, possessing 59.7 percent of shot attempts. That’s a big jump from tie games, when the Caps hold a still-respectable 10th place shot-attempt percentage with 52.4 percent.

But when the Caps manage to get the lead, which they do most of the time, their possession drops to 46.9 percent, a stark drop-off, and a middling 13th in the league. That partially explains why the Caps rarely win by more than two goals.

All teams do this to some extent, but the Capitals’ meekness with the lead has been one of their noted weaknesses— even during that torrid winning streak last month.

Coaches often direct their teams to become less adventurous once they gain the lead, which is a primary factor in relatively lower possession. Barry Trotz does that to some extent (you can see it in the forecheck), but his personnel choices based on score are playing a role as well.

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Glenn James

Photo: Glenn James

What do you make of a week like that one? The Caps split the week with two wins and two losses– winning over the bad teams and losing to the good teams. Are we to conclude that the Caps bullied the weak teams but couldn’t compete with the dominant possession teams?

And what about those defensive mistakes that cost the Caps both games this weekend? Matt Niskanen’s giveaway lost the game on Friday, and a half dozen blown assignments lost the game on Saturday. What even does “defense” means in a game like hockey where players transition from attacking to defending in the blink of an eye?

And what can we conclude about back-up goalie Justin Peters based on last night’s game?

In this week’s snapshot, we cut the game in half and question everything, because what do we really know anyway?

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