For a while now, we've been harping on the Caps' need to ice a third line that, along with a hopefully fortified fourth line, is capable of taking defensive-zone draws. This past season, the team's third line - usually centered by Marcus Johansson or Mathieu Perreault, both of whom were dreadful in the face-off circle - was one that Bruce Boudreau couldn't put out for those draws with much confidence in them getting the job done. As a result, it was up to either the fourth line or Nicklas Backstrom and the top trio to pick up the defensive-zone slack (since the second line, more often than not, was centered by whichever of the poor-drawing rookies wasn't on the third line).
Backstrom's dramatic reduction in offensive-zone starts this year not only hurt his (and linemate Alex Ovechkin's) numbers, but also the team's ability to generate offense by virtue of who was getting those offensive zone draws. As Gabe Desjardins put it a couple of years ago, "when you lose a faceoff in your own end, opponent shots on goal go up so quickly that it's as though you gave the other team a 10-15 second power-play. For several seconds, the rate of shots allowed is as high as it is on a 5-on-3." So the difference between Backstrom - who won 51.9% of his even-strength faceoffs in 2010-11 - taking those draws versus Perreault (44.6%) or Johansson (39.8%) is not insignificant, and that's without even considering their respective linemates. (And all of this further explains why Boudreau had to essentially trade in all of those Backstrom O-zone draws for D-zone draws in the first place.) Perhaps unfortunately, one player who would be an ideal third-line center for this team (pushing Johansson up to the second-line pivot role) is pending free agent Brooks Laich, who fared well in the middle late last season... but who likely doesn't envision himself as a third-liner (to put it mildly).
Anyway, that, in a nutshell is an issue that should be a priority in the off-season for the Caps, and the good news is that competent third-line centers are both more plentiful and cheaper than second-line pivots on the open market.
But before all of these critical offensive- and defensive-zone faceoffs take place, there are stoppages in play that have come as a result of one team's good shift. As The Falconer put it long ago (back when Atlanta had an NHL team), "a good offensive shift often results in a) the opposition icing the puck; b) the goaltender freezes the puck; c) the opposition deflects the puck out. All three of these non-scoring outcomes results in a faceoff in the offensize zone." (If this sounds familiar, we've discussed it before). The Falconer continues:
If we look at the LONG RUN of a full NHL season, the better players are going to have more shifts that finish in the offensive zone compared to the number that began back in their own defensive zone. Zone shift captures this basic intuition--players with positive numbers usually are better at shifting the puck out of the D Zone and into the O Zone over the course of a season.
Which brings us to the question of the day: which Caps are performing best when it comes to shifting zones at five-on-five? With our expectations set (nice work, by the way) and our data set of Caps' zone starts (minimum 20 games played), we'll take a look after the jump.
Note: Those are full-season numbers, not just stats accumulated while playing for the Caps.
There's plenty to digest there, but the two biggest takeaways are probably how incredible John Carlson and Karl Alzner were last year (especially when you consider that they faced the toughest competition on the team) and how utterly dominated Marcus Johansson was over the course of the season (though one would suspect that his numbers here improved as the season wore on).
Hockey is often mentioned in the same breath as football when folks are talking about contact sports. But the two games may be even more similar in that "field position" - creating and taking advantage of it - matters enormously. Everyone knows that's the case when it comes to pigskin. But getting an understanding of zone starts and shifts and their importance helps in getting a better understanding of hockey. And it's something to keep an eye on as the Caps enter an important off-season.