While forwards in hockey spend most of their time skating three abreast, combinations of wings and centers can often focus on pairings. Which center (Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro) should get Alex Ovechkin? Who's going to be the scorer for the one who doesn't? And so on. It's a lens through which our buddy Peerless has been looking at players for quite some time, and it makes sense, in part because it's convenient (if not wholly telling) to look at results this way: here's what Player X did when he skated with Player Y; here's what he did when he didn't skate with Player Y.
That's precisely the type of data you can find on HockeyAnalysis.com. For example, here you can see that when Ovechkin and Backstrom have skated together at five-on-five over the past five seasons, 57.3% of Corsi events (shots directed towards the goal) went in their favor; Ovechkin when skating without Backstrom was at 50.5% and Backstrom was at 50.9% when skating without Ovechkin. (Think that whole has been greater than the sum of its parts?)
Of course, that is fairly devoid of context, including game situation (i.e. score effect) and zone starts (someone who starts more shifts in the offensive zone has a leg up, Corsi-wise, on someone who starts more in his own end), not to mention the other skaters on the ice on either team. But it's still worthwhile in providing insight into what is and isn't working and prompts as to lines of further investigation.
With all of that in mind, after the jump we'll take a look back at the 2011-12 Caps' forward pairings - all of them that spent more than 50 five-on-five minutes together - and see what stands out (all stats via HockeyAnalysis.com). Oh, and before you ask - the reason we look at Corsi and not goals-scored is that it greatly increases the sample size (goals are pretty rare events, especially in Caps games last season).
Alright, here are the top-five duos, minimum 50 minutes, 100 minutes and 200 minutes of combined ice time:
And the bottom-five duos with the same parameters:
Now for the fun part: observations:
● No trio of Caps racked up more points at even-strength than the 27 accumulated by Mathieu Perreault, Jason Chimera and Alex Semin, and a quick scan of the top pairs explains how and why - lots of minutes together and excellent possession numbers in those minutes. And the goal production was even a bit more stark - when Perreault and Semin were together at five-on-five, 62.9% of the goals scored went into the opposing net (Perreault-Chimera was 57.7%, Semin-Chimera 61.3%). And yet the trio skated less than 2% of the team's even-strength shifts in the playoffs. (Of course, to add context here, Perreault faced the easiest competition among the team's forwards and got favorable zone starts... but there are no gimmes in the NHL, and it's still impressive to do with those minutes what he did, especially on a possession-challenged squad.)
● Let's talk Ovechkin. We noted above that he and Backstrom have been a dominant duo as long as they've been together (which comes as absolutely no suprise), and the pair kept their head above water in 2011-12 as well (in terms of possession, but not goal-scoring). But when he wasn't with Backstrom, Ovechkin struggled mightily, as he posted three of the four worst CF% of the big-minute pairings - and in relatively easy minutes (in terms of competition and zone starts), to boot. And as brutal as those numbers were, you can't help but wonder why Ovechkin-Brooks Laich-Troy Brouwer and Ovechkin-Laich-Marcus Johansson were two of the top-six most frequently used trios in the playoffs. Needless to say, getting Ovechkin back on track will be priority number one for the new head coach.
● Jeff Halpern, Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks get passes for their appearances in the second table, given that they played tough minutes (remember: context). Mike Knuble? Not so much. It says here he's cooked.
● Laich faced the toughest competition and had brutal zone starts, but was above 48.5% with each of the three players with whom he played more than 300 minutes - Chimera, Joel Ward and Brouwer. That's pretty impressive.
● Backstrom didn't get to play the big minutes this year, of course, but in addition to Ovechkin, his 50+ minute partners were Knuble (55.6%... maybe he's not dead yet?), Johansson (53.6%... alright, Nick's a miracle worker), Semin (51.4%) and Brouwer (46.2%... weird, given that Ovechkin-Backstrom-Brouwer was the team's second-most frequent combo during the regular season). It goes without saying that the team's success hinges to a large degree on Nick Backstrom's health.
The 2012-13 Capitals should be a better possession team than they were in 2011-12. Hell, it'd be hard not to be. But determining which line combinations maximize their possession (and therefore production) will likely be a lengthy process, and that's alright - they've got 82 games to figure it out. And it all probably starts with by answering, "Which center gets Alex Ovechkin?"