In our post on visualizing PDO last week, we referenced a post that Tyler Dellow wrote back in March in support of the notion that more skilled players can generally expect to see a higher on-ice shooting percentage and PDO than lower-skilled players. The thrust of Dellow's post wasn't as much about that, however as it was about the importance of adding context to a number that gets so casually tossed around in conversation - specifically the context of roles, line assignments and usage. A player with a 51% Corsi percentage might be a below-average first-liner, a good second-liner or a terrific third-liner, but without looking at how he was deployed, there's really no way of knowing which.
Anyway, part of the legwork that Dellow did was to separate players (forwards, in this case) into four groups based on five-on-five ice time, and then further separate each of those four groups (which now represent four lines) into five buckets based on Corsi percentage. By doing so it becomes pretty easy to see where any given forward stacks up to his peers based on a variety of metrics like ice time, Corsi, shots-for, goal differential, etc.
This got us thinking about how the Caps' forwards compare using the same process. Below are the results, line-by-putative-line, with a word or two (hundred) on each - but before we jump in, note that Dellow's data reflects the 2011-12 season, and ours (via Behindthenet.ca, by the way) is from 2013, so apply the requisite small sample size, short season and new system caveats to your heart's content. Top line first...
What you're looking at is the Caps' top line, with a row of raw data for each player and a row below that which describes where that data slots that player based on that data on Dellow's charts. So, for example, Marcus Johansson is a second-liner by TOI, and his Corsi percentage pegs him as a below-average first-liner (that's the "1d") or an average second- or third-liner (the "2c/3c"). Where there's a plus or a minus (Johansson's on-ice shooting percentage, for example), it's meant to indicate that the player is off the chart in that area. These categorizations are imprecise, but at least provide some insight into how Caps forwards - the most expensive, per man, in the League - compare to their peers.
Substantively, the first line had a tremendous shooting percentage, which drove high PDOs and scoring rates (and differential), which overcame below-average possession and shot-generating numbers. The latter part shouldn't be surprising, given that the team struggled in those metrics over the course of the season. Johansson's CF% and SF/60 were in line with average third-liners, but that includes his brutal start to the season as he played through a concussion.
The line may have enough skill to sustain an above-average on-ice shooting percentage, and that may be enough to make this line a good one without vastly improving the possession numbers... but the line could be a great one if it played with the puck more. The good news there is that over the last 21 games last season (once Johansson was healthy and the trio was reunited) the top line had strong possession numbers that continued through the playoffs. And needless to say, any time you have Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom skating shifts together, it's a legit first line.
Stop me if you've heard this one: the second line will be a huge question mark for the Caps in 2013-14.
We've spent a lot of time this summer looking at Martin Erat, Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer and their individual and collective chances for success as a trio. We've looked at forward pairs, at Laich as a second-line center, at cap-hit-comparable players for Brouwer and Laich and Erat, and now we're essentially comparing the component parts to other second-line players around the League... and, frankly, it's not encouraging. Obviously Erat's numbers were mostly compiled in Nashville, but he was a woeful shot-generator there - he ranked 200th out of 208 forwards this year in shot-for rate (minimum 500 minutes played), and the story is similar over the past three seasons. Granted, Nashville... but still. Brouwer looks like a below-average third-liner here, and Laich's sample size is tiny (and any larger sample for him is going to reflect usage ranging from first to third line work at center and on the wing... one drawback to his versatility for the bean-counters).
The most concerning numbers here are probably in the SF/60 column. Your gut has long told you that this line will have trouble generating offense, and here's another piece of data to further unsettle your stomach. Of course, there's still a free agent out there who can change everything for the second line...
And then there's the third line, which should be a real strength of the team (especially if Adam Oates bumps Jason Chimera down a line for Joel Ward, as we'd like to see). Mathieu Perreault is a puck-possessing, offense-generating dynamo in this role, and a healthy Eric Fehr can produce on his wing at an above-average rate for a third-liner. Here's a line that should be among the League's better third trios, and even if Perreault gets moved up to add a bit more offense to the second line (and bumps Laich, who looks like a solid third-line center, down to this line), it still could be a solid unit.
Be it Ward, Chimera, Fehr or someone else, the fourth line should have at least one "very good for a fourth-liner" wing to go alongside an average fourth-line center in Jay Beagle, and a below average wing in Aaron Volpatti. This line will get outscored by its opponents - that's the nature of the beast - but if they can limit the damage and do some decent penalty-killing, that's pretty much all that can reasonably be asked of them.
With a top line that hasn't dominated possession in years, a second line that looks like a third line and a third line that might outscore that second trio, Adam Oates has his work cut out for him in 2013-14. The Caps' payroll for its forwards is certainly impressive in terms of sheer dollars spent... but can Oates maximize the value of those dollars? George McPhee is betting he can.
Since you're no doubt wondering about the guys that the Caps let walk this summer...