When Nicklas Backstrom was rudely shown the glass at the end of the Capitals' players bench by Drew Doughty the other night, forcing Backstrom to miss the remainder of the contest with the Los Angeles Kings, it got us to thinking about another Capitals center who has been injured. Mikhail Grabovski was brought in to solve a standing problem - who could fill in and contribute reliable, productive minutes centering the second line?
Grabovski certainly seemed to provide that reliability and production for the first 51 games of the season, of which he played in 49 (missing two in December to the flu). However, in that 51st game of the season Grabovski sustained an ankle injury that limited him to six minutes in that game and only one other appearance after that over the Caps' last 22 games.
Since Grabovski's season is largely broken up into one "present" block of games and one "absent" block, it might be illuminating to look at whether his presence has had an effect on the Capitals' production and performance so far this season.
Let us take it from the top. With Grabovski in the lineup the Caps are 22-20-8 (including his injury shortened game against New Jersey in Game 51 On January 24th and his appearance on February 27th). Without him, the Caps are 12-7-4. You might think that his being new to the club this season might require a shakedown cruise to get him to mesh with new teammates. It is true that the Caps stumbled out of the gate with a 2-5-0 record in their first seven games this season. In those games, Grabovski was 3-3-6, but four of those points (three goals, one assist) were recorded in the season opener against Chicago. Consider those seven games the shakedown cruise, and the record with Grabovski in the lineup otherwise is 20-15-8. Better, but perhaps not altogether exciting, either.
What about when Grabovski is in the lineup and produces points? His games break down very neatly here. Of the 50 games in which he has appeared, he recorded points in 25 and was held off the score sheet in 25. In the former, the Caps are 15-6-4. When did not score, the Caps are 7-14-4. Based on record, having Grabovski in the lineup and productive is better than any alternative, but we are still left with the matter of "why."
Time Allocations and Performance
Part of Grabovski's charm is as much who he does not skate with as who he does. Let us start with the premise that the Nicklas Backstrom-Alex Ovechkin pair works and is as reliable a pair that exists among the forwards (the recent experiment with Ovechkin paired with Jay Beagle notwithstanding, and Grabovski has not been around for any of that anyway). You might expect that Grabovski would have spent comparatively little time with Ovechkin and/or centering the top line. That was a line that was not broken (until it was "broken up").
As to the players with whom Grabovski does skate you will find, thanks to the fine folks at stats.hockeyanalysis.com, that he has spent most of his time at 5-on-5 centering these four wingers (in declining amounts of ice time): Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward. What is more, you will find that in each player's case, their underlying numbers are worse - often much worse - when apart from Grabovski than when they are paired with him. Take, for example, goals-scored-for/20 minutes with Grabovski and without:
- Troy Brouwer: With Grabovski: 0.74/Without Grabovski: 0.53
- Eric Fehr: 0.90/0.70
- Jason Chimera: 1.34/0.80
- Joel Ward: 1.27/0.84
Similarly for goals-for percentage at 5-on-5:
- Troy Brouwer: 62.5/42.5
- Eric Fehr: 57.1/43.9
- Jason Chimera: 53.6/49.1
- Joel Ward: 54.2/50.9
And drilling down into the underlying metrics, in this case Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5:
- Troy Brouwer: 51.5/47.5
- Eric Fehr: 55.0/48.1
- Jason Chimera: 49.8/46.6
- Joel Ward: 51.1/46.8
There is an odd outlier here, and it could have ramifications going forward. That would be Brooks Laich. Although Grabovski has not spent a lot of time with Laich at 5-on-5 (124 minutes, about 80 fewer than Joel Ward), Laich's performance has not benefitted from being paired with Grabovski. Laich's goals-for/60 minutes is lower with Grabovski than without (0.32/0.71), his goals-for percentage is lower (40.0/46.2), and his Corsi-for percentage is almost indistinguishable (48.1/47.9).
Would it surprise you to know that at 5-on-4 this season, Mikhail Grabovski has a higher points/60 (6.19) than does Alex Ovechkin (5.81)? What about primary assists, an important consideration here for a center? His 3.1 primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 ice time compares favorably to Nicklas Backstrom (3.8) and Mike Green (3.6). Compare that to Marcus Johansson (2.6), who often occupies the low, goal line extended position on the Caps' power play, a position that Grabovski would handle. Unfortuately, there are only 77 minutes of 5-on-4 power play time to examine with respect to Grabovski. You could call that a small sample size (compared to Backstrom's 250 minutes) or part of the misfortune that has been the product of Grabovski being out of the lineup.
This has not translated into Grabovski's being a difference maker on the power play, though. Overall, the Caps are 41-for-173 with him (23.7 percent) and 22-for-89 without him in the lineup (24.7 percent). He is 3-5-8 on the power play this season. However, the Caps' power play does not hinge on whether Grabovski is a difference maker or not. As long as Alex Ovechkin is fed the puck consistently in the left wing circle, at least for the time being, the Capitals power play will be effective. It is rather the fact that the Caps can maintain a high rate of power play conversions (second in the league) with Grabovski in the lineup that suggests his value to that function.
Among forwards playing at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Mikhail Grabovski is tops among forwards in Corsi-for percentage (51.8), Fenwick-for percentage (50.0), and in Corsi-for percent relative (+3.4). Only Martin Erat, no longer with the team, had a better Fenwick-for percent relative (2.6 to 2.1). These metrics translated into favorable shots-for percentage, or as favorable as might be expected for a club with shots allowed issues. Grabovski has the second highest shots-for percentage among forwards playing in at least 500 minutes (48.8), trailing only Eric Fehr (49.0), and the second highest shots-for percentage relative (+2.2, again trailing only Fehr with +2.4).
Looking once more at games in which Grabovski participated and those in which he did not, there are differences in team metrics at even strength. With Grabovski the Caps had a Corsi-for percentage at even strength of 49.1. Without him that number sinks to 46.2. It might not sound like a lot, but as of Thursday it is roughly the difference between the 20th ranked-team and the 27th ranked team in the league.
Similarly for the club's Fenwick-for percentage with and without Grabovski in the lineup, the respective numbers are 48.2 percent and 46.1 percent, or roughly the difference between the 25th and 27th ranked team in the league.
What the advantageous Corsi and Fenwick numbers have not done is translate much to wide differences in either shot differential or PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage on ice). In games Grabovski played, the Caps had a shots-for percentage at even strength of 47.0, but 46.4 without him. The PDO values of 100.0 with Grabovski and 99.5 without him do not suggest much difference, either.
In the end...
There is only so much difference a second line center can make whose name is not "Evgeni Malkin." Even on a club where the alternatives for a second line center are as thin as for the Caps, the difference he makes might be a bit subtle in some respects. What Mikhail Grabovski does from his slot centering the second line, or even those instances in which he might have centered a third line, is to improve the even strength production numbers of those around him - those four wingers: Brouwer, Fehr, Chimera, and Ward. At 5-on-5 those players certainly had much better underlying numbers playing with Grabovski than playing apart from him. And 5-on-5 play has been a lingering issue with this team for much of the season.
The team numbers reflect this as well, though the differences are not as distinct. They have not necessarily translated up the statistical food chain to shot differential, PDO, or even win-loss record to date.
However, what Grabovski's numbers do suggest is that his presence puts the Capitals in a better productive environment. His production (Corsi, Fenwick), as opposed to his performance (goals, points), puts the Caps in the position to do better than a replacement might, whether that is Marcus Johansson, Eric Fehr, or someone else. And with the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference wild card race as close as they are at the moment, getting Grabovski back in the home stretch of the season will be important. Any advantage that gives the Capitals even the chance to do just that little bit better could make all the difference between a playoff berth and an early tee time.