The Stanley Cup playoffs just concluded, and after four hard-fought series, the Los Angeles Kings are once again the champions of the NHL. Their depth throughout the lineup was obviously a crucial component to their success, but one of the constant themes through their four playoff series (especially out west) was the ability of Anze Kopitar to take on the opposition's top line, and outplay them. Joe Thornton. Ryan Getzlaf. Jonathan Toews. Derek Stepan. The Kings were able to rely on Kopitar's line to outplay the best, freeing up the other lines to take on lower lines. There were no "sheltered" lines on the Kings. Nobody had to be fed to the wolves (although Jarret Stoll certainly did yeoman's work in the defensive zone and at the face-off dot).
Now, this shouldn't come as a huge surprise - Kopitar has been a beast for several years now and finally got some recognition in the form of a Selke Trophy nomination (he finished fourth last year), but the Kings are not alone in their power-versus-power approach. More and more, the top teams in the NHL rely on their best players to face the best the opposition has to offer, and that allows them to neutralize the opposition while creating offense rather than having to try to avoid bad match-ups up top out of fear of what might happen. Put another way, when your top line can play against anyone, you - and not your opponent - get to decide when to put them on the ice.
The Washington Capitals just wrapped up the most disappointing season of Alex Ovechkin's nine in D.C., resulting in a new general manager and a new head coach for the team. The silver lining to the Adam Oates
Error Era, it would seem, is that Ovechkin is once again a dominant goal scorer, re-establishing himself as one of the NHL's elite players after a couple of seasons of less-than-spectacular production. But how did Ovechkin handle power-versus-power assignments? Let's take a look.
What we have below are Ovechkin's five-on-five Corsi-For and Goals-For percentages when pitted against opponents' top lines, second lines, third lines, and flotsam/fourth lines, as determined by even-strength ice time per game (serious thanks to Muneeb for pulling all this great data, and for a quick note on methodology, see the bottom of the post).
That doesn't look very impressive, but you wouldn't expect top-line opposition to get beat too handily so maybe it's not that bad. When comparing Ovechkin to the top players on the elite teams, however, it's clear that the Capitals and their captain have a long way to go if they want to establish themselves as a Cup contender.
Let's take a look at a sample of top-line players: Patrice Bergeron, Kopitar, Toews, Henrik Sedin, Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos (last year's numbers and this year's numbers are included to account for the injury time), Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Thornton, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel, and Pavel Datsyuk (CF% and GF%, respectively, are noted in the parentheticals):
What stands out is that the Selke finalists (Kopitar, Bergeron and Toews) are studs, murdering top-line competition with possession rates (Corsi and Fenwick, for what it's worth) all over 60%, which would keep them right at the top of the league if all they ever did was face top lines (that is to say that they didn't feast on lower lines to pad their possession numbers). Likewise, Crosby, Giroux, Thornton, Sedin, Seguin, and Datsyuk all posted strong possession numbers regardless of who they faced, though their numbers weren't quite in the same stratosphere as those Selke guys.
After that there's the second tier; players that posted decent numbers against the top lines, but showed a clear trend for improved possession as they faced lower lines. Ryan Getzlaf fits the bill, posting under 50% Corsi against top lines but beating the lower three lines by a healthy margin (and if you thought some of the guys in that first group are a better fit here, we probably wouldn't argue much). That's perfectly acceptable, and you'd expect elite players to outplay weak competition pretty substantially.
Next we see the elite players that have really feasted on the weak competition but not fared so well against the top lines. Malkin and Stamkos both go from below 50% Corsi against the top lines to above 53% Corsi against the bottom lines. For the Penguins, that's not such a problem since Crosby is going to take all the top-line competition and handle them pretty well. The Lightning should be a little more concerned, but Stamkos' elite shot helps mitigate the possession imbalance as he's well above 50% goals for against all four lines.
Finally, there are only a couple guys that are generally considered elite players but are unable to put up positive possession numbers against any of their opponents. Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall are both under 50% Corsi regardless of which line they face (and, of course, they play for weaker teams). Kessel out-produces his possession numbers against all four lines (i.e. has a higher GF% than CF%), and it's fair to surmise that, like Stamkos, his elite scoring ability off-sets the possession disadvantage. Hall is unable to compensate like Stamkos and Kessel, although he was still able to find a way to finish the season among the top ten scorers in the NHL.
There are other contextual factors that may be in play here; how these guys are deployed may have an impact on these numbers, but that gets a little far afield for what we're discussing here and it's easy to overstate the importance of zone starts. In any event, Ovechkin got favorable zone starts so it's unlikely that factoring in deployment would make him look any better. But if you're curious, feel free to take a look at the group's usage (and just marvel at Bergeron).
You'd expect a talent like Ovechkin to dominate lower lines, but it's simply not the case. At least, it wasn't the case this past season. Unfortunately for the Caps fans, he looks a lot more like Taylor Hall than anyone else on these charts, although Ovechkin credits a lot more of his production to the power play than does Hall.
We already knew that Ovechkin was doing a lot of his damage on the power play, but we also knew that his even strength Goals-For percentage was not reflective of his possession numbers, so it wasn't quite as bad as it looked on first glance. And while it's tempting to say that Ovi's incredible shot should help even-out the scales the way that Stamkos' and Kessel's shots do, that wasn't the case in 2013-14, as Ovi was under 50% goals for against all four lines this season, and in the two (one-and-a-half?) seasons under Oates he posted a 49.2% CF and 43.2% GF. In 2011-12 (Boudreau/Hunter), however, he was 47.5% CF, 49.0% GF, and in the four years that preceded that, 56.8% CF, 61.1% GF (!). His incredibly low PDO this past season explains part of the shortfall, but it's hard to envision his line being too successful going forward if they are constantly losing the possession battle.
Alex Ovechkin doesn't need to be hitting 60% possession numbers against top lines. He doesn't need to be in the discussion for a Selke. What he does need to do (and his linemates have to do their share as well - just take a look at Nicklas Backstrom's breakout... if you dare) is at least come close to break-even with the other top players in the league and impose his will on the lower lines. If Ovechkin can't out-perform regular NHL talent (remember, the fourth line bucket includes guys who aren't good enough to stick in the NHL; journeymen and replacement level guys) then he's going to continue to be a power play specialist - a very expensive (and very productive) Marc-Andre Bergeron. That does not bode well for the Caps. They may be able to survive in the regular season, but there's no way to shelter players in the playoffs, as the past two months have shown.
The obvious reason for hope is that Oates is gone and Barry Trotz has replaced him. Trotz comes with a longer track record of quality coaching in the NHL, and should be able to improve on the debacle that was the Oates even-strength system. Whether that's good enough to get Ovechkin back on the right side of the possession numbers remains to be seen, but if he can't, the Caps are going to have an awfully hard time getting back to Cup contender status.
Addendum: Here's another way to visualize the charts above. Below are the 15 players from the chart, each represented by a bubble (Ovechkin is the red one, naturally). Click on a bubble or click a name from the box at right and then hit play in the lower left to see how players performed against different lines. (Unfortunately, Google requires dates for the slider at the bottom, so we've got "1901, 1902, 1903 and 1904" instead of "First Line" and so on, but you've already figured that out.) The bottom line here is that being in the top right is good, bottom left is bad.
Lastly, a quick note on methodology. To group players into buckets, Muneeb looked at all of the centers in the League and sorted them by ice time per sixty minutes of five-on-five play, called the top-30 first-liners, the next 30 second-liners and so on. It's by no means perfect, but does give us a good sense of what's going on.