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Blueliners And Their Partners

On Tuesday we took a look at primary and secondary scoring through the lens of line combinations. One of the propositions to which we alluded was that Alex Semin would have had a better 2007-08 had he been paired with the same pivot for most of the season. More generally, the thinking was that familiarity leads to chemistry leads to production. Nothing earth shattering there.

And as important as it is for a sniper to have "his" set-up man or for a playmaker to have "his" finisher, the most important chemistry on a hockey team likely involves a defenseman and his partner. Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom skated 10,347 "shifts" in 2007-08 ("shifts" here and throughout this post refers to "on-ice line occurrences compiled from NHL play-by-play events"), 66.1% of which he skated with Brian Rafalski (including 70.8% of his even strength shifts). Of Rafalski's 9,058 shifts, he was out there with Liddy for 75.6% of those. It's no coincidence that each man had arguably the best season of his career, and it's not all the result of their individual talents.

Further, Detroit's defense - the best in the League by goals against per game and by Allan Ryder's metrics - had remarkable consistency. Behind the 4,946 shifts that Lidstrom and Rafalski skated together, Niklas Kronvall and either Brad Stuart or Andreas Lilja skated 3,504 shifts together and Brett Lebda and either Chris Chelios or Lilja skated 3,569 shifts together. Compare that to the revolving partners on some of the weaker defensive teams and you can be sure that while talent is obviously the primary driver here, it feeds and feeds off of familiarity and chemistry.

Closer to home, the most frequent Caps even strength D-pairing was, as you'd expect, Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn, followed by Tom Poti and Milan Jurcina, Green and Poti, and Jeff Schultz and Brian Pothier.

Not surprisingly, Green and Mo were the most productive even strength D-pairing as well, totalling 26 points when together. Poti and Juice were second with 14. But the Green/Poti combo - the Caps' two best offensive defensemen paired together at the third-highest frequency of any pairing - produced the same number of points (9) as Schultz and Pothier and fewer than the even less-frequently used Schultz/Poti combo (11 points). Here's a look at all of the even-strength D-pairings the Caps used last year, by shifts and points:

To read the chart, simply pick a player from the vertical column and read across. For example, Green skated 1,396 shifts with Poti and had five points on those shifts. Poti skated 1,396 shifts with Green (duh) and had four points on those shifts. The boxes highlighted in green are the most frequent partners for each defenseman in the vertical column.

So (spoiler alert!) Green and Mo were together a ton - 72.9% of Mo's even strength shifts were with Green, 60.9% of Green's were with Mo. Continuing to look at each defenseman's percentage of shifts skated with his most frequent partner Eminger skated 58.6% of his shifts with Erskine (poor kid never had a chance), and Pothier skated 56.0% of his shifts with Schultz. Lepisto skated 50.7% of his shifts with Jurcina. Jurcina skated 46.2% of his shifts with Poti, who skated 40.0% of his shifts with Jurcina. Finally we get down to Schultz, who skated just 30.5% of his shifts with Pothier, and Erskine who skated 21.7% of his shifts with Jurcina (odd that three different blueliners had Juice as their most frequent partner).

Among the things we see here is the impact of the Pothier injury. He and Schultz were a fairly solid, consistent pair up until January, at which point Potsy was removed from the equation and Sarge was left to find a new partner. Despite (or possibly due to) this shakeup, Schultz had ten assists and a plus-12 rating in his final 38 regular season games.

But here's where it gets interesting (and where GMGM should cut and paste into his brief for his upcoming arbitration hearing). Let's take a look at D-combo even strength production:

This chart is simply the number of shifts per point with each partner for the defenseman in the left-hand column. For example, Green skated 279 shifts for every point he scored skating with Poti, and Poti skated 349 shifts for every point scored while skating with Green. The green boxes again are the most frequent partners for each defenseman in the vertical column, and the numbers in green represent the best production for the rearguard in that vertical column.
Surprise #1: Mike Green was not at his most productive when skating with Shaone Morrisonn (and Morrisonn wasn't even at his most productive with Green). Huh.

Surprise #2: The Caps' two best offensive defensemen were at there most productive when skating with Jeff Schultz, and it wasn't even close.
[Sidenote: I'm not sure exactly when I became Jeff Schultz's biggest fan, but it was probably when I pulled together the data for Sarge's Rink Wrap and looked at his age and his cap hit for the coming year, but the stats just keep piling up in his favor everywhere I look. Someone remind me about these so-called "stats" when I'm cursing him come October.]

Now, the samples here are pretty small - we're talking just a handful of points in some cases. And more importantly, there's a lot more to D-pairings than offensive production (they are, after all, defensemen). Nevertheless, to think that the only defenseman with whom Mike Green can have success is Shaone Morrisonn is folly. So much for chemistry, eh?

Which brings us to our final question. It seems likely that Karl Alzner will be making his NHL debut this Fall. If you were Bruce Boudreau, how would you set your three D-pairings for Opening Night? I'd probably stick with Green/Morrisonn, Poti/Schultz, Jurcina/Alzner, but I'm intrigued by a Green/Schultz, Poti/Alzner, Morrisonn/Jurcina set-up in which Alzner has a bit more coverage for the inevitable rookie mistakes, the once-potent Mo/Juice combo can give it another go and the Caps two 22-year-olds can test whether or not their production together last year was a fluke.

Is it September yet?