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Familiarity Breeds Good Defense

While it looks like this brief stretch of the Washington Capitals season without Alex Ovechkin is nearing an end, one thing is for certain.  This team can score goals regardless.  Secondary scoring?  With guys like Tyler Sloan and Mathieu Perreault lighting the lamp, this bunch is getting tertiary scoring. 

But on the other side of the ledger, the Caps are now down to 23rd in the League in GA/G, at 3.06.  Over three goals a game in this era is playing with fire -- Katy is not barring the door.  And of the top eight Eastern Conference squads, the Caps have allowed the second-most even strength goals, with 39, just one fewer than the New York Rangers.

What's keeping the Caps flying high is scoring at a ridiculous pace, nearing four goals per game, a pace which at present exceeds even the 2006 Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, in the first post-lockout season that saw a bit of a return to firewagon hockey.  Consequently, Les Capitals sit atop the League in 5-on-5 F/A ratio

We've hinted at one reason for poor team defense:  the lack of consistent pairings, particularly beyond the top duo of Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn, on account of having to rotate eight defensemen.  And we'll repeat what GM George McPhee himself said, after the trade of Steve Eminger in June of 2008:

[W]e didn't want to carry eight defensemen again because it's too difficult for everyone to operate that way. It's hard for the head coach because you know you have someone sitting out, and someone is unhappy. And it's hard on the players.

The logjam has been alleviated from time to time due to minor injuries suffered by John Erskine, Green, and Jeff Schultz already in this campaign (and it looks like Milan Jurcina is unable to go tonight, shuffling the deck yet again).  Sloan has done himself a huge favor, and possibility secured indefinitely his spot in the lineup, by gamely playing the "swingman."

But is there any correlation between consistency in the D pairings and a team's defensive performance?  How consistent are the pairings on the top defensive teams in the League right now?  And how inconsistent are those on the sieves of the NHL? 

Turns out that four of the top five teams in GA/G -- New Jersey, Boston, San Jose, Colorado, and Buffalo -- have three regular pairs of defensemen that skate together for at least about 60% of the team's shifts at ES (for the pairs themselves and the breakdown, link on the percentage opposite the team name, all via DobberHockey):


Team Top Three Pair %
New Jersey

50.98

Boston

73.36

San Jose

76.61

Colorado

59.34

Buffalo

74.12

Washington

55.85


Looking at the bottom five teams in GA/G -- Anaheim, Florida, Columbus, Carolina, and Toronto -- we see a slightly different picture.  Four of these five teams have three regular pairs of defensemen that skate together for less than 53% of the team's shifts at ES:


Team Top Three Pair %
Anaheim

44.62

Florida

56.40

Columbus

46.68

Carolina

40.93

Toronto

52.29

Washington

55.85


Significant, or too early in the season to tell?

Is it the injuries that have led to the significant substitution by Bruce Boudreau and Bob Woods, or is it the presence of eight capable D-men in Washington that leads the coaching staff to be a bit more leaned toward resting guys who are less than 100%, sacrificing some consistency for better health down the road?  That theoretical health benefit could prove enormous come playoff time, and as long as the Caps are making fans behind their opposing team's net break out the sunscreen, there's no urgency to trim the roster on the blue line at this stage of the season. 

Putting the salary cup hit of the eight-man collective aside, of course.