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Pick 'Em: Lines for Laich and Fehr

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The Washington Capitals team that broke camp and is, for the most part, ready to take the ice tonight bears a striking resemblance to last year's squad, at least in the forward ranks. Likely part-timers D.J. King and Matt Hendricks, along with former first round pick Marcus Johansson, are the only additions, and Scott Walker, Eric Belanger, and Brendan Morrison are the only losses, which means no major overhaul and fewer headaches for coaches setting up lines.

As expected, Alex Ovechkin will return to first line duty with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble. Alexander Semin, naturally, will be the driving force of the second line, which will be centered by Tomas Fleischmann, almost by default. Jason Chimera's a near-prototypical third line player, and Marcus Johansson is a natural fit as the third line center given his age and inexperience. Grinders like Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, and David Steckel will provide solid depth, but should only be be considered for use above the fourth line when injury hits. Arguably, the biggest question is where to play Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr.

Laich is expected to start tonight's game skating with Fleischmann and Semin on the second line, which seems to make sense given that he's put together three consecutive 20 goal seasons (Fehr has one, last year) and back-to-back years of more than thirty assists (Fehr's career high is 18), while also displaying more consistency. But the issue isn't as clear-cut as it seems as a casual glance.

For starters, a comparison based on the most basic statistics is limited by the disparity in ice time between the two. By the hockey card stats, Laich comes out a bit ahead:

2009-10 GP G A P +/- PIM PPG PPA SOG Pct.
Brooks Laich 78 25 34 59 16 34 12 9 222 11.3
Eric Fehr 69 21 18 39 18 24 3 3 145 14.5

But when you factor in ice time - and the fact that a large percentage of Laich's production came on the powerplay - Fehr has the upper hand:

2009-10 GP ESTOI G/60 A/60 P/60 GFON/60 +/-ON/60 QoT QoC PDRAW/60
Brooks Laich 78 1,032 0.67 1.23 2.12 3.52 1.09 0.175 -0.000 0.8
Eric Fehr 69 737 1.48 1.46 2.71 3.70 1.73 -0.163 -0.034 1.2

Fehr's rate of 1.48 goals per sixty minutes wasn't just better than Laich's, it was downright elite - only Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Sidney Crosby scored more often 5-on-5 (Mike Knuble tied with Fehr at 1.48). Even more impressive is that Fehr did it with weak teammates (albeit against weak competition), so it's not unreasonable to think he could produce at an even higher rate playing with someone as talented as Semin.

Of course, offense is only part of the consideration, especially if we're talking about a line with Tomas Fleischmann at center. The defensive numbers, though, also favor Fehr, even if adjusting the Corsi number for quality of teammates and competition gives Laich a leg up in that department:

2009-10 +/-ON/60 GAON/60 BtN Rating CorsiOn Corsi Rel QoC Corsi Rel QoT PTAKE/60 SVPCT PDO
Brooks Laich 1.09 2.43 -0.46 2.55 0.425 -0.520 0.8 .925 1033
Eric Fehr 1.73 1.97 0.44 2.88 0.187 -2.796 0.7 .930 1052

[Ed. note: +/-ON/60 is goal differential per sixty minutes. Corsi is a measure of shots for versus shots against; essentially a plus-minus rating based on shots. QoC and QoT are Quality of Competition and Quality of Teammates are attempts to quantify whether someone is playing with or against strong or weak players and is used here to adjust the Corsi number and provide some additional context. PDRAW/60 and PTAKE/60 are penalties drawn and taken per sixty minutes of 5-on-5 play. PDO is it is save percentage plus shooting percentage, and generally evens out around 1000 for individuals and teams (being over 1000 is very good). For more on advanced NHL statistics, check out SBN's Behind the Net.]

Time on ice is another important factor. Laich is an important special teams player, an able, if not spectacular, penalty killer, and the team's most productive goal scorer in 5-on-4 situations by goals per minute. Fehr, conversely, is a mediocre powerplay producer and doesn't have the foot speed or agility to be an ideal penalty kill player. Generally a second line player will see about two more minutes of even strength play in a game than a third liner. So why not give Fehr, the more productive even strength player, those additional minutes, and save Laich a bit more energy for special teams situations?

For one thing, moving Fehr to the second line and Laich to the third line almost certainly means moving Laich to the right side and Alex Semin to the left. For Semin, that's not a problem -- he's generally considered a natural left wing, and is equally adept in either position. Laich, on the other hand, has almost exclusively played on the left side when he's been used as a wing in his NHL career. Switching from one wing to the other is easiest positional transition to make in hockey, but doesn't necessarily mean the Capitals are comfortable with Laich on the right side.

Additionally, there's the familiarity factor, both in terms of teammates and role. Laich has spent most of the last two seasons, including the vast majority of 2009-10, on the second line, and Alex Semin, the second line's creative presence, skated more than 40% of his 2009-10 even strength shifts with Laich. Fehr, on the other hand, has never consistently played above the third line and his time with Semin has been virtually nonexistent.

Beyond position and familiarity concerns, there's the question of chemistry and line composition. With Laich on the second line and Fehr on the third, each bring something to the table their linemates do not, Laich providing consistency, hustle, and physicality at a level Semin and Fleischmann do not, and Fehr providing offensive upside that Chimera and Johansson (to our knowledge, at this point at least) don't posses. Adding Fehr to the mix with Semin and Fleischmann runs the risk of taking all the punch out of the second line, while pairing Laich with Chimera on the third is somewhat redundant, and makes the line less of an offensive threat.

Of course, tonight's game is just the first of 82 that will give the Capitals the chance to further evaluate their players and experiment with strategy, so nothing's set in stone. Still, we'd like to ask, what makes more sense to you? Moving forward with lines similar to the ones that brought so much success last year and balancing things out a bit more, or allocating ice time to get each player in more situations where they have been productive in the past?