clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Work In Progress: Optimus Lines

Barry Trotz shook up his lines at practice yesterday, but did he come up with the right combinations?

Rob Carr

Through the first eight games of the season the Capitals have, to the surprise of many, been a fantastic puck possession hockey team. Nevertheless, coming off a 1-2-0 road trip and a four-game span in which his forwards (including the captain) have struggled to put the puck in the net, Barry Trotz made some pretty significant changes to each of his four lines yesterday, and looks to be sticking with something similar today.

But were they the right changes? Heck, were they even needed?

If the goal is to maximize puck possession (which, theoretically, would lead to maximizing goal differential), let's take look at what the Caps' forward combinations could look like. In order to keep this process manageable, one player was selected to represent each line. If enough data was available, the with or without you (WOWY) numbers for that player were then used as one of the primary basis for the proposed line combinations. It should be noted that these are based on small sample sizes (but you knew that)

1st Line Player of Reference: Nicklas Backstrom

Before the season started we pegged Eric Fehr as being the Capitals' best option for the vacant wing position on the top line, and (when together) the line of Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Fehr has been a dominant force of puck possession. When Fehr and Backstrom have been on the ice together the Capitals have had 60.9% of the shot attempts go their way, and Ovechkin-Backstrom are clicking at 61.1%. And while that has not turned into prolific production yet, it very well could if the line were kept together (but for the time being, it looks as if the three will end up on different lines).

Alas, if the goal is to optimize the entire lineup... Eric Fehr shouldn't stay on the top line. He is a bigger boon to the second or third line than he is a loss for the first. This can be seen by looking at the play of Fehr and Troy Brouwer when playing with and without Backstrom.

Player TOI with Backstrom CF% with Backstrom TOI without Backstrom CF% without Backstrom
Fehr 71:57 60.9% 48:19 50.6%
Brouwer 41:51 60.3% 58:01 43.9%

Again, small sample caveats apply, but the top line has looked almost as good with Brouwer as they have with Fehr. The difference comes when Fehr and Brouwer play away from Backstrom. Brouwer isn't necessarily an anchor when away from the top line, but he has been significantly more successful with the big guys than without them and, that's not necessarily the case with Fehr (at least not nearly as dramatically).

Proposed First Line:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Ovechkin Backstrom Brouwer

2nd Line Player of Reference: Andre Burakovsky

Andre Burakovsky has looked good on the ice and also in the spreadsheets. Thus far, Burakovsky has played almost all (around 86%) of his five-on-five minutes with the new-and-improved Marcus Johansson. While together they have a CF% north of 55%, so, as far as possession optimization goes it is hard to imagine any instant benefit from separating these two (though obviously Trotz again sees it differently). Fehr could potentially slot in well as the third member of this line, but once again his talents are best suited elsewhere.

Burakovsky has only played 8:32 with Joel Ward this season, so there isn't enough data to make any solid claims about how they will play together, but they looked good enough in a couple of preseason games (Buffalo and Montreal, specifically) to suggest that it's worth taking a look at to see if it would be a good fit. Ward has thrived under Trotz, especially during his limited time away from Jason Chimera, posting a CF% of 61.1% in just over 30 minutes of play.

Proposed Second Line:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Johansson Burakovsky Joel Ward

3rd Line Player of Reference: Brooks Laich

The numbers may not always show it, but Brooks Laich can be a valuable contributor for this team. When healthy, Laich is a capable winger and (sometimes) center and has a reputation for being defensively responsible. Laich's defensive prowess makes him a good fit to play with Evgeny Kuznetsov. The sample is still small, but Kuznetsov hasn't gotten much going at even-strength (no goals, one assist in fourth-line minutes), it's fair to say that he is struggling against weak competition. Particularly troubling is the high amount of rubber being put on his own net when he is on the ice - no Cap has seen pucks directed towards his own goal at as high a rate.

Whether Laich plays left wing and Kuznetsov stays as the center or the former pushes the latter to the wing, Laich's presence should take some of the defensive responsibility off of Kuznetsov (which can only be seen as a positive at this point). Overall, Kuznetsov has had poor puck possession numbers since making his North American debut, and Laich has also seen a high shot volume against (but that has come against tougher competition), so this is where Eric Fehr comes in. As we noted back in September:

"Eric Fehr has been the Capitals' best possession forward over the last two seasons, due in no small part to his ability to generate shots. Over the last two seasons Ovechkin is the only Capital that has generated shot attempts more efficiently (iCorsi/60) than Fehr."

Where Fehr goes, improved puck possession seems to follow, especially in his second tour of duty with the Caps. There is no real data to suggest how this line would work, but putting Fehr with a setup man of Kuznetsov's quality (not to mention Laich's net-front presence) seems like a good idea.

Proposed Third Line:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Laich Kuznetsov Fehr

Fourth Line Player of Reference: Jason Chimera

Chimera is not having a fantastic start to his 2014-2015 season and his possession numbers have been poor (granted, he's started a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any of his teammates up front). The result of this sputtering start was a separation between Chimera and perennial running-mate Ward. With Tom Wilson's return to the mix it is hard to predict who will be seeing playing time every night, but you can count on him playing while he's in D.C, which leaves Michael Latta and Jay Beagle to split time as the fourth-line center with Chimera playing on the left and Wilson on the right. This would leave feel-good story Liam O'Brien and Aaron Volpatti as the odd men out (which is unfortunate, for the former at least, given how well he's played).

As with the majority of these lines, there is very little data to predict how this trio would perform. But it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to assume they would preform as well, if not better, than what we have seen from the fourth line up until this point of the season.

Proposed Fourth Line:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Chimera Latta/Beagle Wilson

Putting it all together, that gives us...

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Ovechkin Backstrom Brouwer
Johansson Burakovsky Ward
Laich Kuznetsov Fehr
Chimera Latta/Beagle Wilson

That's less drastic than what Trotz is looking at right now, and we cheated by plugging Laich in there, but bump Chimera up and O'Brien in if you'd like. But, given how well the top-six have played so far, we're not quite ready for "drastic" yet... there'll be plenty of time for that.