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Second to None: What Happened to the Capitals' Other Scoring Line?

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A look at a dramatic drop-off for half of the Caps' top-six

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Conventional wisdom holds that if you can stop Alex Ovechkin, you can stop the Washington Capitals. And there's obviously a good bit of truth to that - more than two-thirds of his career points have come in Caps wins, despite a close 360-349 split between victories and defeats over his career game log.

But "as Ovechkin goes, so go the Caps" might be more a thing of the past than of the present, and the current key to Washington's success might well lie a tick or two down the white board, in what could nominally be called the second line. (Though this trio of forwards usually gets less even-strength ice time than the "third" line, it's is ostensibly the second scoring line, so we'll stick with that nomenclature for now.)

Since opening night, that line has featured Marcus Johansson on the left wing, a rookie European still learning the position at center (Andre Burakovsky or Evgeny Kuznetsov for all but two games), and usually Troy Brouwer on the right side. Early on, the line was productive - Johansson resurgent, Burakovsky a revelation - but since that early burst, they've fallen off. Have a look:

Second Line Game-by-Game

(Note: This includes goals scored at five-on-five with at least two of the three second-liners on the ice, and since Johansson has been a constant, his Corsi-For percentage is used as an imperfect proxy for the line's.)

Segmenting things neatly (but somewhat arbitrarily), that's five goals and a 52.0 CF% over the first ten games, five goals and a 54.3 CF% over the next ten games, and three goals and a 47.5 CF% over the last ten. Of note, the second-line centers for that first set of games were Burakovsky (eight games) and Nicklas Backstrom (two), Buarkovsky (eight) and Kuznetsov (two) for the second set, and Kuznetsov (eight) and Burakovsky (two) over the last ten.

Of course, those Corsi percentages on their own lack context of what the team has done over the same span, so here's Johansson's game-by-game CF% plotted against the team's (including his second line):

MJ90 vs. Caps

With the exception of the stretch from games 14 through 19, the second line's CF% tracks reasonably well to the team's, which may be surprising given that the line has typically been the third line when it comes to ice time (Johansson ranks sixth among the forwards in even-strength ice time per game, behind the first line and mostly third-liners Joel Ward and Eric Fehr). As a point of reference, here's a similar chart using everday first-liner Ovechkin:

AO8 vs. Caps

Ovechkin plays big minutes and generates a ton of shots, so you'd expect his possession rates to track closely to the team's rates. Is it more in line than Johansson's? Maybe?

Moreover, of the team's 17 games with a Corsi-For percentage of 50 or better, Johansson has been above that break-even mark 15 times, Ovechkin 14; of the team's six worst performances of the year (all below 43.8%), Johansson has been below 36% in each one, while Ovechkin has been above 50% in two and at 45.9% or better in another two.

As the second-line goes, so go the Caps?

There's certainly some chicken-or-egg going on here (are the Caps playing well because the second line is playing well or is the second line playing well because the Caps are playing well?), but the point is that the Caps need production from their second line in order to have a reasonable chance at success - the top line can't be expected to do it alone. And to that end, the second line hasn't been productive lately. At all.

Over the past two games, the second line has generated (you might want to sit down for this) three even-strength shot attempts - a couple of shots from Kuznetsov from 39- and 46- feet and one from Brouwer that was blocked. That's... not enough. And as bad as the raw numbers are, the percentages are just as ugly - over the last two games, the second line has generated three of the Caps' 72 five-on-five shot attempts, or just over four percent.

The numbers get better the further back the look, of course, but five times in the last six games the second line failed to generate more than seven shot attempts (including missed and blocked shots) and averaged just 4.8, barely half of the 9.5 it averaged over the preceding 11-games. Over the course of the season, the second line has contributed 17% of the team's five-on-five shot attempts; over the past half dozen games, they've chipped in 11%, less than the third or fourth lines. (Note: these are five-on-five totals for the players that started each game on the respective lines, so it's another estimate.)

Of course, this is where you point out that the Caps have earned points in each of those six games, going 4-0-2. True enough. But the team has only posted a 47.1 Corsi-For percentage (though their 50.9% rate with the score within a goal is certainly more encouraging), and that's a far cry from the strong possession numbers they were posting early on... when the second line was playing well.

So what can be done to get the second line back on track? Here are some ideas:

  • Put Burakovsky back at centerBurakovsky's five-on-five CF% with Johansson is 55.2%, and their goals-for percentage (GF%) when together is 52.9%. These are small samples, and the numbers took a bit of a downturn during Burakovsky's last few twirls at second-line center, but they're still strong enough to warrant another look. Kuznetsov's numbers with Johansson aren't terrible (49.5%/55.6% in an even smaller sample), but Kuznetsov clearly isn't generating much offense in the role right now, and his defense may be an issue - Johansson's Corsi-Against rate with Kuznetsov is higher than with any other skater on the team with whom he's had a decent number of minutes. Furthermore, Burakovsky is a super-talented 19-year-old who should be playing (somewhere) and not just an insurance policy or a threat to try to focus underperforming veterans.
  • Put Fehr on the right wing. Independent of a center swap, Fehr would help allay any concerns Trotz would have regarding the second line's defensive conscience, as he's been the team's best shot-suppressing forward so far this season. Not a critical move, but one that might provide a spark that Brouwer has been unable to while also shoring things up on the defensive side of the ice.
  • Put Marcus Johansson on notice. After a strong start, Johansson has tailed off. He doesn't deserve a demotion... yet. But he also doesn't deserve to hold a top-six forward spot by birthright. He needs to be better than he's been recently. And if he's not, Trotz shouldn't be afraid to make a change.
  • Play the second line with Mike Green and Nate Schmidt. This is probably the single biggest thing that the Caps could do to improve the second line's productivity (largely because it's the single biggest thing that the Caps could do to improve any line's productivity). There are probably three legitimate possession "drivers" on the Caps - Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green. Since breaking up Ovechkin and Backstrom has never really proven to be a net positive (other than, perhaps, for the 2008 playoffs), that leaves Green. With Green, Johansson's five-on-five CF% this year is a robust 56.6 (and his GF% 63.6). With Burakovsky, those numbers are an eye-popping 58.7 and 72.7, respectively, in 92 minutes. With Kuznetsov, they're 58.3 and 66.7. With Brouwer, they're 64.2 and a can-this-be-right-yes-it-is 83.3 in 90 minutes. You get the point. The samples are small, but Mike Green is a beast and the Caps should use him to drive the second line. Make it essentially a five-man unit (the other two defensive pairs can play the rest of the game) and suddenly the Caps will have a real second line, not whatever it is they're icing today.

Early in the season, the Caps looked like a dangerous team with more explosive, creative offense than they've displayed in years (and a defensive acumen they hadn't displayed in decades), and the second line - Johansson and Burakovsky in particular - were a main reason why. Somewhere along the way, that creativity, possession play and, ultimately, production dried up... and the second line is a main reason why. If the Caps are going to make the playoffs and possibly do some damage once there, they're going to need more from their second line. And if they players who can make that happen aren't currently in the organization, they'll need to go find them.