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Barry Trotz and Forward Usage

A look at how Barry Trotz used his forwards in Nashville, and what it might tell us about his plans for the Caps.

What sorts of players will Alex Ovechkin be lining up against next season?
What sorts of players will Alex Ovechkin be lining up against next season?
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

In the two weeks since the Capitals hired Barry Trotz, the big story seems to be how the longtime Nashville Predators coach will work with Alex Ovechkin and the rest of Washington's ultra-skilled players—the likes of which Trotz, with the exceptions of Paul Kariya and (briefly) Alexander Radulov, hasn't had at his disposal before.

The question of exactly how Trotz will handle a lineup with this many "artists" up front and how effective his tactics will be can only be decided on the ice, but his usage patterns from Nashville may provide some clues.

With each forward, there are basically three pieces of information we're looking for:

1) Forward competition—will the player be asked to check the other team's top offensive threats?

2) Defenseman competition—will the player be asked to be a top offensive weapon for Washington, and therefore have to face the other team's top defensemen?

3) Zone start ratio—will the player be given Malhotra- or Sedin-like zone starts, or something more moderate? (Manny Malhotra took a lion's share of defensive-zone faceoffs for Vancouver for a couple of years, freeing up Henrik and Daniel Sedin to take advantage of offensive-zone faceoffs.)

Yesterday we looked at defensemen in Nashville, and how some parallels between the Predators blueline and Washington's current blueline might give us an idea of what Trotz will do in DC. The picture up front isn't so clear, though, because Trotz didn't exactly coach this sort of forward talent in Nashville. While 10 Predators have scored 50 points in a season since 07-08 (the Caps have only had seven), only Jason Arnott (once) and J.P. Dumont (twice) have broken 60 points, with both posting a high of 72—a disappointing season by Ovechkinian or Backstromian standards.

Regardless, let's still have a look, starting with 2013-14.

These charts are interactive—hover over a bubble for more information. Colors reflect frequent spot in the lineup and not necessarily talent level. Stick tap to On the Forecheck co-managing editor and Japers' Rink regular Jonathan Garcia for the breakdown.

Although Trotz was messy with his line combinations, it's clear that he liked his top forwards to contribute some offense (hence the high opposing defenseman quality of competition) while also checking the other team's best forwards. While that may be analytically based—it's hard to ignore how almost every top team does it nowadays—I imagine Trotz will reconsider given that the Capitals' top-six forwards aren't exactly sound defensively.

...then again, it's not unheard of for a coach to try to use tough minutes to help a superstar become a better-rounded player, and everyone seems to acknowledge the need for the Caps to become better in that regard.

Paul Gaustad is also a player to note here. He was given brutal zone starts in Nashville. Although the Caps don't have an ace faceoff man, the ability to win draws at near-league leading rates doesn't seem to have been a prerequisite for Trotz:

(Min 500 all-situations faceoffs taken; excludes players traded mid-season.)

The Capitals don't have a player like Gaustad—or even Marcel Goc, Radek Bonk or Mike Fisher—but it sure looks like someone will get a boatload of defensive zone faceoffs. In recent years, that man for Washington has been Nicklas Backstrom, because, simply, he has taken more faceoffs than any other center on the team. But since Trotz seems willing to put his top offensive weapons in positions to succeed offensively, I doubt he'll try Backstrom—at least, if he's thinking short-term (i.e. next couple of years).

If Mikhail Grabovski or Paul Stastny is suiting up for Washington next season, it wouldn't be surprising to see them line up against top competition—perhaps with Joel Ward, who was a tough-minutes forward for Trotz in Nashville, or Brooks Laich, who has also lined up as a checking-line winger or center in the past. A healthy Laich could even be the center, as he was in 2011-12.

Here's the quality of competition chart for Washington's forward corps this season:

There wasn't a whole lot of consistent forward matching going on from Adam Oates, so the end result was the regular forwards all facing similar forward competition levels (as measured by ice time). It's probably safe to say that the range of forward competition levels will be larger under Trotz.

Case in point: Nashville's Kariya years, the second of which, 2006-07, saw the Predators score the fifth-most goals in the NHL.

Bubble size TOI/G. The blue bubble behind Hartnell is Kariya. Left yellow is Sillinger and right is Johnson. Red is Hall.

For 2005-06 and 2006-07, quality of competition can't be calculated in the usual way, and the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Scroll to the bottom for more details.

While we don't have zone start information for these two seasons, it seems safe to say that Trotz's star offensive weapon, Paul Kariya, wasn't sheltered. In fact, Kariya, Steve Sullivan, Martin Erat, David Legwand, and others appear to have been used power-versus-power, or something close to it.

Given those types of players, in hindsight, it seems obvious that Trotz would go power-versus-power—but it's still worth noting. After all, even when coaches have the personnel to play their best forwards against the other team's best, they don't always do it—for years, Chicago has used one of its bottom-six centers (Dave Bolland and Marcus Kruger in particular) to ease the defensive load on reigning Selke Trophy winner Jonathan Toews and defensive wing extraordinaire Marian Hossa, for example.

Young Radulov, on the other hand, was protected a little more—something a coach can do when he has so many reliable forwards. If Evgeny Kuznetsov lines up in the bottom-six, he could see that type of usage, too.

Given these two years and 2013-14, it might be a little hard to see Trotz willing to put his top guns in very favorable circumstances for offense. But he's done that in the past, too—notably to Radulov, but also getting Arnott, Dumont, Sullivan, and Smith away from the other team's top forwards.

Fisher is behind Erat at the top right, and Arnott behind Dumont and Sullivan in the middle at the top.

In the top-right corner, Erat and Fisher played against the other team's best forwards and saw some of their best defensemen in 2011-12, and did well. On the other hand, Sergei Kostitsyn was plenty sheltered from top competition in 2010-11, and Arnott, Dumont, and Craig Smith didn't exactly see the best the opposition has to offer, either. The ultra-talented Radulov, notably, saw top defensemen, but not top forwards. Could something similar be in the cards for Alex Ovechkin? It would be more of a Hunter than Boudreau approach...but Ovechkin is closer to the player that he was under Hunter than under Boudreau, anyway.

In terms of zone starts, it doesn't look like Trotz will give too much offensive-zone responsibility to any of his top players, given that, really, no top Nashville forward has seen usage like that since 2010-11. Granted, for the Caps, the value of starting the top line in the offensive zone over another line is probably far greater than it's ever been for Nashville.

(Fisher is the cut-off name behind Erat at the top left. Data via BtN.)

Early on, Trotz's 50-point forwards were all positive in relative Corsi, but eventually some fell into the red, facing tougher competition and less favorable zone starts. Again, that may partly be function of depth—with solid two-way forwards like Erat and Legwand leading the way, but no Radulov-esque players to feast on middle-six-type opponents, Trotz couldn't afford to set up his top players to succeed offensively—his weaker depth forwards needed the "easier" minutes to stay afloat.

Trotz doesn't yet have the David Legwands and Martin Erats to construct a line that can contribute at both ends of the rink.

Meanwhile, when the Predators made several deadline upgrades in their last playoff run with Ryan Suter in 2011-12, they had the luxury of enough quality forwards to give one line (Radulov) a fairly, but not purely, offensive role and another line (Legwand) a balanced, two-way role. The Capitals, plus a Grabovski or Stastny on the second line, have depth more akin to the 2012 post-deadline team than some of the other squads Nashville has iced recently. If Trotz goes power-on-power, it won't be because the bottom of his roster is simply too weak to do a good job, like in some of these later seasons in Nashville.

The Capitals' focus first on skill and later on "being hard to play against" has left the roster with a mishmash of different types of players. While it's obvious that Trotz has more offensive talent at his disposal in Washington, it's also noteworthy that he doesn't yet have the David Legwands and Martin Erats—essentially constants in all the years we've looked at—to construct a line that can contribute at both ends of the rink.

To maximize immediate results, he'll probably have to monitor player usage closely and get his forwards to specialize, giving them prime offensive minutes or tough defensive minutes so they can do what they do best. That's something which he's done many times in the recent past, but which, thanks to the presence of players like Legwand who can be thrown into any situation, he hasn't had to do as carefully or aggressively as he might in 2014-15.

To adapt he will need, indeed.

Appendix: Quality of competition in 2005-06 and 2006-07

Nowadays, the NHL publishes both play-by-play data and shift logs. In 2005-06 and 2006-07, shift logs were not publicly available, and the play-by-play listed players on-ice only for goals—not shots, hits, faceoffs, and everything else, like it has since 2007-08. That means we can't calculate competition metrics in the usual way for the two years following the 2004 lockout.

Instead, we'll have to profile a player's competition faced based on the on-ice goal information. The method is outlined a bit more here (for other leagues, but the same reasoning applies). Since we're working with a few dozen 5-on-5 goals now, instead of hundreds of minutes of ice time, take the numbers with bigger grain of salt than usual—the method can probably identify sheltered players or a checking line, but it probably can't distinguish a primary checking forward from his linemate.

Spreadsheet with the numbers here.