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Japers' Rink Mailbag: Capitals Defensive Pairings, Analytics and Evaluation and More

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Cobbling together a blueline, thoughts on the Metro, analytics and player valuation, what to serve Ovechkin and more in this week's edition of "you ask, we answer."

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Greg Fiume

Since we talked about line combinations yesterday, how about defensive pairings today?

In the wake of Brian MacLellan's promotion to general manager, we identified his biggest challenge as revamping the blueline via some outside-the-organization help, something his predecessor was never really able to do. On July 1, MacLellan did just that, adding Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to a stable of rearguards that already included John Carlson, Mike Green, Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov, along with some promising prospects.

In the month since those signings, with the "who" out of the way, we've spent plenty of time talking about the "how" and "what," taking some hints as to what Barry Trotz might be thinking and adding our own thoughts and coming to... no conclusions whatsoever. It's one of those "good" problems to have - the Caps have three right-handers capable of carrying the puck (Green, Carlson and Niskanen), two more traditionally stay-at-home lefties (Orpik and Alzner), and a third lefty that's probably somewhere in between, but closer to that first group (Orlov).

(They've also got John Erskine, Jack Hillen and others, but we're going to disregard them for now.)

So who plays with whom and in what role? Let's get special teams out of the way, because they're easy - on the penalty kill, I'd have one of Orpik and Alzner with one of Carlson and Niskanen. I'm not as concerned with which pair is the first unit and which is the second right now, let's see how they do. And my power-play units are going to be Green (with Alex Ovechkin) on the top unit, and some rotation of Niskanen and Carlson with Orlov on the second. Whether or not Green is better than Carlson on the power play is almost irrelevant here - if he's not better, the margin is slim and the team will maximize its overall output by using Green where he is most effective while saving Carlson for his tough five-on-five and penalty-killing assignments.

That brings us to five-on-five pairings. I think it's likely that Orpik and Carlson will be Trotz's tough minutes (competition and zone starts) duo, reuniting a pair that have some familiarity with one another from a little tournament in Sochi last February. Orpik was pretty much at his best with Paul Martin last year, Carlson is probably the Caps' most Martin-like blueliner, ergo playing Carlson with Orpik will maximize Orpik. Then again, Orpik has even more familiarity with Niskanen (with whom he played under Todd Reirden, who will be coaching up the Caps' defense), and was even better than he was with Martin in terms of possession stats (in a very small sample, though the numbers are still good over a somewhat larger career sample).

I do not think that word means what you think it means

But this exercise isn't about maximizing Orpik. It's not even about maximizing Carlson or Green or Alzner. It's about maximizing the group, and then it becomes something of a philosophical question - do we want one designated "toughs" pair, one that will get "sheltered" and a third made up of the leftovers, or does Trotz want to roll three pairs for most of the game, regardless of face-off location and opposition and maybe have some situational pairs and deployments late in games? If it's the former, I think my "toughs" pair is Carlson and Alzner (the latter of whom is a good bet to have a bounce-back year thanks to strong coaching), my "sheltered" pair is Green and Orlov (who, contrary to popular belief, did not struggle last year), leaving the new guys as the third pair. If it's the latter, I'd be fine with Orpik-Carlson (with them playing some "toughs"), Alzner-Green and Orlov-Niskanen or something similar.

A couple of points are worth noting. 1) The Caps are going to have a top-four-caliber defenseman in the "third pair." They might have two top-four-caliber defensemen in the "third pair" (think about that for a minute and try to remember the last time that was the case). And it's quite possible that they have a highly paid defenseman (or two) in that third pair. This is not necessarily a bad thing because... 2) With this depth, there shouldn't be much difference among the blueliners in even-strength ice time. Last year, the Caps basically had Green and his partner in the 16.4-17.8 minute range per night at five-on-five, Carlson and Alzner in the 15.4-15.7 range, and the third pair below 14 minutes. By contrast, the Kings had five guys over 15 minutes (and only Drew Doughty above 16.3) and the Sharks didn't have a single defenseman over 16.4 minutes or below 14.8. The Caps' depth on defense should keep everyone's five-on-five minutes relatively similar.

So my final answer is... try different things in the preseason and early on - what looks good on paper or in pixels doesn't always translate to the ice (and vice versa). There are plenty of good options here, and that in and of itself is pretty amazing.

Nothing will help the Caps as much as the coaching change and upgrades on the defense will, but it's possible that the top three teams in the Division last year - Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Philly - all come back to the pack a bit (the Flyers more than the other two). At the same time, Columbus, the Isles and Devils look to be better than last year, so it's likely going to be a real dogfight in the Metro this year, with only one team - Carolina - that I'm ready to count out now.

Also, The Starboard is awesome. Say hi to Monty for me.

No, not really (even if that's a wholly accurate assessment of what went down, which I tend to doubt - would we necessarily know about any fish the team didn't manage to hook?). I've always been of the mind that if you identify Your Guy and a price (dollars and term) that you're willing to pay for him, you go and get him. Otherwise, you're left scrambling and chasing guys and are frequently left with leftovers or nothing at all.

MacLellan did exactly what he said he'd do: shore up the depth on defense and acquire a decent back-up for Braden Holtby (which ended up being Justin Peters). If I had an issue with what went down on July 1, it wouldn't be in the implied inflexibility in targeting specific players and overpaying for (at least) one of them as much as it would be in the evaluation process that led to those specific players being the targets. And if there's a fundamental problem with how the Caps are going to be valuing players under the new regime, the problems neither start nor end with Brooks Orpik.

For all of the hand-wringing we've done over the Orpik contract, at least the Caps identified their areas of need and moved decisively to fill those holes. Maybe they moved a little too decisively in the case of Orpik, but in one afternoon the Caps went from having no appropriate backup for Holtby and one of the weakest defensive corps in their division to having a very good, affordable backup and one of the deepest bluelines in the NHL. That doesn't happen unless they targeted "their guys" and moved quickly.

By way of background, the reference is to the Leafs' hiring of assistant general manager Kyle Dubas, who has a bit more of an analytical background than most of the gentlemen (and they're all men) holding similar jobs around the League. Other teams have Hockey Analytics guys or Statistical Analysts or what have you, and while the Caps have a Director of Analytics... it's for Marketing.

That's not to say that the Caps aren't using advanced metrics or crunching data and turning it into actionable analysis, but they're certainly not public about it. And it's also not to say that Kyle Dubas has a magic formula that's going to turn the Leafs into Cup contenders overnight. But that's not what this is about. It's about changing the way teams think and breaking with orthodoxy, exploiting market inefficiencies and challenging traditional valuation of players (see the previous question). It is an "assault on the old boys network," and the teams that are at the forefront of the movement are reaping the benefits while others are in danger of being left behind.

To the question that was asked, I know enough to know that I don't know the pool of "analytics innovators" (though you know I'm a huge fan of Tyler Dellow and Eric Tulsky), but I also know enough to know that every organization could use some fresh viewpoints and an awareness of where the game is going. Hopefully the Caps will be along for the ride.

Surf and turf. Since Ovi would have to venture north into the great state of Maryland, our "surf" would be blue crabs - a bushel out on the porch... but I'd make some killer crab cakes in case his feelings about picking crabs are similar to his feelings about backchecking. The "turf" would be a couple of racks of baby back ribs from the smoker, half dry (old school Japers' Rink recipe link!), half wet. Add a bean salad and corn on the side and, of course plenty of cold beverages and... is party now.

As you might have guessed, I'm a Marylander through and through, but even I have to draw the Old Bay line somewhere... I just haven't found that somewhere yet. It's certainly after we've passed doughnuts and, yes, beer. That said, Dead Rise just isn't my thing. But it's definitely more than just a curiosity or gimmick (like some brews I've tried) and better than I'd expected it to be. It's also selling incredibly well, which is great. But if I'm repping the Old Line State by drinking something from Flying Dog, it's probably their The Truth or Gonzo.


Agree? Disagree?

If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. As always, there are always a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.