Let's play a game.
Below are three defensive pairings with year-to-date five-on-five Corsi-For percentages presented in buckets based on quality of teammates and competition. Basically, what you're seeing is a range from deep green (good) to deep purple (
Smoke on the Water bad) plotted against the quality (based on ice time) of opposing forward on the y-axis and the quality of teammate forwards on the x-axis. So, for example, Pair C has been at their best (dark green) when skating against poor competition and when skating with top Caps forwards and fourth liners, and has struggled against top competition when not skating with Alex Ovechkin and linemates (purple).
The charts are the brainchild of our own Muneeb and, well, awesome. As points of reference, top lines are at around 17 minutes per sixty and above, second lines from 15.9 or so to 17, third lines from about 14.5 to 15.8 and fourth lines obviously below 14.5 minutes. On to the pretty (and not-so-pretty):
So these are your defensive pairs. How do you deploy them? Here are some general observations:
- Pair A has performed well with top linemates and against top competition (though not against the very best competition, especially without top linemates) and bottom competition (which pretty much everyone does).
- Pair B seems to have a sweet spot facing third lines and skating with the Caps' third line (which, based on ice time, has generally been the Marcus Johansson line), but has struggled a bit against top competition when not skating with the top line.
- Pair C has performed well against bottom competition, even with lower-level linemates, and has generally done well when on the ice with top linemates. They're not really getting killed anywhere, except maybe against top competition with non-top linemates.
- Pair D has performed well with top linemates, but has struggled against most levels competition without top linemates.
The answer is simple, right? Never let Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom leave the ice. Problem solved.
But short of that, we might be inclined to play Pair A against top competition, maybe Pair B or D with the top line against second-tier competition, and then give the remaining minutes to Pair C.
Alright, enough suspense, on to the big reveal:
- Pair A: Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen
- Pair B: Nate Schmidt - Mike Green
- Pair C: Brooks Orpik - John Carlson
- Pair D: Jack Hillen - Mike Green (you're smart and recognized that B and D had to be the Green pairs, since there were fewer buckets reflecting smaller samples, right?)
Orpik and Carlson have skated to a 49.2% Corsi-For percentage together while playing the toughest minutes of any pair, but that's been boosted by dominating lower competition - against top-six opponents, they haven't fared as well, except when skating with the top line. So what are Barry Trotz's best deployment options when it comes to sending out a defensive pair against the other team's top line?
- He can split up Orpik and Carlson and play one or the other in these situations. Which one? Well, Carlson is at a 62.6% Corsi-For and 88.9% Goals-For without Orpik and Orpik is at 49.0% and 45.5%, respectively, without Carlson, so... small samples (just over 100 minutes each apart) notwithstanding, that would be a pretty easy choice. Who would Carlson skate with, then? Old partner Alzner is probably the best option right now, in part because any other scenario would put a pair of righties in the top pair and/or bump either Orpik or Alzner to the third pair in favor of Hillen, and that isn't happening.
- He can keep Orpik and Carlson together and give the tough minutes to Alzner and Niskanen (or, conceivably, Alzner and Green... though that seems like a stretch, Green's abilities notwithstanding). Alzner and Niskanen have done well and while part of that might owe to the fact that Orpik and Carlson have shielded them some from the hardest minutes, they've done well when they've faced top competition, for the most part.
- He can keep Orpik and Carlson together and play them with the top line almost exclusively. This echoes a post we ran a few weeks back about maximizing Orpik and the point still stands. Ovechkin and Orpik have a 53.0% Corsi-For percentage when together, a number which drops to 46.9% for Orpik when the captain isn't on the ice (so, yeah, play Ovechkin more when leading, too).
The third option seems the most likely scenario (for now at least), and, while it may not be ideal, it's not awful. Accepting that, playing Alzner-Niskanen with Eric Fehr's line and Mike Green with the Johansson line (something we advocated a little while back) sorta falls neatly in line. For the most part, those deployments have worked well through 46 games. But there's obviously no shortage of other options to consider.