The Washington Capitals are 8-3-0 after tying their best first ten games in team history and they sport a gaudy 55.1 even-strength Score-Adjusted Corsi percentage (second in the League) to support the notion that yes, this is actually a good team. Heck, their PDO is actually below 1000, thanks to a lower-than-expected five-on-five save percentage that's more than offsetting a high shooting percentage.
Point being, all indications are that the Caps are a team with which to be reckoned.
And yet, they're not a team without significant question marks, most notably the early season play of top-pair mainstay Brooks Orpik and a "shutdown" third line that has ridden percentages to better outcomes than their underlying numbers would indicate they deserve.
So what's to be done? First off, let's establish a few unalterable givens as parameters:
- Barry Trotz, like most coaches, likes to have a shutdown line to use to face opponents' top lines and to protect leads
- Barry Trotz, like most coaches, wants to have his best defenseman playing the toughest minutes (i.e. facing opponents' top lines and protecting leads)
- John Carlson is Barry Trotz's best defenseman
- Barry Trotz (and, presumably, others in the organization) want Brooks Orpik to play the toughest minutes (i.e. facing opponents' top lines and protecting leads) [Sidenote on Orpik: let's not forget that he had offseason wrist surgery and was questionable for the start of the season... how many of his gaffes so far have been puck-handling-related?]
- Barry Trotz wants to have a "top-nine" forwards, three lines that can score
- Jay Beagle is a very good option as a fourth-line center, but is a stretch as a third-line center, at very least in a "top-nine" scenario
With that out of the way, here's the answer: the second line is the shutdown line and Carlson and Orpik should be paired with them as often as possible.
On the first point, Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Justin Williams may not be a shutdown line in the traditional sense of an assembled trio of defensive stalwarts who have learned the fine art of defending to compensate for limited offensive abilities and keep paychecks coming in, but rather in a more modern "you're not going to score because you're never going to have the puck" sense.
Think Patrice Bergeron.
In 66 five-on-five minutes together this season, the trio has a robust 63.1 Corsi-For percentage (via Puckalytics) and a stifling 34.1 Corsi-Against/60 rate (a rate which is better than any individual skater can currently boast). Contrast that with the Jason Chimera-Beagle-Tom Wilson line's 47.1 CF% and 48.6 CA60 and, even adding whatever deployment-related context might bring the two lines closer together... they're not close. Ask yourself which three Caps forwards you'd want on the ice defending a lead with a minute left and at least two of the three second liners probably makes your list (it's hard to beat a pair of Swedish Olympians and Justin Williams when it comes to hockey smarts).
And here's the kicker - add Orpik to the Backstrom line and you're at 62.1 CF% and 33.4 CA60 (in 20 minutes); add him to the Beagle line and you're at 49.0 CF% and 40.8 CA60 (in 38 minutes). That latter pair of numbers isn't as bad as you might have expected, and the samples are small, but it's pretty clear which quintet (once you add Carlson to the mix) should be Trotz's "shutdown" five. (For what it's worth, that fivesome of the Backstrom line and Carlson pair have a 69.2 CF% and 25.8 CA60 in 19 minutes together. Tiny sample? Of course. But with numbers like that, it's certainly worth seeing what they do with more minutes). Who you play with is more important than who you play against, and pairing Orpik with Backstrom (52.0% in nearly 500 minutes since the start of last season) is a better option than putting him out there with Beagle (47.6% in 270 minutes), with stark results so far this season.
The notion of playing Orpik with possession-studs to mitigate some of his shortcomings is, of course, nothing new. In fact, we observed as much a year ago. There, we concluded that "Orpik and Ovechkin have played well when on the ice together, but the numbers make it clear that Orpik is the beneficiary of Ovechkin's play rather than the other way around." And Orpik has continued to post decent possession numbers with Ovechkin into this season. But if we circle back to unassailable truths numbers one and four... yeah, there's simply no way Barry Trotz is going to use Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin in a "shutdown" role (though it's worth noting that they're getting plenty of ice time up a goal and starting shifts in all three zones).
With the "shutdown" issue solved, here's a bonus - the Caps are no longer relying on the third line to be a shutdown line, so it can be that bottom-third of a "top-nine" scoring line. Does that mean Andre Burakovsky at center or on the left wing? Probably. Maybe Wilson gets back onto the right side of the line. Maybe they get sheltered minutes with the emerging Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov. Regardless, it gives the Caps flexibility that they may not feel they have at the moment.
So with a subtle shift in thinking, the Caps could mitigate some of Brooks Orpik's deficiencies, have a truly dominant shutdown line, and allow themselves to put together a third line that's capable of scoring some goals (while potentially having a terrific fourth line). Really, things aren't as bad as they seem... at 8-3-0.