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The Possession Impact of Brooks Orpik's Injury

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It's hard to ignore how much worse the skaters have looked since Orpik's injury in November... but is it related?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Brooks Orpik's injury, on the surface, hasn't set the Capitals back at all. Through its first 14 games, Washington went 10-4, a 117-point pace. In its next 14 games, the team has accumulated 22 points — a 129-point pace — keeping it in good position to make a run at not only the conference title, but the Presidents' Trophy. At this rate, he can afford to take his time getting back into the lineup.

The underlying numbers paint some warning flags, however. Braden Holtby's excellent play aside, Washington simply hasn't managed that well without Orpik, results notwithstanding.

Orpik last played November 10 at Detroit, the Caps' 14th game of the season. Through that game, Washington amassed 54% of the 5-on-5 shot attempts (third overall) and 52.6% of the scoring (seventh). In the 14 games since (excluding last night in Pittsburgh), the Caps have gotten just under 49% of the shots (15th) and under 50% of the scoring chances (17th). After ranking first overall through November 10 in shot suppression, they're 25th since November 11 (19th adjusted for score).

These numbers seem to indicate Orpik made a big difference, and that would not be entirely surprising for a top-pairing defenseman. But Orpik may not be the biggest causal link here — he probably isn't the difference between an average team and a top-five team. Additionally, a strong possession start followed by a drop-off to good-not-great numbers is something we saw last year, too, without a major injury.

On that point, here's a pair-by-pair breakdown of team possession.

Time

Pair

TOI/G

CF/60

CA/60

CF%

To 11/10

Orpik-Carlson

14.4

54.3

53.1

50.5

To 11/10

Alzner-Niskanen

14.8

50.8

42.7

54.3

To 11/10

Orlov

12.6

61.5

41.7

59.7

Since 11/10

Schmidt-Carlson

15.7

61.5

64.0

49.0

Since 11/10

Alzner-Niskanen

16.2

52.2

60.4

46.3

Since 11/10

Orlov

11.3

47.1

46.0

50.6

Across the board, the Caps are allowing far more shots against. An attempt against a minute is very bad — it's in the neighborhood of worst in the league —€” and in the past month-plus, the Caps' top two pairs have both been (uncharacteristically) bleeding shots at that rate.

For Nate Schmidt and John Carlson, it could partly be an issue of familiarity. They hadn't played much together prior to November 10. That said, in the time they did play (under 90 minutes over the last two years), they saw over 65 shots go in the Caps' favor to about 50 for their opponents (both per 60 minutes of 5-on-5). Schmidt in particular has also had to contend with a dramatically increased role — one which he hasn't played before for an extended period, with the exception maybe of early 2013-14— and has had to switch back to the left side after spending time on Dmitry Orlov's right earlier this season. With time, that pair could improve.

The fortunes of Orlov's pair are less surprising. While his pair hasn't been quite as bad in terms of allowing shots, it has seen shots-for fall dramatically — perhaps the effect of replacing main partner Schmidt with Taylor Chorney, a spare defenseman at the NHL level.

We might be able to attribute part of the decline of the first and third pairs to Orpik's absence, but what of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen? Barry Trotz has been relying on them more, but their role isn't so different from what it was before — they already played quite a bit and were from time to time were taking shutdown duties (depending on matchups).

For the two, this is the second time this year they've fallen very sharply in possession in a short period of time, mirroring team declines both times.

Alzner rolling CF

caps cf

As much worse the Caps have been over the last five weeks (everywhere but the scoreboard), this sort of dip isn't unprecedented even for a championship-level team. Last year's Blackhawks saw three of their top-four defensemen (Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, and Niklas Hjalmarsson) fall under 46% possession and over 60 shots against per 60 over a roughly 15-game stretch at some point last season; ditto Slava Voynov in 2013-14 for eventual champion Los Angeles. But Stanley Cup-caliber teams are the exceptions rather than the norm, and they got back to their usual stingy ways before long. If the Caps want to make a deep run in the playoffs, they will likely need to, too.

As far as the forwards go, we have a similar story. At least three of the four lines have seen an increase in shots against (and drop in Corsi) in the last five weeks.

19 92 83 21 CA
Whatever issues the team has don't look like they're entirely or even mostly personnel-related. That means a fix likely isn't as simple as tinkering with lines or getting a player back from injury. But that isn't to say that they wouldn't help.

For one, the gain on the top line from swapping Evgeny Kuznetsov with Nicklas Backstrom thus far hasn't outweighed the downgrade on the second (again, scoreboard aside).

Moreover, reuniting Backstrom with Justin Williams leaves the Caps with a strong potential power-versus-power line that can lessen the defensive load on the bottom-six forwards.

Given the track record of the coach and team, this decline in defensive stinginess is probably something that will be fixed before long.€” The question is to what extent. Washington until Nov. 10 looked like a top-two squad in the East. Since then, it has been closer to average. Only one of those two Caps teams has a realistic chance at playing into June.