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Beagle, Burakovsky, Wilson and the Need for Defense

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Looking at the numbers to evaluate the top line’s rotating cast of right wingers.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Burakovsky became the seventh player started there [on the top line], and Trotz has often chosen by matchup. For two-way "work ethic," he said, Jay Beagle gets tabbed. For "heaviness," Tom Wilson. And for Burakovsky, "a more skill element.

That's how Barry Trotz broke down the top-line right wing situation in early January to the Washington Post's Alex Prewitt.

Given how much ice time Barry Trotz gives to his top line, whoever lines up alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom has a chance to be a big difference maker.

In the early going, that was Eric Fehr, but he was moved down the lineup after a few games and has now cemented himself as the team's checking-line center. Wilson and Troy Brouwer each spent time on the top line as well. Lately, it's been either Andre Burakovsky or Beagle — the former to add scoring and the latter to add defense and energy... ostensibly.

Visually, here's how the top-line right wing has changed over time.

Top line RW roll

On a macro level, it's easy to say that Beagle hasn't been even close to as effective as the alternatives on the top line— with both Ovechkin and Beagle on the ice, the Caps have posted a 42% Corsi, while with Ovechkin and Wilson, Brouwer, Ward, Fehr, or Burakovsky, the Caps have been anywhere from 54% to 62%. There's also the issue of what he brings offensively — or, rather, the lack thereof:

beagle hero

(via Own the Puck)

Trotz's rationale for using Beagle there, though, seems (or seemed) to be limited to specific circumstances, so in turn, we need to look at specific circumstances.

* * *

First, a note: Since the sample sizes we'll be using are extremely small, we should only look for extremes — small differences can be meaningful if we can be confident they exist, but we can't without much more information.

That said, let's start by contextualizing the ice time Ovechkin and Backstrom have with each right wing a little bit.

Name

Off%

Neu%

Def%

Total faceoffs

Total F QoC

Total D QoC

% TOI lead

% TOI tied

% TOI trail

Beagle

34

34

33

122

16.0

20.9

49

44

7

Burakovsky

40

39

21

122

15.8

20.7

52

29

20

Wilson

37

40

24

311

16.1

20.8

25

50

25

We can see right off the bat that with Beagle, Ovechkin and Backstrom end up starting more often in the defensive zone and less often in the offensive zone, though their overall quality of competition didn't change much. Burakovsky, perhaps a little surprisingly, has the highest proportion of ice time with Ovechkin and Backstrom coming with the Caps ahead — likely a function of playing there during the team's race up the standings in December and the first half of January.

Keeping in mind the possible difference thanks to score effects, let's break them down situation-by-situation.

Let's first look at faceoff situations, where Beagle should have some value over Wilson and Burakovsky by virtue of his own faceoff prowess — even if he's not taking the draws himself, he could well embolden Nicklas Backstrom into being more aggressive. Here's a look at the moments following a defensive-zone draw:

8 19 83 65 43 DZFO

Solid lines are Corsi-For and dashed lines are Corsi-Against.

So far, Ovechkin and Backstrom's best results (in terms of shot attempts) immediately after the draw have come when they're with Tom Wilson, thanks to low shots against. Although he does have the highest on-ice faceoff percentage — 64% on 75 draws, compared to 54% on 26 for Burakovsky and compared to 55% on 40 draws for Beagle — his numbers are mostly driven by low shots against off faceoff losses, not wins.

Give it a little while and Burakovsky ends up the winner, despite the lowest on-ice faceoff percentage of the three, with the highest shots-for and a similar shots-against. Burakovsky's results, at least, make intuitive sense — the 19-year-old is fast and skilled, but may not have the experience or strength to play effective defense immediately following a defensive-zone faceoff loss just yet.

Score this one for Wilson for defense and Burakovsky for offense.

Next, let's look at neutral-zone draws:

8 19 83 65 43 nz

Beagle is the leader in shots-for here, surprisingly. Although he does have a high faceoff percentage (66% on 41 draws, compared to 51% on 47 for Burakovsky and 48% on 122 for Wilson), his numbers have come through heavily outshooting opponents after faceoff losses, not wins.

Burakovsky, for his part, is roughly tied with Wilson after faceoff wins in terms of shots against, but laps both Wilson and Beagle in terms of shots far.

Call this for Burakovsky on defense and a tie between Beagle and Burakovsky on offense.

Next, offensive-zone draws:

8 19 83 65 43 oz
There's not much to separate the three in terms of faceoff winning percentage — Burakovsky brings up the rear at 49% on 49 draws, Beagle tops the trio at 54% on 41, and Wilson clocks in at 52% on 104 faceoffs.

Wilson looks like the best fit in this situation, with the best numbers after both faceoff wins and losses. From a shots-for perspective, Burakovsky is not too far off, though, and in terms of shots against, Beagle is in the same ballpark.

Score this for Wilson and Burakovsky for offense, and Wilson and Beagle for defense.

There's one situation left to look at — "open play" shifts, which start on the fly:

8 19 83 65 43 open
There may be some line change effects here — Wilson staying out for a long shift as Ovechkin and Backstrom come on, or being the first player on before they get off — although I did require at least half of the first 30 seconds of the shift to be spent with Ovechkin and Backstrom on-ice, too. At any rate, based on these 184 shifts for Wilson, 77 for Burakovsky, and 57 for Beagle, Wilson looks like the clear best option for shifts that start on the fly.

* * *

Ok, so far, we've seen that Beagle might be alright in open play, but after faceoffs, has at best seen good results either after wins or losses — but not both.

The other element Beagle might be able to add is steady play with a lead. But the numbers don't bear that out, either.

AO NB lead fixed

(I omitted some names which were stretching the graph.)

The solid black line is 50% — most teams don't top it when leading, but one would hope that Washington's top line could. And it does, usually (and especially when playing with Mike Green). But when flanked by Beagle, they've gotten heavily outshot — not a good sign.

Granted, Beagle may not be as frequently making "The Big Mistake" that a young player like Burakovsky or Wilson might make (though he's certainly not immune). But there's still a huge gap in shot differential between them, which could easily make up the gap in save percentage created by big defensive mistakes (and then some).

We can also look at the frequency distribution of shots against per shift, to see whether the top line's performance is more consistent from a shots-for or shots-against standpoint with Beagle than Wilson or Burakovsky:

8 19 83 65 43 hist corrected
These are restricted to "open play" again (though this time I require half of the entire shift, not half of the first 30 seconds, to be spent with Ovechkin and Backstrom). At any rate, there likely isn't enough here to separate the three.

* * *

Here's 2012 Jack Adams Award winner Ken Hitchcock on the utility of numbers, as recounted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

How eye-opening are they to an experienced hand like Hitchcock? Two seasons ago, he put a line together that he thought would work. He won’t say who it was, but soon, the numbers were coming in: Stop!

"The players wanted the line together," he said. "We put it together thinking it was going to work. The data after 10 games said, get away from this line. It doesn’t work. Get away from it quickly because it’s a disaster. Three games later I finally stopped putting the line together because the data was off the charts bad. But visually, I thought it works. It didn’t get backed up by data and the analytical information was right on the mark. And it was stuff, I guarantee if I mention the names, you’d say that’s a great line. It should work. We’ve seen it before and (the line) was a nightmare."

It's always possible that this is actually an extraordinary situation, meaning this sort of analysis ultimately would miss what's important. But it seems like the only situations in which Beagle could be earning his keep on the top line are extremely specific — not common enough to justify playing him there in any but those most particular of circumstances.

Even if the numbers can't prove he doesn't belong there, there's scant evidence that his value is best realized alongside two of the best players in the game today. Even though Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky are far from perfect, they're the clear better options.

As Trotz put in after his hiring last June:

"It’s not the Corsi or anything like that, but what combined with what we work with…the eyeball test with coaches, it’s what you feel, it’s what you see," Trotz said. "A lot of times I believe the Corsi stuff has some value. It really puts some red flags on certain guys. But it’s still an eyeball test and trust test and matchup test.

There are some major red flags here.