Barry Trotz, like many NHL bench bosses, is loath to change things up when his team is winning (despite what the underlying numbers might say). It's a results-based business, you don't change horses midstream, respect the streak, and so on and so on.
So when Trotz scratched Andre Burakovsky on Sunday - despite the team riding a four-game winning streak that coincided with the rookie winger resuming the first-line right wing role he'd held for most of January - it raised eyebrows.
But we digress.
Trotz offered up a simple explanation as to why he scratched Burakovsky in favor of grinder Jay Beagle - Trotz was "looking for a spark." Fair enough... though one wonders what he was looking to spark, exactly, given that the top line had been firing on all cylinders over that four-game stretch, both in terms of process and results:
To put a finer point on that, in 50 five-on-five minutes with Burakovsky on the ice (nearly all of which was spent on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom), the Caps outshot opponents 38-18, out-attempted them 69-49 and outscored them 5-1. But the team and top line apparently needed a spark, and so they got one with Beagle. Or, rather, they didn't - Beagle didn't last long on the top line on Sunday, taking an early penalty that led to a Flyers goal and that was largely that.
What's crystal clear from Trotz's lineup decision on Sunday is that he's uncomfortable with his options for first-line right wing (and one can't help but think that this is exactly what Igor Larionov is lamenting here). Here's what he had to say about the revolving door post-game:
"I don't know if it's ideal or not, but all I know is [Backstrom] and [Ovechkin] are almost one-two in League scoring," Trotz said. "They've had a multitude of different people there and I think they're capable of playing with a lot of people and it's worked out. You take their point totals 5-on-5, it's up there with the best in the League.
"Is it ideal? I don't know if it is or not. Probably not, but I think at the same time it does make you a little more alert of what you're playing with and who. Sometimes you go stale the other way too."
And now the trade deadline looms - Monday at 3:00 Eastern, for those of you who haven't set an alarm yet - with the Caps clearly in the market for someone to hold down that spot (no surprise, as we know they tried to land Evander Kane for it). It's possible that the Caps could pay a price and upgrade the position (perhaps at the expense of addressing another need), but let's take stock of what they have as of today. First up, a look at every forward that has stepped on the ice with Ovechkin and Backstrom at five-on-five and how each has done (thanks for the data, Muneeb):
We went over this a bit last week, but Burakovsky and Tom Wilson have played well on the top line. That goals-for rate of 4.88 (13 goals in 160 minutes) with Burakovsky on the top line? That's a higher rate than any player in the League has right now, individually (and with a respectable goals-against rate to boot), and that Corsi-For rate? That's a spark.
Beyond them, the samples get much smaller, but Beagle's 44.0 Corsi-For percentage while playing with two guys who are at 55.7% when skating with someone other than Beagle certainly stands out. And while it's tempting to assume that line combo has seen more time while protecting a lead, a situation which lends itself to being outshot, that's not necessarily the case. Conceptually, the idea of putting Beagle on the top line in a shutdown role might make some sense... but one look at that Corsi-Against rate blows that notion right out of the water. To wit, here's how the top-four guys in the chart above have done at five-on-five while playing with a lead:
Unsurprisingly (though a bit chicken-or-the-egg-ingly), the team has won more when those two youngsters have started on the top line, as we noted in yesterday's Noon Number:
What is somewhat surprising, though, is that while top-line Burakovksy and Wilson both correlate well with winning, the team plays much better, overall, with Burakovsky in that role. Take a look at the score-adjusted Corsi and Scoring Chance data for the top-four first-line right wings by ice time:
What we see here is very clear - from the games in which Burakovsky doesn't play (scratched) to the games in which he plays less than ten five-on-five minutes (mostly third or fourth line, by ice time) to the games in which he plays more than ten minutes (first line), the Caps get better and better in both shot-attempt and scoring chance differentials. That's huge. We don't see the same trend on Wilson, Beagle or Johansson... in part because Burakovksy has been so good on the top line (so, for example, when Wilson has been in a bottom-six role, Burakovsky has often been on the top line, so Wilson's 0-to-10 bars get that boost). Slotting Burakovsky in that first-line right wing role essentially forces a nearly optimized lineup.
Lastly, it's worth noting that Burakovsky has the second-best score-adjusted relative Corsi-For percentage on the team, trailing only Ovechkin.
The bottom line here is that the Caps are better with Andre Burakovsky in the lineup, they're better with him on the ice, and they're better when he's getting first-line minutes. Barry Trotz's inability to get comfortable with all of that might well cost the Caps assets and/or games going forward.