Following a loss to the Nashville Predators on March 28th, Barry Trotz, like many coaches before him, decided to separate the Capitals' dynamic duo of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The split immediately paid off, as the team rode a strong second and third period to a 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers the following day - and the top two forward lines haven't changed since.
Short-term results aside, it's worth asking the question: does splitting Ovechkin and Backstrom give the Capitals the best chance to win in the playoffs?
To find the answer, let's take a look at two areas where forwards have a big impact and are also considered to be important factors in sustaining a successful playoff run.
In the playoffs, defenses are better (or at least get away with more), so there is a belief that you need to have consistent scoring outside of your first offensive unit in order to win. A look at goal and scoring-chance shares gives us a better picture of whether splitting up Ovechkin and Backstrom has helped provide this more balanced attack:
Scoring chance and goal data obtained from War On Ice. The scoring chance data being used is score adjusted.
By all measures, the Capitals have in fact diversified their offense since the split. A smaller percentage of both goals and scoring chances have came from Ovechkin's line, and as an added bonus the team is scoring more goals overall.
Unfortunately that enhanced goal production may not be sustainable.
Prior to March 29th, the Capitals had an even-strength shooting percentage of 8%; in the eight games that followed, that number jumped up over 10%. While the high shooting percentage might lead you to believe that the Caps are just generating higher-percentage looks, the data in the graph above would indicate otherwise. In fact, the team's rate of scoring-chance generation over the last seven games was 22% below their pre-separation output. While this does not detract from what the team has done in those eight games, it should temper our expectations that the Caps (as a whole) are likely to produce more offense with Ovechkin and Backstrom separated than they do when they are together.
The Kings and the Blackhawks have dominated the NHL postseason for the last five years, and it's no coincidence that both teams are often near the very top of the League in terms of SAT% (shot-attempt percentage). Historically, separating Ovechkin and Backstrom has hurt not only their individual shot-attempt numbers but also those of the team around them. Once again that trend has persisted at the individual level over the course of the entire season, but recently things have been a little different.
Below, a look at seven-game rolling shot-attempt graphs for both Backstrom and Ovechkin:
(All data via War-on-Ice)
The first graph shows score-adjusted shot-attempt percentage relative to the team when the player in question is not on the ice. So if Ovechkin has a score-adjusted shot-attempt percentage of 56%, and a relative shot attempt percentage of 10%, that means that the Capitals had a score-adjusted shot-attempt percentage of just 46% when Ovechkin was not on the ice. The second graph is for the score-adjusted shot-attempt percentage for a player when they are on the ice.
Ovechkin's numbers have fallen off a proverbial cliff since Evgeny Kuznetsov replaced Nicklas Backstrom as his center and Joel Ward was brought up to play as his right wing. Backstrom, on the other hand, has done exceptionally well while facing slightly easier competition with his new running mates Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer.
Overall the decline of Ovechkin has been neutralized, at least in the short term, by the strong play of Backstrom's line. As a whole the team had a score-adjusted shot-attempt percentage of 51.8% in both the first 75 games and in the last seven (i.e. pre- and post-split). It should be noted that this most recent stretch of play away from one another has coincided with Fehr, Wilson, and Beagle being out of the lineup... although their replacements have been quite remarkable on the fourth line. At the end of the day (regardless of whether Backstrom and Ovechkin are together) 51.8% isn't exactly "shot attempt domination".
Up to this point, splitting Ovechkin and Backstrom has worked out well for Barry Trotz - but the current stretch of elevated offensive production is likely fueled by a team-wide increase in shooting percentage, not the result of improved team-wide play. In the long term the Caps need to find a way to have at least two solid scoring lines... but they just aren't there yet. As such, regression is likely to come calling - and when it does, expect the dynamic duo to be quickly reunited.