In the early stages off this offseason's free agency period, the Washington Capitals made a couple bold moves, signing Justin Williams and trading for T.J. Oshie before locking up their restricted free agents, Marcus Johansson and Braden Holtby. The money committed to Williams, Oshie, Johansson, and Holtby made it appear virtually certain that both Joel Ward and Eric Fehr would be signing contracts with new teams, and that's exactly what came to pass.
Despite the strong playoffs Ward had, all of the attention has been focused on how the Caps will replace Eric Fehr. That makes sense, based on their respective positions; it's always tougher to find a replacement center and the Williams signing seemed to be the replacement for Ward. But how hard will it be for the Caps to replace Fehr's performance and production? We had Muneeb pull Fehr's two-year data (i.e. the two seasons he spent as a center in the NHL) so we could evaluate Fehr's performance. The results should give the Caps some confidence.
For starters, it's nice to be talking about a potential weakness at third line center rather than at second line center. But even beyond the improvement in the team's relative weakness, it doesn't appear as though Fehr's production is going to take an exceptional individual effort to replace.
First, let's take a look at Fehr's rolling ten-game Shot Attempt Percentage:
No player is going to perform at a perfectly consistent rate, but the extreme peaks and valleys are troubling for a player that was tasked with shutdown minutes. Inconsistent offense would be tolerable given that Fehr's third line wasn't counted on to score regularly, but having long periods of time below 50% in possession, with a few spikes well below 50%, isn't what you hope for from a conservative, defensive line. The periods where Fehr's possession spiked above 50% look really good (five spikes above 55%), but none of them were sustained for any substantial period of time.
It's also troubling that Fehr's performance relative to his teammates appears to be consistently worse once the team was given the competent coaching Barry Trotz brought last summer. It appears as though Fehr's time at third line center was primarily characterized by losing the possession battle, with a few bursts of strong play that made the picture look more positive than it was.
With regards to the observation that Fehr's performance more consistently lagged behind his teammates under Trotz, we can take a look at his usage over time. Here we see that Trotz does appear to have matched Fehr more consistently against tougher opponents, and with tougher zone starts:
Fehr saw tougher forward assignments under Trotz, but also got the help of better defensive teammates (of course, your interpretation of the middle chart will depend to some extent on how well you think time on ice maps to defensive quality on the Barry Trotz Capitals - thinking specifically of Brooks Orpik here). So there's some evidence that mitigates Fehr's performance last season, but given the relatively consistent usage it's still troubling to see the more wildly inconsistent results.
When we talk about the role of a checking line center, we can sometimes be mislead by the aggregate possession data. That is to say, when a player is being handed a clear role to prevent other teams' top lines from scoring, we may not be as concerned about their offensive output as we are their ability to limit shots against defensively. To that end, we've broken out Fehr's ten-game rolling Corsi-For and Corsi-Against:
Again, we see charts characterized by extreme swings in performance. Defensively, Fehr spent most of Trotz's tenure giving up more shots than the Caps did when he was off the ice. That makes some sense given the usage, but it's not the hallmark of a great checking center. There were basically two points where Fehr out-performed his teammates defensively; one was during the beginning of the season where there may have been growing pains and the other was a brief period midway through last season. It should also be noted that he spent a lot of time on the top line right wing during that early-season success; his brief-but-impressive stretch as a top line wing may be unduly coloring our impression of as Fehr as a center.
Offensively, Fehr's performance is carried by basically one strong stretch right before the middle of the season, and was otherwise uninspiring. Again, the offensive output may not be the biggest concern here, but to the extent people believe the Caps lost a solid two-way player that can score and defend, the chart above undermines that conclusion.
Further looking into Fehr's offensive output, the extreme and inconsistent nature of his performance is hammered home:
Yeah, so... even acknowledging the inherent inconsistency associated with scoring in the NHL, that's not a pretty picture. In both seasons as a center his production has one major spike and one or two minor spikes. It happens, but it reinforces the conclusion that Fehr wasn't exactly a reliable offensive contributor throughout the entire course of the season. It's more likely that Fehr benefited from the opposite of The Big Mistake - that is, Fehr had some periods of white-hot performance and that unduly colored our perception of his performance for far longer than he was able to sustain his peak production.
And if you wonder what was behind those huge peaks in production, well it shouldn't be much of a surprise:
Fehr's PDO, and component parts (espcially the on-ice sh%) map pretty closely to his production graph. When he wasn't getting on-ice shooting above 12%, he wasn't producing very much. Again, every player is going to have PDO swings, but the fact that Fehr's production relied on 12+% shooting should make Caps fans feel a little better about the team's chances of replacing his offensive performance.
Before free agency opened we discussed the potential losses of Fehr and Ward, and came to a similar conclusion:
Ward's and Fehr's presumed departures via free agency, then, may be a bit of a blessing in disguise. They counted for $4.5 million against the cap and neither formed part of a plus-possession line (minimum 21 minutes) without Ovechkin and Backstrom. There are a few players slated for unrestricted free agency who might be able to step in and provide a better possession performance, which, combined with more minutes for Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and an improved Kuznetsov, could solve the possession problem in the middle six.
After looking through these numbers, there's no reason to change that assessment. The Capitals will need to figure out what to do about the third line, but they aren't trying to replace an elite performer there. The preference would be to add another center to the roster before training camp, but that's not necessarily required. If Trotz wants to use the third line to play tougher defensive minutes, as was the case last year, it seems reasonable that Jay Beagle could provide close to the same level of performance in terms of Corsi Against.
If the Capitals want to continue Andre Burakovsky's development at center, it appears highly likely that he could exceed Fehr's offensive production, though that type of third line would need more sheltering. All that is to say that the Caps have options, and that the task of replacing their third line center is not as insurmountable as it is commonly assumed to be.