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Puck-Drop Possibilities: Who Starts Where

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Some thoughts on which Caps should be on the ice for various face-offs

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With Caps training camp well underway and line combinations starting to crystallize, the next logical questions revolve around how to deploy those lines. To that end, it's perhaps informative to revisit how individual Caps performed after face offs in the various zones.

Recall that earlier in the summer, we looked at the team in the moments following defensive-zone winsneutral-zone wins and offensive-zone losses. Now we're going to go a little deeper and look at individual performances in each zone, and take a stab at some trios and share some deployment-related thoughts. But first, a couple of caveats. Notably, the repeatability of these performances is very much in question and these segments we're looking at represent a small segment of total game time. But at a minimum, the numbers are interesting and potentially illuminating, so let's have at it.

First up, let's take a look at offensive-zone draws, the ensuing shot attempts and the 15 seconds that follow them (a time span which essentially covers the advantage of having one of those face-offs and then some - think about how often the puck stays in one end of the ice for 15-plus seconds following a draw in that zone... it's infrequent).

For the most part, there's not much of a difference among Caps skaters in what happened in the wake of a five-on-five offensive-zone face-off win last year - among returning players, the range of Next SAT% (i.e. the percentage of time the Caps attempted the first shot after a draw) spanned from 77 percent (Nate Schmidt and Michael Latta) to 84 percent (Matt Niskanen) with a team average of 80.3 percent, and 15-second SAT% (i.e. the percentage of shot attempts the Caps got in the 15 seconds following the draw) ranged from a low of 88 percent (Schmidt again) to 97 percent (Latta, interestingly enough). Those aren't big differences, and certainly not as big as the differences in those stats following offensive-zone losses. Take a look (note: former Caps are highlighted, struck through and otherwise forgotten; the red line represents the team average):


The ranges are large and lack context, such as competition and, probably more importantly, strategy/role - upon an offensive-zone loss, a guy like Jay Beagle might be instructed to drop back on defense, whereas the top line perhaps has the green light to try to get the puck back... you'd have to ask Barry Trotz on that one. But if you were basing your lines and/or deployments on what players did with the advantage of an offensive-zone face-off last season, you probably want Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom out there (unsurprisingly), with Tom Wilson on the right wing and Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen on the points (that pair's 15-second SAT% crushed the Brooks Orpik-John Carlson duo by around 15 percentage points). Evgeny Kuznetsov looks like another good option in the middle here, which is good... since he'll probably need to be to start the season (and would likely be in line for some sheltered deployments, regardless of line).

Tom Wilson looks like a bulldog here (contra Andre Burakovsky), and he was comfortably above the team's average in both metrics following won draws, but he's not likely to get a shot on the top line right off the bat. The guy who will, however, looked pretty decent last year:


A 99 percent 15-second SAT%? T.J. Oshie may well be a bit of a honeybadger, as he signficantly out-performed his Blues teammates following wins (that 99 percent, by the way, was the third-best number in the League last season, trailing only Kings linemates Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik), though his numbers following lost draws didn't stand out (nor did his numbers on other face-offs, win or lose).

So far, so good - throw the top line out there for offensive-zone draws, with Oshie or Wilson on the right side and Alzner and Niskanen on the blueline. On to the neutral zone, where all four ranges are interesting enough to look at (click on any of these images to enlarge them, by the way):


One player beats the team average in all four of these metrics and, in fact, is the only player to do so in all 12 of these stats - ladies and gentlemen, Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin also grades out well here, but so do a pair of speedy wingers/centers in Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson. Conceptually, this makes sense, as they're two of the Caps' better forwards through the neutral zone and in terms of gaining the offensive zone with possession. They were very good together last year (more here), and have been reunited early in camp this yearskating with new wing Justin Williams... whose all-around puck possession game looked particularly good in the neutral zone last year (no need to adjust your monitor - the Kings' color palette makes this look like a graphic from 1941, but it's not):


Cool - there's a trio for neutral-zone draws. There's no obvious defensive-pairing to use here, but logic would dictate that this would be a good spot for Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, both because of their respective skill sets (ability to move the puck, etc.), and because you probably wouldn't want them out there for defensive-zone draws in the event of a loss and they're probably not likely to add a ton on offensive-zone wins (though the further they start from Braden Holtby, the better, perhaps). Flip them with the Niskanen pair at times if they're up, but neutral-zone starts could be a good deployment option for the duo.

That leaves the defensive-zone. By process of elimination (and knowing Trotz), this is where you'll see Orpik and Carlson, and a healthy dose of Jay Beagle and his ilk. But what do the numbers say?


The flip side of the "offensive-zone wins" coin from earlier is "defensive-zone losses," and those are fairly tightly grouped (though not nearly as tight as the OZ wins, and there are some numbers that stand out). But with the usual caveats regarding context and sample size, Michael Latta really looks good here. Beagle looks good too, and Orpik and Carlson trail Niskanen and Alzner, but not by a ton in most places. Throw Jason Chimera (or perhaps Brooks Laich) on the left side and that's probably as good a defensive-zone fourth/checking line as the Caps will be able to put together right now.

The "leftovers," then (once Backstrom is healthy), would be Kuznetsov, Wilson and Laich/Chimera (and don't forget Derek Roy). That would be a decent group to be a second choice for offensive-zone draws.

The point of this exercise isn't to suggest optimal lines or deployments - as noted, this is a small part of the game on which we've focused - but rather to present another way to look at some of these players and face-offs, and to provide some leads for further investigation to potentially leverage small advantages and address micro-level issues... the type of things that add up pretty quickly and decide games before long.