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Weekly Preview: Election Day

As America heads to the polls, the Washington Capitals shuffle their lines to prepare for three new opponents. Jason Rogers is back to get you ready with his Weekly Preview, plus the return of Liable To Libel!

Washington Capitals v St Louis Blues Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Good morning, Washington, D.C., peripheral polling places, and presidential pickers! Election Day is finally here, the Four Horsemen are deciding whether to ride sidesaddle or groin-forward, and the fate of the free world will be revealed by the wizened lips of Anderson Cooper sometime this evening.

Also, uh, hockey! Last week the Capitals went 3-0-0 for six points and currently sit third in the Metropolitan Division.

Like a juicy gerrymander, the Capitals are redrawing their lines, and with the punch-drunk fervor of the American electorate. Speaking of punch-drunk, new assignments for Tom Wilson, as well as studly Swedeheart Andre Burakovsky, headline the shakeups. Add that to more tumult along the blue line than we’ve seen since the FBI reopened its investigation of Hillary, and this week’s match-ups against the Sharks, Blackhawks, and Hurricanes promise to be interesting. Let’s get into it, and GO VOTE, YA JABRONIS!

Problem? Burakovsky It, Baby!

What can you say about Andre Burakovsky that hasn’t already been said about an alcoholic ghost? He dominates possession, he takes lots of shots, and he originated from somewhere in Austria.

Seriously though, the 21 year-old Burakovsky is the Capitals’ best forward right now. He leads the entire team in even-strength CF% (59.3) and CF% rel (+8.9), meaning not only do the Caps take a greater portion of the shots when he is on the ice than when any other one player is, but no player so dramatically gooses that percentage upwards when they hop over the boards as Burakovsky does. Basically he is Red Bull & vodka, repackaged by Pfizer and fed intravenously into the Capitals’ offense.

You’ve seen him do it time and again this season:

Last year, Burakovsky lead the Capitals in shooting percentage en route to a career-high 17 goals on the season, while taking just the sixth-most shots on the team. This season, Burakovsky is taking more shots than any forward not named Alex Ovechkin, an actual Thompson sub-machine gun on Adderall.

And he’s taking the whole crew along for the ride. Look at how much better or worse his teammates play when he’s with-or-without them (hint: it’s better).

Red bubbles = bad, blue & green bubbles = good.

Look at that! Every single player on that list enjoys more possession when sharing the ice with Burakovsky (except Ovechkin, for whom stats, age, and physics do not apply and never will). Some players, like Marcus Johansson (big circle, big sample) and Justin Williams (tiny circle, tiny sample) do much better with Burakovsky, in the same way that cars do much better with wheels and engines.

Seriously. If you want a line to do well, stick Burakovsky on it. The top two possession lines for the Capitals (min. 40 minutes TOI) have one thing, one lone dude, in common.

Bura’ing the lead.

Now, you may notice I’ve highlighted a second, non-Andre-Burakovsky but equally appealing name there, one whose line has itself staked out a respectable and surprising third-place possession ranking: Tom Wilson. Why do I highlight Tom Thumbs, the Mexico Wall of divisive Capitals players?

Well, because guess who just got paired up?

And as Isabelle noted on Twitter:

“These were the lines you saw for most of the second half of [Saturday’s] game.”

Coach Barry Trotz began experimenting with a Burakovsky-Wilson combination during Saturday’s 4-2 over the Florida Panthers. Now, we all experiment with crazy things when we’re talking about Florida: drugs, kaleidoscopic sexual partners, and going to Florida chief among them. But Barry may have been onto something.

These are the possession numbers for that game against the Panthers. Recognize some names near the top?

Also, I see you, Nate Schmidt.

Sure, I’ve just spent copious precious lung-breath explaining how Burakovsky makes everyone better, perhaps even Wilson, but Wilson also weathered two penalty-kill deployments and still almost managed a positive all-situations Corsi number. Nobody is nominating Tom Wilson for the Selke Trophy yet, let alone the Art Ross. But with Trotz’s stated emphasis on creating balanced lines, generally composed of two playmaking shooters and a “grit” guy, we may want to get used to this arrangement like reluctant children of divorce. As I wrote after the game on Saturday:

9 Part of the credit for tonight's victory goes to Tom Wilson, who was downright resurgent. On a line with Johansson and Kuznetsov officially, but often on the ice with Burakovsky by happy accident (or perhaps design), Wilson did exactly what Trotz loves "tough" power forwards to do: cause disruptions that create space for the scorers. At least three times I saw Tom Wilson create havoc for the express purpose of finding an open Andre Burakovsky with the pass. Good, good stuff, Tom. Witness the Wilsonaissance.

So, like having two Christmases, it could be worse.

Alzner, Orlov, and the Paradox of the Heap

Say you’ve got a heap of sand. Maybe it’s Legos, whatever. If you remove one single grain of sand (or Lego) from the heap, you haven’t changed much. You’ve still got yourself a right proper heap. You could even go ahead and take a few more. Take several, take a dozen! You’re heap rich, you old bastard!

But what happens when you’ve taken so many that there’s only a few grains left, barely sufficient to be stacked on top of each other. What do you have then? Do you still have a good old-fashioned heap, or not? And if not, when did you stop having it?

This is the Capitals’ predicament with Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov.

As we’ve already talked about here at Japers’ Rink, the Caps have a tough decision to make this coming off-season. Both Alzner (28) and Orlov (25) will be free agents, and given the well-documented salary crunch smothering the Capitals like a scratchy quilt - they’ll have around just $20 million to sign 10 players, including fatty-boombah raises due to Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky - chances are good that only Orlov or Alzner will be back next season, one or the other. Consider this season their final audition tape, then.

So what does Orlov’s heap look like? It’s a career of ups-and-downs, of mouth-watering offensive potential and comically fatal defensive holes. Injuries have made Orlov’s journey bumpier than it strictly might have been, but welcome to life, young blood. His heap is labeled in ignominious block stencil: Flashy Defensive Liability.

Alzner, meanwhile, is the Iron Man. He is Mr. Reliable, Mr. Dependable, Mr. Dates Your Mom But You’re Okay With It Because She Needs the Stability Right Now. On a Capitals blue line that has been the very picture of ugly irregularity - an Imodium commercial of an NHL defense - Alzner has been a mustachioed balm. His heap is lovingly adorned: Defensive Stalwart.

But this is 2016. David Bowie is shifting paradigms in another dimension, Lester Holt’s reputation was ruined by two puerile petulants, and hockey players change.

In pretty much dead-even TOI per game this season, Orlov has improved in several categories, while Alzner has dropped off like support for Windows XP.

Dmitry Orlov has the second-best even strength CF rel% on the entire team (+2.8), behind only Euro hero Andre Burakovsky. Karl Alzner? He’s dead last on the Capitals (-8.9). Seriously. Look how his teammates’ CF% improves when they aren’t paired with Alzner.

Red = glad Karl’s not here.

Further, seven of the ten teammates he spends the most time with actually give up fewer shots per 60 than when paired with Alzner.

Blue higher than red = glad Karl’s not here.

Okay, okay, Jason, you diminutive sex pot, you’re probably saying. How do you account for the fact that Alzner has looked so much better than Orlov?

Well, because is a lot of ways, he has been better.

The Alzner/Niskanen pairing gives up 3.62 scoring chances per 60. The Orlov/Carlson pairing is last on the Capitals, giving up a whopping fart cloud of chances per 60 to the tune of 8.42. Alzner & Niskanen (your trusted attorneys-at-law) also lead the team in goals allowed per 60, letting in a miserly 1.11. Orlov & Carlson (hapless villain duo) are the worst, adopting an après moi, le déluge attitude and settling in at 1.83.

Nothing matters more than goals allowed, really. Let’s cut the crap: you care about whether or not your defensemen get scored on. In that regard, Orlov still has a lot of catching up to do to match Alzner. Some people would argue that Alzner potentially benefits from pairing with Niskanen, and Orlov potentially suffers from being paired with Carlson (this guy among them), but Stat Don’t Lie™, and Orlov has more goal-blood on his hands.

Interestingly, Alzner and Orlov are close in total giveaways (Alzner has 6, Orlov has 8), but Orlov has far more takeaways (8) than Alzner (2), where Orlov is second on the team only to Niskanen. A surprising role-reversal, but both can play that game. After all, Alzner has a much higher Thru% (or percentage of shots that hit the net, something Trotz has emphasized) than Orlov, even though Orlov shoots 38% more often. Alzner also has the only goal by a Caps’ blueliner. So who’s the real defensive stalwart, and who’s the offensive asset? Who knows anymore.

None of this is to say that Dmitry Orlov, right now, is a better defensive option than Karl Alzner. If I had to let one of them defend my newborn infant from a horde of genetically enhanced super-Jagr’s, I’d pick Alzner. But as trend-watching front office types look forward to the future and try to soothesay their way to a championship, don’t be surprised if the younger, cheaper male overthrows the beloved silverback for control of the clan in the off-season.

And with that preview complete, we turn now to the segment that may lose the White House, but will absolutely destroy down-ballot...LIABLE TO LIBEL: A BAKER’S DOZEN LIES ABOUT THIS WEEK’S OPPONENTS!

  1. There is no such player as San Jose’s Brent Burns. There is only Robin Williams escaped from Jumanji, his name lost to madness and his beard lost to reason.
  2. Joe Pavelski had a performance incentive worked into his contract when he agreed to captain Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey this September. In accordance, he will be flogged nightly in the town square until raw and sufficiently penitent.
  3. Given the Big Cheese’s tendency to dominate possession in the offensive zone, his teammates have begun calling the area of the half boards “The Joel Ward.”
  4. The lead core of San Jose’s roster is so old, Flint, MI is using it to provide drinking water.
  5. The Chicago Blackhawks were glad not to play in this year’s Winter Classic. “You can have the remains,” a team spokesperson growled.
  6. Jonathan Toews, visibly moved by his daughter’s piano recital, told her in a rare display of emotion: “Hi, good job. See you at home.”
  7. The only thing disappearing faster than Patrick Kane’s reputation is his hair line.
  8. Potential Hall-of-Famer Marian Hossa has been around long enough that he no longer needs his coaches’ praise. Simply hearing his teammates yell “Hossa good boy! Hossa good boy! You are!” from the benches is enough.
  9. The greater hockey community was not glad to see Chicago eliminated from Stanley Cup contention last year, they just wanted to to keep the parade route clear for the Cubs.
  10. The Carolina Hurricanes were named after the backlash to House Bill 2.
  11. In response to the outrage over HB2, Carolina GM Ron Francis assured protesters, “There is absolutely no Semin allowed in our locker room.”
  12. If you rearrange the letters in goalie Cam Ward’s name it spells Cram Wad, the childhood nickname his younger brother gave him while fighting over the Nintendo.
  13. The Hurricanes weren’t worried when they acquired left-winger Joakim Nordstrom; he’s always had a no-questions-asked return policy.

So there you have it, Caps fans. This week promises to be a big one in Washington. Between hockey and elections, let’s hope the good guys win. Have a good week, go vote, and as always: Go Caps!