There's something about the year turning over that inspires change in people. For the Washington Capitals, the transition from 2015 to 2016 brought upon some changes that were not, at the time, necessarily welcome.
On the day before New Year's Eve, during a 5-2 comeback victory over the Buffalo Sabres, the Caps lost two centers to injury: first line pivot Nicklas Backstrom and his third-line position-mate Jay Beagle. Backstrom would return for the following game. Beagle still hasn't returned.
And no one could have foreseen the impact that would have on the lineup.
On January 2nd, for a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Barry Trotz first found the middle-six lineup slottings that he's ended up sticking with ever since. It looked like this:
|Before Injury||Marcus Johansson||Evgeny Kuznetsov||Justin Williams|
|After Injury||Andre Burakovsky||Evgeny Kuznetsov||Justin Williams|
|Before Injury||Jason Chimera||Jay Beagle||Tom Wilson|
|After Injury||Jason Chimera||Marcus Johansson||Tom Wilson|
And really, that second line is precisely what Brian MacLellan envisioned when he signed Justin Williams. This is what he had to say shortly after signing the man known as Stick:
"In my mind, I’d like to play [Williams] with Burakovsky and Kuznetsov because I think he’d have a big effect on them."
- Brian MacLellan,July 2, 2015
Let's look at the impact this change has had on the possession game for the middle six. Here's a peek at the before and after effects for the second line.
The difference is tremendous. We're looking at nine more shot attempts/60 by the second line, allowing five fewer per sixty minutes at five on five. The end result? Essentially a paradigm shift on the second line, as the CF% jumped from a poor 46.2% up to a gaudy 52.7%. That's awfully significant.
But what about the third line? Let's have a glance.
Note: The blue here represents Chimera/Johansson/Wilson, not Chimera/Johansson/Beagle.
Yup, pretty much more of the same. The second line boosted possession by 6.5 percentage points; the third line did so by 6.1. The two lines, cumulatively after the switch-up, have to be some of the best examples of immediate widespread improvement in recent memory.
Possession is a fantastic indicator for the quality of play on ice, but it doesn't capture the whole scoring picture. So how has scoring changed since Trotz bumped Burakovsky up to second line, and repositioned Johansson as the third-line pivot?
The first thing that jumps out is the rate at which the third line has started scoring. Chimera and Wilson centered by Johansson are lighting the lamp at nearly three times the rate as when they were centered by Beagle. And while that line is allowing goals at a bit of a higher rate, it nowhere near outweighs the new contributions in the offensive zone.
The second line is the same in some ways, but different in others. Kuznetsov and company saw a major jump up in production once Burakovsky was moved to the line, but they saw an even bigger increase in goals against. The reality is, based on the underlying numbers the second line's increased production is an output of a completely turned around possession game, while the increased goals against is most likely just a consequence of some not-as-good goaltending behind them.
Since Evgeny Kuznetsov has spent almost the entire season on the second line, we can use his on-ice save percentage over time to demonstrate this.
And if you have any further doubts about the second line, take a look at how their scoring chance percentage developed since the change.
Apart from some declined goaltending behind the second line, everything about this lineup juggling has paid dividends for Barry Trotz - which is good, because having three legitimate scoring lines is what Trotz has been pining for. Here's what he had to say on the matter back in September.
"Most teams are going to the top nine, having a strong top nine," says Trotz. "You’ll see that tonight with Carolina. They’re building a really nice top nine forwards. Their fourth group is more defenders and penalty killers. We want to do the same thing, that’s our goal as well."
- Dump and Chase, September 30, 2015.
You never celebrate a player's injury, but sometimes when you're dealt a bad hand it ends up agreeing with the river card. And now Barry Trotz has fallen into a third line that scores at twice the rate as his first line, and a second line that's not so far behind.
Jay Beagle's injury has provided the Caps with a chance to optimize their top-nine forwards, improving both the second and third lines. Hopefully he can do something similar for the fourth when he returns within the next couple of weeks.