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Laich-for-Winnik: What to Expect from a Swap of Fourth Liners

Taking a look at whether we can expect an improved fourth line based on swapping Laich for Winnik.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

As Caps fans are well aware by now, late Sunday night, the Washington Capitals shipped out their longest-tenured player, Brooks Laich, in return for Daniel Winnik (there are other particulars, but these are the most pertinent ones for our purposes here). The trade has a few factors, one of which was simply clearing Laich's contract from the books, but if you were listening to Brian MacLellan (and you should be, because he's basically telling us what he's going to do before he does it), you know that the Caps were trying to upgrade the fourth line as well.

So of those two goals, the first was definitely accomplished, as Laich's contract is gone and no salary was retained (though Winnik does have another year on his deal)... but how about the second? Is Winnik a real upgrade over Laich on the fourth line?

A quick and dirty look at the numbers sure appears to confirm that, yes, the Caps did get better on their fourth line. First, let's take a look at the HERO charts (via Own The Puck):

HERO Winnik Laich

HERO charts aren't the end-all-be-all, but they are instructive - it's easy to see that Winnik has been the better player (by these metrics) nearly across-the-board, and particularly in the areas of goal differential and production. But whenever you begin looking at "relative" statistics you have to consider the rest of the team. When Laich was off-ice, the Caps were playing Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, etc. When Winnik was off-ice the Maple Leafs were playing... well, whoever it is that has been dressing for a Leafs team that has been at or near the bottom of the League for most of this three-year sample. So it should be no surprise that Winnik would look better relative to his teammates if they were similar players (though it should be noted that Winnik was an Anaheim Duck for the first year of the sample, and a Pittsburgh Penguin for a quarter of last season, so it hasn't been all Leafs).

Even so, Winnik's primary point contribution (goals and primary assists) blows Laich's away, on the strength of an inexplicably strong primary-assist rate. Seriously, nobody has a good reason why Daniel Winnik shows up ahead of the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Jakub Voracek in five-on-five primary helper rate over the past three seasons, but there he is (and go ahead and click through on that link to check out the top of the list). Winnik's obviously not either of those guys, but somehow he's helping create goals, and no matter what line or what amount of ice time, increasing goal differential is ultimately the name of the game.

Even if we assume that Laich is an even possession player (which isn't a given), there's still the bit about scoring, and Winnik is clearly superior at this point. And, what do you know, largely on the back of the stronger offensive output, Winnik is vastly superior to Laich in expected goal differential relative to his teammates.

Another thing to consider with respect to Winnik is that he spent the early part of the season battling injuries and those apparently hurt his possession numbers:

And over a longer timeline, you can see how the injury caused his possession numbers to nosedive, rebounding over the last month or so:

The relative shot-suppression numbers are pretty similar, as are the penalty-killing contributions of the two. So as a matter of a straight-up swap between Laich and Winnik, it appears as though the Caps came out ahead (frankly, the comparison between Winnik and Jason Chimera appears closer than Winnik and Laich). It's not terribly likely that we'll see a huge impact on the Caps' scoring, despite those primary points numbers (who is going to finish those Winnik passes? Mike Richards and Jay Beagle sure don't look like they're the guys to do it at this point), but any offense the Caps get from the fourth line is gravy.

Either way, the bar to replace Laich is pretty low, so it's highly unlikely Winnik is any worse; if he is, Michael Latta can step back in. Plus, keep in mind that the cap is expected to drop this summer, Marcus Johansson (among others) needs a new contract, and the team can begin negotiating extensions with Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky - so having that free cap space is crucial.

At the end of the day, this is a shrewd move by Brian MacLellan and his management team. Once again, they've called their shot and followed through.