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Line Changes: Of Effect and Effectiveness

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Taking a look at how Barry Trotz organized his forwards during practice on Monday, and providing some alternative scenarios.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Don't fix what ain't broken. One can safely assume that's the boiled down reason for the relative lack of movement among the Caps' forward lines.

Of course any strech of games comes with the odd flip-flops, on-the-fly line juggling, and flash-in-the-pan pairings due to any number of circumstances, such as injuries, slumps, or trades. But by and large, since Marcus Johansson was moved to third-line center in early January, the makeup of the Caps' quartet of trios has been pretty consistent: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie on the top line, Evgeny Kuznetsov centering Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky on the second, Johansson in between Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson on the third, and Jay Beagle, Mike Richards, and Daniel Winnik comprising a pretty stout fourth-sometimes-third line. Visually, the consistency in combos looks like this:

Success has given Barry Trotz very little reason to alter the recipe, but mired in a stretch of uninspiring play (on which we've written plenty), the forward lines took on a new (to use the mildest descriptor possible) look during the team's first practice after a week-long sojourn on the west-coast.

And the shakeup came just in time, because...

Be careful what you wish for.

On the surface, it looks almost like an indiscriminate shake up with less thought given to who slots where, and more to the impact the shock-value might have. We know, for instance, that Jay Beagle as a linemate to Ovechkin and Backstrom, has not been a good play during the Trotz Era (or any era before it). Via Puckalytics:

That said, there's certainly nothing wrong with stirring a pot in which the soup was stagnating, and rewarding guys for strong play. Despite the shakeup, Trotz seems to prefer to keep his centers where they are -- nothing changed down the middle of the lineup. So let's take a look at some alternative lineups, starting with the bottom-six forwards. Since Daniel Winnik has come on board, the fourth line has looked, well, more like an absolutely stifling shutdown third line. Seriously, check these guys out:

Meanwhile, the (nominal) third line's production has fallen to a season-low (that line hasn't produced an even-strength goal in its last nine games), as evinced by Marcus Johansson's 10-game rolling on-ice goals per 60 minutes:

90

Going from Backstrom and Williams to Kuznetsov and Williams to Chimera and Wilson as linemates will do that to a guy (and that's with a hot start, production-wise, on the third line that was was never really backed up by the underlying numbers).

So why not promote Richards and Winnik, who have the bottom-six's best legs at the moment to skate alongside a more skilled center, and give Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera a spin on the bottom line? Chimera's last point came on February 24th against Montreal; Tom Wilson's last point came on the first of March against Pittsburgh. So, we're looking at six games since either winger on one of the Capitals "scoring lines" has notched a point. With Winnik and Richards skating circles around the opposition over that same stretch, why not give them more ice? Instead, it looks as if the changes in the bottom-six may be a bit more subtle.

Regarding the top six, we mentioned the top lines' possession woes last week. And while their even-strength scoring was masking that issue, the scoring has since dropped off. Here's their 10-game rolling on-ice goal numbers.

Obviously you want your top line spending the bulk of their ice-time in the offensive zone. They're on the top line because their the most skilled, most dangerous players on your squad, and the Capitals happen to have possession's Mr. Fix-It on their roster. He usually goes by the surname of "Game 7", but check out his with-and-without-you numbers:

The red boxes are individual player possession without Justin Williams. The black boxes are individual player possession with Justin Williams. The black boxes are almost invariable further to the right on the x-axis, and further to top of the y-axis, meaning they're better with Williams than without him. Justin Williams flat-out makes teammates better. And while Williams has only spent ~20 minutes with Backstrom and Ovechkin on the year, those we're 20 minutes spent tilting the ice (and, as the chart above shows, Williams has spent more time with each of the Caps' superstars and delivered similarly impressive results):

Replacing Williams on the second line in this scenario would be T.J. Oshie. Oshie's numbers skating with Kuznetsov and Burakovsky are suboptimal, but he's spent some 200 minutes skating alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov to favorable possession and production results:

And then there's another top-six fix that we've harped on before:

See? We've harped.

The Caps' current (well, before yesterday's practice shake-up) top-six just doesn't seem maximized. At the very least, now would seem to be a good time to try some other things so that the team has options come the second season.

Given the relative stability of the forwards corps through the season, there's not a tremendous amount of actionable data here from which to draw strong conclusions, but there's certainly enough to want to take a longer look at some things... and to put an end to others. Barry Trotz has clearly reached a point where he's unhappy with the status quo, and while his short-term (we're pretty sure) solutions may be more for effect than effectiveness, the limited data available points to some basic ideas regarding line construction: swap the wingers on the third and fourth lines on account of recent performance, and use the lifelong possession dynamo on your team to try to get your most potent offensive weapons some more time in the zone where they do their damage.