In the weeks that followed the Capitals’ nominal winning of the NHL Trade Deadline with their surprise acquisition of star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, their new asset slotted into the lineup on the third blueline pairing with Brooks Orpik, drawing the easiest minutes amongst his new defense corps.
While it seemed a player with Shattenkirk’s pedigree might be better suited eating some tougher minutes, this slotting made sense with Barry Trotz and Todd Reirdren’s long-cemented preference for opposite handed defense partners, with roles and responsibilities on their blueline well established, and likely with some aversion to change borne of success (though obviously bringing Shattenkirk in at all indicates that he was viewed as a net positive).
Now that the first playoff series of 2017 is in the books, let’s take a look at how the Shattenkirk/Orpik pairing faired in their inaugural second season twirl.
Like he did for most of the post-deadline regular season, Barry Trotz made sure his third pairing saw the lion’s share of their ice time against the Leafs’ bottom six. From a possession standpoint, Shattenkirk and Orpik faired well against the Tyler Bozak line, and won out on slim margins against the Kasperi Kapanen line. Meanwhile, they got steamrolled by Nazem Kadri’s, and saw varied results in limited minutes against Auston Matthews and company. Of course possession wins aren’t much to hang your hat on this time of year (just ask the Minnesota Wild), and these figures don’t tell the whole story, but more on that upcoming.
Sticking with shot attempts for a moment, it bears acknowledging that shared ice with the opposition is only one piece of the puzzle. Shared ice with your forward lines is another.
What we see here is that Orpik and Shattenkirk generally spent time on the right side of the ice when they were out there with the Beagle line, but got their lunch eaten when they were out with the Ovechkin line (who dictated play easily when they were out with either of the two other pairings).
Here’s how the overall possession numbers on the blueline shook out.
So despite drawing the most favorable matchups, Orpik and Shattenkirk were the Caps worst possession pair in Round 1. But the sample size in any given playoff series is generally small enough where a couple fortunate bounces can offset the underlying numbers. So what happened from a production standpoint with the Caps’ third pairing out there?
Now let’s go back and revise the first statement from the last paragraph: So despite drawing the most favorable matchups, Orpik and Shattenkirk were the worst possession pair in Round 1, and despite getting the least ice time and the fewest defensive zone draws, they surrendered the most goals against, and they were the only pairing with whom the Ovechkin line struggled.
Pretty harsh, but is that summary entirely fair? After all, according to the fine folks at Natural Stat Trick, only one Caps’ defenseman ( John Carlson - 22) was on the ice for more high-danger chances for than the 18 that Orpik and Shattenkirk had (worth noting that Matt Niskanen was also on the ice for 18, in ~40 min more of 5v5 TOI). Yet Shatty and ‘Pik were the only two Caps’ blueliners who weren’t on the ice for a converted high-danger chance. They also both finished on the positive side of the larger scoring chance battle, to the tune of 57.2% for Orpik and 52.0% for Shattenkirk.
Ultimately, it’s probably a bit of both. The third pairing didn’t play particularly well, and they were anchors to the squad’s best forwards. They were also on the wrong side of luck, and when it came to matching up against Toronto’s speedy forwards, on the wrong side of that as well...which is a bit unnerving, given Pittsburgh’s forward corps rolling into town with just as much speed, and even more talent.
But don’t take it from me — here’s what the players told us after Tuesday’s practice.
“They’ve got a lot of speed up front with their forwards,” Orpik said. “Probably the [similarity to Toronto] that jumps out is just the overall speed that they play with.”
Kevin Shattenkirk observed in a bit more detail. “I think they’re a much different beast,” he said. “I think they use their speed in a different way. Their systems are geared around how fast they are. They like to chip pucks out from the neutral zone and kind of build that speed from their defensive zone. In that way they’re on you very fast. So it’s going to be important for us to possess the puck in the offensive zone, and in our defensive zone getting the puck out quickly in any way, shape, or form.”
Brooks Orpik, probably about as good a proxy for the Caps’ third pairing deployment as you can get, saw a lot of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Matt Cullen, during the four regular season matchups with the Pens. It’s tough to understand exactly what that means from a line-matching standpoint, as all three guys have moved up and down Pittsburgh’s line up.
But one thing’s certain, and that’s that Orpik and Shattenkirk are likely to draw against just as much speed as they saw (and didn’t handle particularly well) in Round 1. Improved play from the Caps’ third pairing is going to be imperative for the Caps to hang with the defending champs.