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The Capitals Defense: Actually Good?

A look at blueline pairings in the early going

Boston Bruins v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In a lot of ways, the Washington Capitals are still trying to figure it out - new coaches, new players, new systems, et cetera, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than on the blueline, where injuries and other sidelinings have forced head coach Peter Laviolette to juggle his pairings quite a bit in the early going.

To wit, eight different Caps defensive pairings have played more than 58 minutes at five-on-five, with only one of those (John Carlson and Brenden Dillon) over 80 minutes. Three of those pairings have an expected Goals-For percentage (xGF%) above fifty percent, and, coincidentally, those three pairings are comprised of the Caps’ top-six defensemen:

via NatStatTrick

Now, these numbers lack some deployment context (quality of competition and teammates, zone starts, game score), the samples are small, and the stats are descriptive of what has happened, not predictive of what will happen. So what it tells us is that the Caps could ice a top-six that has been very good (posting a combined 56.9 xGF%). It also tells us that the Dmitry Orlov-Nick Jensen and Carlson-Zdeno Chara pairs have gotten abysmal goaltending behind them (On-Ice SV%) and basically everyone’s been on an On-Ice SH% bender (where League-average is typically somewhere in the neighborhood of 8.5 percent).

So is it as simple as saying that the Caps’ top-six should be Chara-Carlson, Dillon-Justin Schultz and Orlov-Jensen? Probably not. And that’s not what Laviolette is running currently, instead favoring Dillon-Carlson, Chara-Schultz in his top four...

via HockeyViz

…though the ice time has been fairly balanced:

via HockeyViz

But any discussion of the Caps’ D-pairs starts with John Carlson, so let’s look at how he’s performed with his three partners so far this year, in chronological order:

via HockeyViz

What we see is that the Caps’ offense with Carlson on the ice at five-on-five (top row of heat maps) has been better with each successive partner, from (perhaps surprisingly) horrid with Orlov, to bad with Dillon to above average (a positive percentage) with Chara; the Caps’ defense in those situations has actually been above average (a negative percentage) across the board, at its best with Dillon. (One more thing to keep in mind when looking at these heat maps is that Carlson plays the right side.)

So if you’re wondering how Orlov-Carlson and Chara-Carlson can have nearly identical possession stats by shot attempts but such wildly different xGF percentages, these charts are your answer, specifically at the offensive end of the rink (look at where the red is and how much there is on the Chara chart versus the Orlov chart).

The Jensen-Orlov chart is even prettier, presumably beating up on weaker competition (despite the lowest offensive-zone start percentage of any of the pairings) en route to that dominant xGF%:

via HockeyViz

And, to round out the story, Dillon-Schultz (where offense goes to die at both ends of the ice) and Chara-Schultz (the current pair, which Laviolette likes a lot more than this chart does):

via HockeyViz

Okay, that was a lot. Does this mean that Orlov-Jensen is the Caps’ “best pair” (or that Orlov is really a third-pair NHL defenseman)? No. Does it mean that Old Man Chara should be playing top-line minutes or that Justin Schultz is a shutdown defender? No and no, respectively.

What it does mean is that the Caps defense has been good, and likely better than you’d think (as a team, they’ve yielded eight more goals than “expected” at five-on-five, or more than one every two games), and, until proven otherwise, Laviolette shouldn’t shy away from his most effective pairings if he can deploy them in the same ways in which they’ve been successful so far... because they have been successful so far.