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Can the Caps Bring the D?

The Caps had defensive pairs that worked during the regular season. It’s time to re-create them against the Boston Bruins before it’s too late.

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Caps split the first two games against the (heavily favored) Boston Bruins, the Caps haven’t exactly been strong from a possession standpoint. Indeed, as the series has gone on, Boston’s edge in expected goals has gotten stronger:

Rolling expected goals chart for the Washington-Boston playoff series (via NST).

We’ve talked about the importance of Lars Eller already here, so let’s switch our focus to the backend. Specifically, here’s how the Caps defensive pairs have performed so far against Boston:

Defensive pairs performance (via MoneyPuck)

That’s obviously not a great look for John Carlson & Dmitry Orlov. It is worth noting that the two have drawn the lion’s share of the matchups against Boston’s top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak (as well as some matchups against Boston’s second line of Taylor Hall, Craig Smith, and David Krejčí). That said, Orlov & Carlson have done extraordinarily poorly in those matchups:

Needless to say, there’s probably no combination of players that is going to consistently stop Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak… but what the Caps are doing against them doesn’t seem to be working.

Is there a better way forward for the Caps defensemen? Maybe. Let’s first take a look at how the various combinations of Caps defensive pairs performed this year during the regular season:

Caps defensive pairs with at least 90 minutes played (via MoneyPuck).

Those 3 pairs at the top? Those seem like 3 viable pairs for the Caps going forward, and perhaps the Capitals could give each of them some minutes against all of Boston’s top lines.

It’s also worth noting that at Japers’ Rink, we’ve already and repeatedly identified Nick Jensen and Dmitry Orlov as two players that’ve played well together before:

However, we’ve ultimately gotten our answer about Orlov’s defensive partner: He’s going to be playing with Nick Jensen, and they’re going to be awesome. Here’s how they’ve done together so far:

(Caveat: It’s still a bit early in the year. However Hockey Graphs recently found that defensemen’s stats tend to stabilize after around 115 minutes of play, and Orlov has now skated 107 minutes at five on five).

This may not seem impressive at first, and that goals-for percentage looks a bit concerning. However, as Peter Hassett of Russian Machine Never Breaks recently discussed, Braden Holtby has struggled a bit, which is weighing down their (otherwise stellar) 5v5 numbers.

Second, Orlov & Jensen have been playing one of the most difficult parts of the Capitals schedule against some of the best players in the league. So far, the skaters that Orlov have faced the most include names like John Klingberg, Sebastian Aho, and Jacob Slavin…aka some of the best players in the league. Against this elite competition, Orlov & Jensen have been tilting play, and neutralizing some of the other team’s best weapons.

Now J.P. has noted that Jensen tends to play better in more sheltered minutes, so perhaps an Orlov-Jensen pair wouldn’t be able to play all of their minutes against Boston’s top two lines.

Good thing that the Caps have another pair of players that (surprisingly) seem to play very well together, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Brenden Dillon. J.P. noted this pairs success earlier this year, and it continued until Justin Schultz returned to the lineup (more on him later):

Okay, so let’s pump the brakes a bit. These are small samples. Still, there’s one particularly interesting aspect of van Riemsdyk’s play so far, and it’s come largely as he’s swapped in for an ailing Justin Schultz in the Caps’ second pair. Let’s take a look...

That... is something. Or maybe that is nothing. It strains credulity to suggest that Trevor van Riemsdyk is the Brenden Dillon whisperer... but maybe? If there’s any “there” there, it’s worth exploring because maximizing the Caps’ defensive pairs had become an exercise in minimizing Brenden Dillon’s impact. With the Caps’ other two pairs humming along on the north side of break-even, if the second pair could join them, that would obviously be a good thing. And if it’s as narrow a decision as van Riemsdyk versus a healthy Schultz, one has clearly been better than the other so far this year.

Again, context matters and there’s not a lot of it here. Ultimately, a choice between Schultz and van Riemsdyk is a classic choice between offensive- and defensive-minded defenseman (though Schultz’s offense has dropped off quite a bit after a strong start), with perhaps a bit of the “sunk cost” fallacy thrown in.

Again, one would not expect Dillon and van Riemsdyk to take all of the tough minutes against Boston’s top two lines…but like Orlov & Jensen, they could at least take some of those assignments.

That leaves us with a final pair of John Carlson and Zdeno Chara. Again, we’ve written about that pair when they were forced to play together due to Orlov landing on the COVID list early in the year. Although it was a forced trial due to unusual circumstances, the two seemed to play well together in a top-pair capacity:

Zdeno Chara and John Carlson’s performance together (via HockeyViz).

As we’ve said with both Orlov-Jensen and TvR-Dillon, you wouldn’t want Carlson-Chara to play huge minutes against Boston’s top two lines. But perhaps splitting those minutes with two other competent defensive pairs? Maybe that could work.

There’s one defenseman we haven’t mentioned yet, Justin Schultz. There has been zero indication that Peter Laviolette has any interest in sitting Schultz when healthy, but Schultz hasn’t exactly been 100% for at least a month. Schultz missed time starting in mid-April with a mysterious “lower body injury” that stemmed from a hit given by Taylor Hall, and he’s missed time earlier in the year too after taking a puck to the face. Perhaps related to his injuries this year, Schultz hasn’t exactly been strong for the Caps since a hot start:

Justin Schultz’s performance this year (via HockeyViz).

Sitting your defensemen that you just signed this offseason is not an easy move for the Caps to make. But the playoffs can occasionally call for drastic changes, as can playing a top-heavy team like Boston with two elite lines. The Caps have 3 pairs that can get the job done, the question remains whether Laviolette will make changes or not. Your move, coach.