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The Gustafsson-Carlson Pairing: Good?

Once a shaky pairing, the Caps new top pair is starting to make their impact

NHL: Washington Capitals at Florida Panthers Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

When Dmitry Orlov when out with injury on November 5, Erik Gustafsson moved into his role alongside John Carlson, and the results were... mixed, to put it kindly. Both Gustafsson and Carlson have their strengths, especially in the offensive zone, but they both have struggled in the defensive zone, which made it an even bigger head-scratcher that a defensively focused coach like Peter Laviolette not only put them together but kept them together for a long period of time.

Recently, however, something has changed and that top pair has been putting together some solid defensive outings: good defensive pair. Let’s look at the numbers (via Natural Stat Trick).

  • 218:15 time on ice
  • 56.01 CF%
  • 57.99 xGF%
  • 58.36 SCF%
  • 55.73 HDCF%

That’s kind of wild. Those stats are also top-13 in the league among all pairs that have played at least 200 minutes together and top-10 outside of the high danger chances. It looks even more impressive when you look at their offensive and defensive impacts (via HockeyViz):

Those offensive impacts are stellar and without looking at every pair in the NHL individually, I’d say that has to be top 5, top 3, or even the best league wide at least offensively. The defensive impact isn’t elite by any means but the fact they are above average in suppressing chances is huge. Even if they were slightly below average on that side, it would still be okay considering the offensive impact has been so strong.

When they first got together, they were on the ice for a ton of goals. Here are their on-ice goal stats.

  • 5v5 Goal Differential: 7GF - 13GA
  • High Danger Goal Differential 5GF - 7GA

But there’s a bit more to those numbers, because that pair has been incredibly unlucky at both ends of the ice. Look at the HockeyViz images again, check out their Expect Goals For (xG) and Expected Goals Against (xGA). That pairing should have been on the ice for 13 goals for, but have only been on the ice for 7; and they were expected to be on the ice for just 9 goals against but have been on the ice for 13. So instead of of being +4 in goal differential, they have a -6 differential. That’s 10 goal swing in the wrong direction, which is pretty big considering they’ve barely played 200 minutes together. Both the shooting percentage and save percentage when they are on the ice are well below average.

Shooting Percentage: 4.99% - league average is usually around 10%
Save Percentage: 87.50% - league average is usually around 90%

Using the same criteria from above, looking at all pairs that have played at least 200 minutes (there are 51 one of them) in the NHL, this is where Gustafsson-Carlson rank per 60 defensively:

  • 57.56 shot attempt against - 31st
  • 2.51 expected goals against - 28th
  • 27.82 scoring chances against - 25th
  • 12.66 high danger chances against - 39th

Those are by no means elite defensive numbers; among the 51 pairs, they are probably a bit lower than average. But then the actual goals-against per 60 rate was 3.53, which ranked 49th (!!!), aka third-worst. That doesn’t add up at all. There is certainly an argument that this duo should expect to be negative in goals against because neither player is strong defensively- but jumping from around 31st in defensive stats to letting in one of the highest rates of goals per 60 seems like a big jump, even for them.

Now let’s take a look at offensive stats per 60:

  • 73.28 shot attempt for - 3rd
  • 3.46 expected goals for - 5th
  • 38.99 scoring chances for - 2nd
  • 15.94 high danger chances for - 2nd

That’s an incredibly strong offensive showing - but in actual goals-for they rank 41st (!) with 1.99 per 60. That’s incredibly unlucky.

Another caveat is this pair also gets a ton of offensive zone starts. They start in the offensive zone 76.06% of the time and are on for offensive-zone faceoffs 76.88% of the time, which is the most among all pairs in both categories - and probably isn’t the worst thing in the world. Laviolette is doing the smart thing here: playing players in a position of their strength.

And with the rest of the defensive pairs made of incredibly strong defensive players (Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, Marten Fehervary, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Matt Irwin), you can let them deal with the heavier load and let the Gustafsson-Calrson pairing do what they do best, which is putting up points. And if hockey tells us anything, things tend to regress to the means, and that pairing is due a lot of goals-for and fewer goals-against.

The Gustafsson-Carlson duo certainly got off to a really rocky start, but you have to give them credit for improving and starting to impact the game positively at both ends of the ice, even if they are being sheltered with where they start their shifts. If the system can allow these two to keep playing together to help put pucks in the net and the remaining four defensemen can carry the heavy defensive loads, then it’s something that could really work out well for the Caps.

At some point this pairing will start piling on the goals - and if they can limit their defensive lapses to at least average, it’s something that could work long term.