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Feher Game: The Ups and Downs of Being a Rookie Blueliner

A look at the Caps’ young defenseman and the dreaded rookie wall

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Washington Capitals v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

Martin Fehervary is doing something no Cap has done since his defense partner, John Carlson, did it more than a decade ago: average more than 19 minutes of ice time per night as a rookie. And, like Carlson in 2010-11, the 2018 second-round pick is doing it as a top-pair defenseman, playing in all five-on-five situations (only Justin Schultz averages more time with the Caps trailing, only Dmitry Orlov sees more ice in tied games, and only the duo of Orlov and Nick Jensen plays more with a lead), in all three zones, against top competition and alongside the Caps’ best skaters, all the while staying comfortably above water in both expected and actual goals:

via MoneyPuck

From those xGF and xGA rates, you can see that the Fehervary-Carlson duo does things a little differently than the other pairs - pushing offense at the expense of defense - but the expected goals-for percentage results are similar, and the actual goals-for results even better.

Perhaps most importantly, what Fehervary brings to the Caps right now is a competent top-pair partner for John Carlson at a rock-bottom price, a cap hit just under $800,000... which is one-tenth of Carlson’s. Having a capable defensive pair at a combined cap hit of around $8.8 million is a godsend to a cap-strapped team.

On a sidenote, the Caps’ defense has provided terrific value this season. Using the market values provided at The Athletic, we see a $21-million blueline performing like a $32-million group:

But while Fehervary has certainly provided value and stabilized the top pair (no easy task over the years), his performance has been uneven at times and in spots. As the “Market Value” column above implies, he’s provided less overall value than the rest of the D-corps, and this Goals Above Replacement chart from Evolving-Hockey corroborates that:

Nick Jensen: stud
via Evolving-Hockey

What we see, perhaps surprisingly, is that while Fehervary is a net positive in his contributions to even-strength offense and penalties taken (he’s only taken seven minor penalties all season), his even-strength defense and shorthanded defense have been a net negative versus what we’d expect from a replacement-level player. The heat maps at HockeyViz further bear that out:

via HockeyViz

Basically the Caps are a better defensive team - at five-on-five and shorthanded - with Fehervary off the ice. Granted, he’s played more than three-quarters of his five-on-five minutes alongside defensively-challenged John Carlson and, as noted above, the duo (and their frequently paired forward lines) is a bit more run-and-gun than the other rearguards. But the Caps with Fehervary on the ice haven’t just been leaky defensively relative to their teammates - they’ve been leaky defensively relative to League average, and on a pretty terrific defensive team (and if you look at those heat maps, a lot of the red and brown is on the left side of the ice that Fehervary patrols).

To put a bow on it, here are the five-on-five “against” rates for shot attempts, shots on goal, expected goals, scoring chances and high-danger chances for each member of the Caps’ D-corps this year:

data via NatStatTrick

Yeah, not the best look for Fehervary. But it hasn’t always been that way, and it may not always be that way. Here’s a 10-game rolling xGA/60 chart that shows some of the ups and downs the rookie has gone through:

via MoneyPuck

Like most of the team, the team defense has gotten a little loose lately and is trending in the wrong direction, and Fehervary is no exception to (and, indeed, a partial cause of) that. Over the past month, he’s led the team in five-on-five minutes... and expected goals against, and posted three of his four worst Game Scores of the season (including a particularly bad night in Nashville on Tuesday).

Chris Rock had a great bit years back about the tiger that bit Roy Horn during a performance of Siegfried and Roy’s Vegas show. “The tiger bit the man in the head,” Rock recounted, “and everybody’s mad at the tiger. Talk about the tiger went crazy. That tiger ain’t go crazy, that tiger went tiger!”

In Martin Fehervary’s case, the rookie hasn’t gone bad, the rookie has gone rookie. The 22-year-old has played 48 games so far, which is twice as many as he played last year and nearing the career-high 62 he played (mostly in Hershey) over the course of a full season in 2019-20. Moreover, Fehervary is second among all rookies in hits (136) and first in hits taken (124) - that’s 260 noteworthy impacts, third in the League behind only Radko Gudas (297) and Rasmus Ristolainen (271), to the extent that stat can be trusted. Add in the context of his role and his performance is both more impressive, overall, and more understandable lately. Has he hit a wall? He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie to do so.

We talk a lot about load management, specifically with respect to the team’s aging core - if you want guys like Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom to have any gas in the tank come April, you probably should ease up on them a bit in January and February. We talk less about the rigors of a full season at this level for young players, assuming they can handle it, both physically and mentally. And maybe a kid like Martin Fehervary can. But his performance needs to be watched closely, and maybe he, too, needs to be eased up on a bit... because the Caps will need him at his best come April.