Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Forward Depth

A cursory glance at the Corsi stats for the Capitals, via Behind the Net, for 2009-2010 reveals a potentially troubling trend: while Ovechkin leading the team in Corsi Rel and Corsi On isn't a surprise, his Corsi Off is negative.

That's bad.

Ovechkin's Corsi per sixty while he's off the ice has been declining over the years. In 2007-2008, it was 7.11, with only deadline pickups Matt Cooke and Sergei Fedorov having lower Corsi Offs (due in large part to their time spent in Vancouver and Columbus, respectively). The following season, it was 6.71, lowest Corsi Off on the team. Still, this isn't too troubling a trend, as a 6.71 is still pretty good. But now a -0.38? That means that without Ovechkin on the ice at 5-on-5, the Capitals are pretty much an average team (though it should be noted that this is the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines' performance versus another team's 1st, 2nd, and 4th, I would think).

Kareem El-Alaily on Box Seats looked at shot differential, and had this to say:
So you’re asking "what does this have to do with the Caps?" Despite the Caps most dominant season ever, their shot differential ranking fell from 4th in 2008, to 7th in 2009, to 11th in 2010.
That's not what we want to see with a team we'd like to say is a "Stanley Cup Contender." So not only on the whole is the Caps' shot differential not great for a team aspiring for the Stanley Cup, but the Caps' depth gets outplayed by other teams' depth!

Is the Caps' depth a myth? I have a hard time imagining it is. After all, the Capitals iced 7 20-goal scorers (with Mike Green at 19), 7 50-point scorers, and 3 30-goal scorers (with Mike Knuble at 29). Up front, lots of players contributed lots of points last season. In all three totals, Washington led the league. The Capitals, minus Ovechkin's goals, had the second best goal total in the league, and despite giving up plenty of shots they finished 6th in 5-on-5 goals against and better than a-goal-a-game goal differential during the regular season. Lack of depth (for which I have argued recently) certainly is a possibility in my mind--keep in mind how ridiculously well the Caps as a team shot at even strength last season, as well as saved shots--but it isn't the only explanation I can think of.

The other is the way Bruce Boudreau uses his forward lines. The good zonestarts, middling competition, and obviously better teammates typically go to the top line (and the numbers would probably be more lopsided if the top line didn't play so many minutes, not being able to face the low-TOI easy competition all the time). That's not a surprise. But I think this strategy is risky. Last season, for example, if you regress the Caps' shooting percentages to the mean, they basically play the other team to a standstill without Ovechkin on the ice. If Ovechkin's line does not produce, then, the game is roughly a 50-50 toss-up.

Thankfully, Alex Ovechkin tends to produce, and a lot and frequently at that. When he doesn't, though, this strategy may not work. A team like Detroit or Chicago I don't doubt could put strong checking forwards and a top defensive pairing to shut down Ovechkin's line and force the Caps' depth to come through. Even lesser teams like Montreal, the New York Islanders, and the New Jersey Devils have some success limiting Ovechkin. Given recent playoff performance from some more prominent members of the secondary scoring group, I'm skeptical they'd come through as reliably as needed. The alternative in this case--that Varlamov and/or Neuvirth steal the game--isn't too outlandish, but pretty unreliable. Controlling shots is the best way to go, and outside of Ovechkin's line the Caps don't seem to be doing a good job, and getting worse to boot.

What happened? Well, I'm fairly sure a lot of this comes down on Sergei Fedorov. Like him or not, even though he was old and took lots of penalties, he was an absolute Corsi stud, even beating out Ovechkin for the team lead in Corsi Rel (according to With a player like that on the 2nd line to play with Alexander Semin, for almost 40 minutes a night the Capitals had two dominant Corsi lines. Without a capable 2nd-line center and a winger that can do it all himself (Semin is good, but not that good), that suddenly falls to 20 or so minutes a night, leaving lots of time for other teams to attack the Caps' lower lines. The Caps are vulnerable during those other 40 or so minutes a night, and good teams will take advantage.

I don't think the Caps' strategy since Boudreau took over has changed much. But seemingly minor personnel changes, especially the loss of Fedorov, has changed the results. It's time, then, to adapt strategy.

One option is to "spread the wealth" a bit more. We know Alex Ovechkin can produce with only "okay" NHLers next to him (see Dainus Zubrus, Chris Clark, and Jeff Halpern), and so maybe putting Nicklas Backstrom with Alexander Semin and going with Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble, and someone else, like Marcus Johansson, Tomas Fleischmann, or Mathieu Perreault, at center is something that deserves to be looked at. Considering that Semin produced well in the playoffs only with Nicklas Backstrom as his center, I think this option merits a look. Unfortunately, any option the Capitals have for that top center spot, outside of Backstrom, is highly unlikely to be able to take the spot. Fleischmann is too floaty, Johansson is too green, and Perreault isn't good enough without the puck.

I like the next option better.

I would firstly stop giving Tomas Fleischmann (and by extension, Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin) even remotely tough minutes. I don't think Laich and Semin are incapable of playing those minutes, but Fleischmann is not a good enough player to center a tougher minutes line and be effective.

Secondly, I think Alex Ovechkin's line needs to play tougher minutes. Only a handful of lines could potentially outplay Ovechkin's line at at all (I'm thinking Datsyuk-Zetterberg with Lidstrom on the blueline, Zajac-Parise, Toews with Keith backing him up, Crosby, the Sedins, and Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan). While Ovechkin's line wouldn't be as dominant as even strength, that line could probably be a net positive for the Capitals, bettering the other top line's production. The trickle down effect leaves every other Cap with easier minutes, and outside of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, the Capitals should be able to capitalize on their skill throughout the forwards, with the fourth, second, and third lines picking up the progressively easier minutes, in that or a similar order. It worked for San Jose.

If the Capitals pick up a good second line center for Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich, then count me into the camp favoring the resulting line to be the power-versus-power line instead of Ovechkin's line. Another responsible two-way player would change the fortunes of that line immensely, I think, and Ovechkin's line would get easier competition to, for lack of a better term, abuse.

Thirdly, I think Mike Green and Jeff Schultz need to play more with the Capitals' lower lines, rather than their top line. The forwards on that top line will produce offensively by themselves, so having an elite puck mover to complement them might be a little redundant; instead, a tough-minutes pairing of Tom Poti and Karl Alzner or John Carlson could play with the new Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble power-vs-power shutdown-line. The third pairing should go out only against the easiest competition--this will unfortunately leave one top-5 Caps D playing minutes easier than he should be, but one injury and this player becomes a top-4 once again--and probably with the second line. The top pairing then is left with the remaining minutes, backing up the third and fourth lines.

Of course, no model is perfect. The system Boudreau uses now and the one I propose are basically identical--and a losing proposition, I think--once the Capitals come across a team that uses strong offensive lines to go power-versus-power, like Philadelphia (the Richards line), Chicago (Toews), and Detroit (Zetterberg, possibly with Datsyuk). In that case, Boudreau needs to make further adjustments (no doubt a strong second line center would make his job easier). And, of course, there's many reasons why Boudreau is coaching one of the best hockey teams on the planet while I'm sitting in my living room on my laptop simultaneously typing a blog post and filling out college applications.

At any rate, I think matching forward lines a bit more, and going for lower risk propositions, is a better long-term strategy. It certainly gives me confidence that the last three Stanley Cup-winning coaches all have reputations for mastering in-game adjustments and line-matching pretty religiously. Especially with the couple of gaping holes in the lineup, I don't think the Capitals can win the Stanley Cup without manipulating line matchups more than they do already (which, among the forwards, is pretty minimal). But I guess we'll see over the next six months.

Go Caps.

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