Monday, March 28, 2011

A Strong Bottom Six

Of all the possible factors that could cause the Capitals to bow out of the playoffs early this year--coaching, power play, even strength offense, penalty kill, goaltending, etc--there's one that I'm convinced will be a legitimate, significant strength for the Caps: the bottom-six forwards.
All data courtesy Behind the Net.

The bottom-six fowards I'll define as all forwards aside from the Caps' 5-on-5 TOI/60 leaders Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, Jason Arnott, and Brooks Laich. One line of the bottom-six is generally a primary or secondary shutdown line; another line is a tertiary, soft-minutes scoring line; the rest are injury replacements, frequently healthy scratches.

Boyd Gordon: Gordon is the standout of the bottom-six forwards. The first of two Caps 2002 first-round picks on the roster (Semin was picked shortly after), Gordon is a solid shutdown center and top-notch faceoff man, with decent speed and passable hands,a vital penalty killer for the Capitals. This year he looks to have emerged as a legitimately strong option for shutting down opposing top lines, not getting killed in Corsi despite tough zone start, very low Corsi Rel QoT, and fairly high Corsi Rel QoC. In fact, he leads the team's forwards in shots against per 60 of 5-on-5, just over 26. Of course, the big question with Gordon is whether he can stay healthy, but if he does, he can do the dirty work and chip in with some offense (considering his low PDO, more than he has thus far).

Eric Fehr: After a sensational 2008-2009 season in limited minutes, Fehr was expected to "take the next step." While it may appear he hasn't, well, context is important. Since that year, while Fehr's quality of competition has decreased, his quality of teammates has as well, and more drastically at that. This season, Fehr is beating his leftovers-minutes (low QoC, low QoT), and is still a rate-stats star, 6th on the team in points per 60 and 3rd in goals per 60, and drives the play, inconsistency be damned. Although his scoring chance is near team average at 52.5%, that's mainly the result of a brutal recent stretch that has seen his scoring chance percentage drop from 54%, which was just behind the four top liners and Brooks Laich (stick tap Neil Greenberg at RMNB for the numbers).

Matt Hendricks: I'm amazed Colorado let this guy go. He's a perfect fourth liner--can line up at all three forward positions, will drop the gloves if need be, plays hard and in-your-face, pots some goals, has some sweet moves for breakaways, and has solid underlying numbers too, all for the price of $575,000 this season.

Jason Chimera: Chimera is a queer case. He's very fast, physical on the forecheck, big, and, like Hendricks, in-your-face. His underlying numbers don't look too strong except for those last two columns: zone shift. My conclusion? Chimera has hands of stone and pretty poor playmaking instincts (and has a tendency to play with his head down), but he can move the puck up into the offensive zone, setting up good position for scorers like Ovechkin and Semin. I guess that kind of guy is good to have in your pocket.

Marcus Johansson: Johansson is a potential weak point, given that he's raw on faceoffs, small and light, and not aggressive enough in all three zones. His defensive positioning, though, is solid, and he creates plenty of chances with his speed. Not ideal to have a 3C as raw as Johansson on a team that wants to make a deep playoff run, but speed kills.

Marco Sturm: Chimera with better hands, better offensive instincts, but less physical play, Sturm can play in any role at 5-on-5, and will put points on the board as well. This guy is good enough to be given a regular sweater, but he may be forced to watch some games from the press box. I guess that means the Caps have some good depth.

Matt Bradley: similar to Gordon, minus faceoff ability and with some additional scoring ability. Hendricks-Gordon-Bradley would make an excellent fourth line.

DJ King: how many playoff teams have an enforcer? Ha.

Mathieu Perreault: in every short call-up, he's been very good for the first game or two. He knows how to kill soft minutes. Opponents will sometimes have to try to get their weaker players against Perreault, one of the Caps' weaker players himself (so their weak players can get ice time against non-studs like Ovechkin), but Perreault's speed and skill can make that plan backfire.

Jay Beagle: doesn't embarrass himself, I guess.

Looking through behind the net, I'm not finding many teams with better and more versatile bottom forwards. I see Philadelphia (only because one of their awesome centers has to be bottom-6), Vancouver, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, and Calgary, and I don't see any of their bottom forward groups as clearly better than Washington's.

I'm confident the lunch-pail guys and tertiary scorers will do their job; it'll be up to the stars, defense, special teams, goalies, and coach to do theirs.

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