The Capitals 2016-2017 season commenced with a bit of uncertainty for Caps Nation. The team seemed to be out of kilter, with many of the top stars getting off to sluggish, if not poor starts. Now that things have settled down, we can take a look back with relative clarity, and better understand each iteration of the Capitals lines, as the team slowly made their way through the first three months of the season.
The “Random Line Generator”:
The season started with an unsettled feeling through the first 20-25 games. In hindsight, that just might have been Trotz’ plan all along.
Trotz was changing the lines daily, and at several points, seemingly without cause, sending many observers with myopic tendencies into a frenzy. The advanced stats sect would cry foul each day, only to find new material with the next day’s morning paper.
Looking back, it’s fairly clear that October and November were months for experimentation for Trotz and the coaches. It was simply data collection time. Try any conceivable line combination that made any sense, collect the data and build from there.
Method to the Madness:
Any qualitative (sound) decision is best based on facts (data and information), and hockey lines are no different. Although many of the line combinations appeared “random” at first glance, in hindsight it was fairly clear the Caps had thoughts about the potential of specific line combos well before the change was made, signifying fairly deep planning in advance of a game, or even before the season started. The only way to know if something might work, in a specific instance, against a particular team or style of play, is by trial and error.
Genuine Decision Points:
The top-line right-wing spot seemed to be a genuine decision point for Trotz. Trotz went with Justin Williams on the top line for quite a few games in December, but finally settled on the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line by the end of December. If you had to place money on the make-up of the top line for the first game of the playoffs, this would be it.
In addition, the third line right-wing position seemed to be a genuine point of study for Trotz, as many played the position, before Andre Burakovsky secured the roll, and solidified a strong third line.
The only apparent decision to be made on the back-end was who would get matched with Dmitry Orlov. Back in August, Trotz stated he’d like to see Dmitry Orlov paired with Matt Niskanen or John Carlson.
Trotz would pair Orlov with just about every Capitals defender during the months of October and November, with varying degrees of success. On December 1st, Orlov would commit two costly turnovers that led directly to goals for the opponent, and that was essentially the end of the Carlson-Orlov experiment.
On December 7th, Trotz made the first step in the final change. The moment of blueline zen occurred when Trotz paired Orlov with Niskanen, reunited Carlson and Alzner and placed Orpik and Schmidt in the bottom pair. The Alzner and Carlson pairing would eventually move up to the first pair, with Orlov and Niskanen settling in at the second pair. Trial and error(s) worked extremely well in this case.
Trotz’ infamous “random line generator” began to slow down towards the end of November. Jakub Vrana was still in the lineup, often displacing Brett Connolly, but the other lines were starting to take shape, and see consistent play.
As December gave way to January, Vrana and Sanford would be re-assigned to Hershey, with Brett Connolly ultimately winning the role of left-wing on the third line. One could make a strong case for the current lines being the starting lines for the first game of the first round of the playoffs.
Heading into the bye-week this weekend, the Capitals are once again atop the NHL standings, and firing on all cylinders. Following the 5-day break, the Capitals will have 26 games to get their game primed for the playoffs, as it appears the time to study potential lines has subsided.
Status quo at Capitals morning skate pic.twitter.com/TbH7OuUD9y
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) February 7, 2017
By Jon Sorensen