Since the end of the season, the position that has been weakened the most on the Capitals has undoubtedly been the defense. Losing Schmidt, Alzner and Shattenkirk looks really bad on paper and raises quite a few questions: “Who is going to take Alzner’s heavy minutes?”, “Is Carlson good enough to anchor a second pair with a rookie?”, “Will the rookies be good enough?”, “Is Orpik going to be an anchor (the bad kind though) on the third pair?”. Well, let’s try to answer these questions.
After reading this really good article on The Athletic on Ron Hainsey and how quality of competition impacts a player’s performance, I asked Dom Luszczyszyn to make a graph of the Caps defense and he was very kind to answer:
(QoT: quality of teammates, QoC: quality of competition)
(The percentages in the boxes represent which “percentile” of that category the player fell, i.e.: a player in the 90th percentile for QoC means that the competition he had to face was higher than 89% of the players in the league. Colors also help – red means “tough”, so hard competition/bad teammates and blue means “easy” so weak competition/good teammates.)
(Game Score is a stat which focuses on 5v5 play and ignores special teams. If someone wants a thorough explanation of the stats, here’s where Dom breaks it down)
(GS effect represents how QoC and QoT influenced the player’s performance as represented by the Game Score. A GS effect below 0 means that the player’s deployments impacted negatively on the player’s performance, so we’ll have to adjust the player’s Game Score by adding that value. Mirror it for GS effects above.)
- Alzner’s minutes may have been tough from a competition standpoint (especially at forward), but his teammates were amazing. Very few players in the league benefited from better teammates than he did. His negative Game Score could mean that losing him is literally addition by subtraction.
- Niskanen is the best Dman on the team and Orlov is not far behind. Good that we’ll have them for a long time. Carlson is good, but not that good.
- Schmidt to Vegas isn’t that big of a loss. He had a good showing in the playoffs, but in the regular season he benefited from some really easy deployments. To put it in perspective, Schmidt was closer to Orpik than Carlson as far as impact at 5v5 goes.
Let’s answer some of the questions
“Who’s going to take on Alzner’s heavy minutes?” – Orlov will be just fine. If we gave Alzner’s minutes to Orlov this past season, his impact would drop from 0.27 to 0.24, nothing huge and still very good. To give some perspective on Game Score values, Erik Karlsson is at 0.37 (adjusted). If needed, Orlov and Niskanen could also take on an even bigger role.
“Is Carlson good enough to anchor a second pair with a rookie?” – If we put Carlson in Orlov’s 2016-17 minutes, his impact would rise from 0.11 to 0.15. That’s not something to laugh at. If he doesn’t get paired with the likes of Alzner, our American Hero will do well on the second pair.
“Is Orpik going to be anchor (the bad kind though) on the third pair?” – Orpik in a sheltered role does just fine, not 5.5M a year fine, but not on the levels of screaming for a buyout. One could say that being paired with Schmidt helped him more than numbers can measure, though my counterpoint would be that he’s competent enough to not drag his partner down when the partner is good.
This leaves us with one last question, “Will the rookies be good enough?”. For this I go back to Luke Adomanis’s piece on analysis of the Caps’ prospects and here are the bits on the guys most likely to make the jump on defense:
Even last summer, some had Djoos pegged a Top 6 or depth defenseman at best and even then some were skeptical. He stepped up in a big way once Bowey and Aaron Ness went down with injuries and he had a monster season. Most believe he has the ability to be even better. Is a second-pairing role out of reach? It’s hard to tell, but that’s not saying he can’t do it. All he does is prove people wrong. A few think he can at least solidify himself as a strong bottom-pairing defenseman with potential to be more.
Known as a vocal leader with a booming shot and great puck-moving abilities that can put players on their bottoms with devastating hits, Bowey has developed into a great all-around player.
Of all the defensive prospects, Lewington probably fits the “defensive defenseman” title the best. Many never really hear about him, but the organization absolutely loves this guy.
- Given handedness, Bowey will likely slide on the third pair, he’s of the “puck-moving” mold, so we should expect at least a baseline level of play from him and Orpik.
- The Caps should be fine as long as Djoos will be the one on Carlson’s side (assuming that the Swede will gain some pounds). Things will get dicey if Lewington will be there, “defensive defensemen” are in extinction for a reason. Choosing Lewington over Djoos would mean that the team is going against the evolution of the game, which would not be good.
- There could always be some big surprises in camp – Siegenthaler, Johansen, and Hobbs have all taken big strides this past season.
The Caps have such a good first pair in Orlov and Niskanen that they could give them all the tough minutes, to the extent of sheltering both the second and the third pair. This could be needed to begin the season, as the rookies will need to adapt to the NHL given that neither of them has ever been played at the highest level. Ideally, throughout the season, the second and third pair’s roles will increase. Best case scenario, the Caps defense next season will be even better than last year’s.
Obviously, with my arguments based mostly on stats, they don’t tell the whole story and have to be taken with a grain of salt.
By Liviu Damaschin