Optimizing the Capitals’ Forward Lineup

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Since Ryan Stimson has published his piece about individual playing styles and how they mesh with each other on Hockey-Graphs, I wanted to do the exercise of finding the most optimal Caps lineup. Then I read Prashanth Iyer’s article on TheAthletic, in which he does the same thing with the Detroit Red Wings’ lineup, so I was given a template on how to do it. Let’s get started. 

I will do this only for the forwards as I already touched on the defense in my previous post.

In the piece I linked above, Stimson, based on the data he accumulated through the passing project,  identifies four types of forwards and their expected goals shares:

Here’s how the Caps’ forwards grade out:

  • Playmaker: Kuznetsov, Backstrom
  • Shooter: Ovechkin
  • Balanced: Oshie, Burakovsky, Eller
  • Dependent: Connolly, Beagle, Wilson, Smith-Pelly

We have only 10 forwards here.

It may come as a bit of a surprise that Connolly is in the “Dependent” category. Though, if you think about it, Burakovsky and Eller were the actual drivers of that line, creating plays through passing and taking most of the shots. According to hockey analysis, Connolly’s individual Corsi/60 was last among the three of them at 10.79 versus Burakovsky’s 15.79 and Eller’s 13.02. He was also last in iFenwick/60 and had a bit of an edge over Eller in Shots/60. In fact, Connolly’s 15 goals were due to an 18.92 Sh%, which is unsustainable for a player of his caliber (or any caliber).

There’s no data on Vrana or other prospects, but I think it’s safe to say that Vrana will fall in the “Balanced” category, if not in the “Shooter” category. Let’s go with worst-case scenario. I’ll assume that any of the other prospects will be of the “Dependent” kind.

Stimson didn’t stop at identifying and grading individual players, he also showed us how the various combos of those categories of players fare:

It could take hours to sort out which is the best lineup combination, but thanks to @petbugs13 we have a tool that gives us the possibility to identify the team-wide xG% based on the line combos and how we split the ice time. This is what the best combination looks like:

Recommended Lineup

The lack of depth at forward is really worrying. The Caps have so many “Dependent” type of players that there’s really no effective way to hide them.

It’s really unlikely that Connolly will post the same Sh% and, even if he does, not having Burakovsky creating plays will reduce his opportunities. Most Caps fans (and media) are hoping that Wilson will suddenly become better at creating offense, but that’s unlikely as he’s never shown to be that kind of player and the same goes for his passing stats.

There’s some room for optimism though:

  • Growth from the young guys – Vrana in his short stints with the Caps has shown promise, Burakovksy will be put in a position to succeed, and Kuznetsov could finally find some consistency in his game.
  • Stimson’s analysis doesn’t account for how good individual players are. Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov are probably better than the average Shooters and Playmakers. They could very well carry the team on their own. That brings us to another important part of optimizing the lineup that came from Alex Novet’s analysis – hockey is a strong-link game, meaning that the team with the best player on the ice is the one who’s going to win. This would mean splitting Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Kuznetsov – we’ve seen this work out nicely in Games 5 and 6 of the second round although I wouldn’t bank on the Caps actually doing it.

By Liviu Damaschin

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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5 Responses to Optimizing the Capitals’ Forward Lineup

  1. Ben says:

    How can you use this tool and recommended lineup with no mention of the fact that it “recommends” Backstrom being the 3C. 1) That is obviously not true and 2) Will certainly not happen. There is no scenario in which Lars Eller (whom I really like) should be playing higher in the lineup and more minutes than Nick Backstrom.

    • The tool didn’t exactly say Backstrom at 3C, but “Playmaker”, so that could also be Kuznetsov.

      Anyways, the point of this exercise is putting together the optimal lineup, that means having a playmaker at 3C and have a Balanced player at 2C, because the upgrade in xG% coming from a Playmaker in that spot is big enough to outweigh the downgrade of having a Balanced (Eller) player at 2C.

      That’s because a lines’ results depend on how the players are playing together, too, rather than just the individual players’ skillet.

      Anyways, in an ideal world a team like the Caps would put Ovi, Kuzy and Backy on three different lines and play those lines 20 minutes a night.

      Though this is part of a bigger discussion I’m planning to dive into in the future.

  2. Pingback: Using Stats to Sort out the Battle for the Spot Alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov | NoVa Caps

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