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After the Washington Capitals lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, GM Brian MacLellan expressed a desire to upgrade the fourth line after it was a revolving door last season and combined for just one goal (which came on a penalty shot) during the playoff run last Spring. MacLellan signed forwards Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic as unrestricted free agents on July 1 to flank center Nic Dowd, and they have been one of the best fourth lines in hockey this year. The trio is reminiscent of the Capitals’ fourth line during the 2016-17 season when they won the Presidents’ Trophy for the second year in a row and that featured forwards Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, and Daniel Winnik. How do the two trios compare? NoVa Caps takes a look.
According to MoneyPuck, the Capitals’ fourth line this year has an expected goals-for percentage of 59.4 (11.7-8), better than the 2016-17 percentage of 52.5 (16.5-14.9). The Leipsic-Dowd-Hathaway trio currently has an expected goals-for per 60 minutes of 2.59 while the Winnik-Beagle-Wilson line rated 2.18. This year’s trio has allowed an expected goals-for per 60 minutes of only 1.77, while the trio in 2016-17 allowed 1.97.
Last year, the fourth line never played more than 14 games together. The line that played the most (Dowd, Chandler Stephenson, and Devante Smith-Pelly) had a 48.8% Corsi-for percentage, a 48.8% expected goals-for percentage (two for vs. 2.1 against), an expected average of 2.18 goals-per-60, and an average 1.84 goals-against per 60, but were only outscored 1-0. They don’t even show up in some other categorical rankings.
Unlike the fourth line from the 2016-17 season, this year’s group has out-attempted teams, though the 2016-17 version was out-attempted 374-373 for a Corsi-for percentage of 49.9%. Leipsic, Dowd, and Hathaway have out-attempted opponents by a total of 279-196 this season for a Corsi-for percentage of 58.7%. This year’s line has 61.84 shot attempts for and 43.44 against per 60 minutes while 2016-17’s had 49.24 shot attempts for and 49.47 shot attempts against per 60 minutes.
Despite the better underlying numbers this year than 2016-17, this year’s fourth line has not had as much offensive success as the trio three years ago. This year, the fourth line has been outscored 10-9 for a 47.4% goal percentage while the line three years ago outscored opponents 19-11 for a 63.3% goal percentage. The 2016-17 trio averaged 2.51 goals-per-60 minutes and 1.45 goals-against per 60, but this year’s line has averaged 1.99 goals and 2.22 goals-against per 60 despite the fact that the trio this season went through a long stretch without giving up a goal.
The Leipsic-Dowd-Hathaway trio has a 60.3% Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts for percentage), 10% better than Wilson, Beagle, and Winnik – 208 unblocked shot attempts for vs. 137 against. This season’s fourth line has 46.1 unblocked shot attempts-for per 60 minutes compared to 36.43 from the 2016-17 line.
This year’s fourth line has played together less than 60% as often as the line from 2016-17 and has put up better numbers than that line. Leipsic, Dowd, and Hathaway currently have played 18 fewer games than Wilson, Winnik, and Beagle did three seasons ago. This season’s line has also given up 30.7 unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes, down from the 36 that the line from three years ago gave up.
While the underlying numbers are better for this season’s trio, the line from three years ago had a much easier time finding the back of the net as they combined for 32 goals and 74 points. This year, the trio has combined for just 15 goals and 35 points and recently went through a stretch where they did not score in 19 games. Still, MacLellan has turned a major weakness from last season into one of the league’s best fourth lines this season.
Despite their success in the regular season, the Winnik-Beagle-Wilson trio combined for just a point (a goal) in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While the Leipsic-Dowd-Hathaway line has been together most of the year, the acquisition of forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline has bumped forward Richard Panik down to the fourth line and knocked Leipsic out of the lineup. Whether Panik or Leipsic fills out the line, the group’s performance in the playoffs will be key if the Capitals hope to make a deep run this season.
By Harrison Brown