Optimization: A Look At The Capitals’ Defensemen And Optimizing The Pairings

Over the past few weeks, Capitals’ Head Coach Peter Laviolette has been tinkering with the defensive pairings by swapping Dmitry Orlov and Brenden Dillon in their top four roles. The Caps had largely rolled with the same pairings over the course of the season, but things appeared to grow stale in Laviolette’s eyes.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the Capitals’ defensemen’s performance during five on five play, as well as possibly constructing optimized pairings moving forward.

Five on Five Point Production

The Capitals’ John Carlson is leading the league for points by a defenseman so far this year with 42 points in 45 games played. That being said, lets take a look at Carlson and the rest of the Caps’ defensive corps production during five on five play this season:

Overall, these statistics aren’t too surprising: the two more offensively focused defensemen in John Carlson and Justin Schultz are leading the way in overall points. Orlov and Dillon aren’t behind Schultz by much here.

During five on five play, here’s how the Capitals’ defensemen rank in the NHL for points: Carlson (1st), Schultz (15th), Dillon (21st), Orlov (27th), Jensen (46th), and Chara (67th). Overall, there’s not much to complain about here with overall point production during five on five play.

Five on Five Actual vs Expected Goals For and Goals Against

Now, let’s take a look at the differentials for the Caps’ defensemen regarding actual goals for and against versus expected goals for and against during five on five play:

One thing to note here is that each of the Caps’ defensemen’s goals for per 60 is out-pacing their xGF/60. One of the reasons for this is that the Caps as a whole are outperforming their xGF production during five on five play (3.01 GF/60 vs 2.06 xGF/60 as a team). Part of that general over-performance is the Caps’ league high 10.82 shooting percentage during five on five play.

On the flip side, all of the defensemen, other than Justin Schultz, are underperforming expectations on GA/60 compared to xGA/60. Part of this is the fact that more successful teams around the league are going to outperform their xGF in actual GF, since the expected goals model doesn’t value low danger goals very highly.

Defensemen Goals Above Replacement vs Expected Goals Above Replacement

Let’s take a look at the Caps’ regular defensemen’s performance in GAR versus their xGAR:

Dillon and Schultz are the only two players whose GAR values exceeds their xGAR measure. Interestingly enough, even with Dillon’s recent struggles, he’s tied for the lead among Caps’ defensemen in GAR at 7.10.

On the other hand, Orlov’s performance has a lot of impact on Evolving-Hockey’s xGAR model, and leads the Caps in that metric. That shouldn’t be too surprising when watching Orlov’s recent play.

Most concerning is Schultz’s 0.10 xGAR. The quality of play for Schultz has been solid with 6.40 GAR, but it is certainly interesting that the xGAR model has valued Schultz’s play so poorly. Schultz’s breakdown for his xGAR is 0.5 in expected offense, -1.2 in expected defense, and 0.8 in penalties, compared to his GAR of 7.8 offense, -2.2 defense, and 0.8 penalties. All in all, his defense is worse than expectations and his offense is much better than expectations.

Optimizing the Pairings

Although the defensive pairings have largely been relatively consistent this year, there’s been times where the pairings have been mixed up a bit during the course of a game, such as following a power play or penalty kill. With that, we can see some data regarding possible pairing optimization:

There are a few pairings that really stick out as prime defensive pairings for the Caps. Let’s highlight them below:

Orlov and Jensen

The first is a possible pairing of Orlov and Jensen, who have put up a 57.06 CF%, a 59.31 FF%, 76.92 GF%, and 68.29 HDCF% in 103:52 in time on ice. While on the ice together during five on five play, they’ve been on the ice for 10 goals for and 3 goals against. On top of that, they’ve been on the ice for 5 high danger goals for and only one against. Orlov and Jensen’s styles of play could really complement each other, since both are fleet-footed and are highly capable puck-moving defensemen.

Dillon and Carlson

This is a familiar pairing for the Capitals, as Dillon and Carlson have played 492:22 in time on ice together in 46 games so far this season. This pairing comes about as more of a necessity with Carlson’s best defensive partner in Orlov now being paired with Nick Jensen, as well as the fact that the best pairing for Dillon has been when he’s paired up with Carlson. In those 46 games so far this season, this pairing has a 48.58 CF%, 48.51 FF%, 51.06 GF%, and 46.71 HDCF%. They’ve been on the ice together for 24 goals and 23 goals against, with an even split of high danger goals with 13 for and 13 against.

Chara and Schultz

This is an intriguing pairing. They’ve only been on the ice together for 105:22 of time on ice, but have controlled possession (52.15 CF% and 48.41 FF%), and have been on the ice for 8 goals for and 4 goals against (66.67 GF%). While on the ice, they have the share of high danger chances with 25 for and 21 against (54.35 HDCF%) with 5 high danger goals for and only two against (71.43 HDGF%). Chara’s more defensive game and style could serve Schultz well to be more aggressive offensively.


Overall, the Capitals have received some strong play and production from their defensive group this season. The six regular contributors in Carlson, Orlov, Schultz, Chara, Dillon, and Jensen have provided some stability to a back-end that had struggles with consistency going back to last season.

With some deeper levels of scrutiny and looking at advanced statistics, there are definitely opportunities to juggle the defensive pairings to optimize for results on the ice. Pairings consisting of Dillon and Carlson, Orlov and Jensen, and Chara and Schultz could potential pay dividends on the ice based on previous performance.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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