Assessing The Capitals Defensemen Through The First 8 Games Of The Season


Through eight games to start the 2021-22 regular season, the Capitals’ defensemen have largely performed well. It’s especially hard to complain when the team is 5-0-3 and have yet to lose a game in regulation.

Coach Peter Laviolette and the rest of the coaching staff have kept the same defensive pairings intact throughout the start of the season, and they’ve been working well, for the most part.

In this post, we’ll be taking a look at each of the pairing’s performance during 5-on-5 play, each player’s performance during 5-on-5 play, and how each defenseman fares regarding the generation and suppression of scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

If you’d like to learn more about the advanced analytical terms used in this post, please check out our glossary. Statistics in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

Performance by Pairing

As mentioned in the introduction, Laviolette and the coaching staff have kept the same defensive pairings intact for each game during this eight-game stretch to start the season. While there have largely been good performances by each pairing, there is one pairing that’s marked by some inconsistency, game to game. Let’s take a look at each pairing’s total performance over the last eight games:

Right off the bat, the Carlson – Fehervary pairing struggles with possession metrics. They produce the lowest rate of Corsi shot attempts for over 60 minutes (CF/60), allow the highest rate of Corsi shot attempts against over 60 minutes (CA/60), and allow the highest rate of expected goals against over 60 minutes (xGA/60). Not only that, they also generate the lowest goal scoring rate during 5-on-5 play (GF/60), even with one of the league’s best offensive defensemen in Carlson.

The Orlov – Jensen pairing is conceivably Laviolette’s shut-down pairing (0.51 GA/60), but also generated the highest GF/60 rate out of the three pairs. They’re also allowing the fewest xGA/60 against, even with more 5-on-5 ice time than the other two pairings.

The breakthrough pairing so far this season is the van Riemsdyk – Schultz pairing. They’ve generated a considerably high CF/60 rate, and a stifling 41.26 CA/60 rate. To note, the reason why this pairing’s rates may look excellent is because they’ve been on the ice for the lowest amount of minutes (95:58) compared to the Orlov pairing (118:36) and the Carlson pairing (107:52). That being said, when adjusting for rate, the TvR – Schultz pairing has been extremely trustworthy, although they’ve given up the highest rate of GA/60.

Individual Performance

Let’s take a look at each defenseman’s performance so far [Click to enlarge]:

So far this season, the players with the two highest CF% are TvR (60.10%) and Schultz (57.21%). Part of this is a relatively high offensive zone start rate (63.38% as a pairing), since they’re getting sheltered deployments, thus get more opportunities to generate shot attempts for than they’d allow. Interestingly enough, TvR and Schultz have the lowest on ice save percentage (89.74% and 91.49% respectfully).

The most concerning piece here is Carlson’s performance. He currently has the lowest CF% for Capitals defensemen at 45.50%, has the worst SCF% for Capitals defensemen, and is on the ice for the highest percentage of shots against. The reason why this is considerably concerning because he gets 70% of his starts in the offensive zone, the highest rate for Caps defensemen. This effectively comes down to overall time on ice.

Carlson leads Capitals defensemen in total TOI/GP at 23:10. What’s truly confounding is Laviolette putting Carlson on the penalty kill (1:40 per game played) with Orlov (who’s a better defender) only getting 21 seconds of TOI on the PK per game.

If sheltered zone deployments doesn’t help Carlson’s overall game, then perhaps a reduction in minutes will. Carlson is the oldest regular defenseman on the roster (only Matt Irwin is older). Other than a reduction in minutes, perhaps TvR and Fehervary should switch pairings to narrow down if the issue is truly Carlson or not.

Scoring Chance and High Danger Scoring Chance Suppression

A key note here is that the Orlov – Jensen pairing has yet to allow a high-danger goal against. On top of that, the Capitals have only allowed 60 high-danger chances against during 5-on-5 play so far this season, 11th best in the NHL.

Since Laviolette has become the Capitals’ head coach, the Capitals are the 7th best in the NHL in HDCA/60 with 8.87. In comparison, from 2017 through 2020, the Capitals were third worst in the NHL with 12.3 HDCA/60.

The Capitals defensemen (and forwards for that matter) have been a lot better defensively in play and schematically. So far this season, the Capitals have the third best HDGA/60 figure in the NHL at .63, and have the 16th ranked HDGF/60 rate at 1.26. On top of that, the Capitals are ranked 10th in SCF%.

Of note, the Orlov – Jensen pairing has been excellent in suppressing HDCA. Both of the players in the pairing have the lowest HDCA/60 on the team, and neither of them have been on the ice for a HDGA during five on five play.

Conclusions

Based off of what we’ve seen and what the underlying metrics show, the Orlov – Jensen pairing may very well be the reincarnation of the Orlov and Matt Niskanen shutdown pairing from the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run. They’ve been excellent together and individually. Jensen has improved considerably since Laviolette came to town, and Orlov and Jensen should be rewarded with being the Capitals top pairing.

John Carlson’s performance so far this season is worrying. He’s now 32, seemingly lost a step, but is still skating the most minutes per game for the team’s defensemen. He’s already receiving sheltered deployments, and could certainly use a reduction in ice time to see if his effectiveness goes up again. He still has all the talent in the world, but less ice time on the PK should definitely help his stamina.

Fehervary is still growing at the NHL level. His actual game through the lens of the eye test has been satisfactory. He is playing like and looks like an NHL level defenseman, but is currently struggling in the advanced metrics on a pairing with Carlson. Perhaps Fehervary and Schultz could be a formidable pairing together, and van Riemsdyk could potentially elevate Carlson’s play.

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 at a non-profit in Jacksonville, FL. Justin enjoys geeking out over roster construction and cap management.
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6 Responses to Assessing The Capitals Defensemen Through The First 8 Games Of The Season

  1. Anonymous says:

    Carlson needs to be benched or dropped to third line minutes. But how do you do that to a player who makes so much $$

  2. Jon Sorensen says:

    I would love to see Carlson get fewer minutes, and try splitting from Fehervary to isolate the issue. If it is indeed Carlson, and all signs point to it being so, Capitals management may need to make some thought decisions.

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  6. ri says:

    Good piece! Yes, Carlson is struggling. At least on the PP tonight (Nov 1) I thought he had his best game of the year. He still has the skills to receive difficult passes under pressure and keep the play alive, but the setup itself is predictable: Carlson either passes to Ovechkin or Kuznetsov and occasionally will step in and take a shot. What is noticeably missing without Backstrom and Kuznetsov in tandem is the bump shot: we just don’t have another player with the skill set to make that pass out to the bump man from behind the net.

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