Blueline Progress Report: How Is The Capitals Defense Performing After A Strong Start To The Season?

Photo: Justin Tiang/The Canadian Press via AP

Back in October, we dove into the statistical performances of the Capitals’ blue line through the first eight games of the season, where the Washington Capitals started 5-0-3. So, how have things gone on the backend since then?

The Capitals entered the month of December with a record of 14-4-5, among the top teams in the NHL, mainly driven by a Hart Trophy-worthy season performance by Alex Ovechkin and solid performances from the blue line.

Today, the Capitals sit at 26-14-9. Since the month of December started, the Capitals are 12-10-4, which is hardly up to the standard we’ve come to expect from this team. After leading the Metropolitan Division in the fall, the Capitals now sit fourth in the division, but safely holding down a wild card playoff position.

In this post, we’ll be doing some comparisons to the rates through sixty minutes of play that the defensive pairings posted in the first eight games of the season versus the season long numbers.

[If you’d like to learn more about the analytical terms used in this post, please check out our analytics glossary. Statistics referenced in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.]

Corsi Shot Attempts

I regularly preach in my analyses that attempting shots is rarely a bad thing while in the offensive zone. It’s also relatively clear that if you want to be successful, defensively, you need to prevent the opposing team from attempting an excess of shots in your defensive zone.

Let’s take a look at the shot rates per sixty minutes in which each regular defensive pairing is generating and allowing Corsi shot attempts:

First up is Corsi For. In order to normalize the sample sizes for ice time, we look at the rates per sixty minutes instead of the raw amount of shot attempts generated or allowed. In terms of generating shots, the Martin Fehervary and John Carlson pairing has made real, quantifiable strides in generating a higher rate of shot attempts. The Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen pairing has had a rather slight drop off, and the Trevor van Riemsdyk and Justin Schultz pairing has had a bit of a steeper drop.

What’s the reason for these changes? There’s a lot of context to add to these advanced statistics; it could be the quality of teammates on the ice, as well as the quality of competition they’re facing. It could be deployments.

Offensive Zone Starts

For the Fehervary-Carlson pairing, a lot of it is deployments. Carlson gets 63.68% of his zone starts in the offensive zone, where Fehervary gets 59.07%. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s clear that Peter Laviolette considers the Orlov-Jensen pairing his shutdown pair. Orlov gets 37.29% of his zone starts in the offensive zone, and Jensen gets 34.91%. The interesting piece here is that Justin Schultz gets the second highest offensive zone start percentage on the team in 62.36%, and van Riemsdyk gets 55.56%.

Zone start percentages aren’t a perfect measure of effects on shot attempt generation, but it logically makes sense: if you’re starting more often in the offensive zone, then you’re more likely to have shot attempts for. If you’re starting more in your own end, you’re more likely to get shot attempts against.

Shot Attempts Against

Now that we’re talking about shot attempts against:

This is where it gets concerning for the van Riemsdyk-Schultz pairing. They were very effective in the first eight games of the season, and that doesn’t appear to be the case any longer. They are allowing a much higher rate of shot attempts against now than they were through the first eight games of the season. Both the Fehervary-Carlson and Orlov-Jensen pairings are still performing at nearly the same rate as they were during the first eight games of the season.

What’s to blame here? There’s been a lot of disruption due to injuries, but it could just be a regression to the mean here. Allowing only 41.26 CA/60 in the first eight games was just not a sustainable pace. If that pace was extrapolated for the entire season, they’d be the second best pairing in the NHL at suppressing Corsi shot attempts against. To be quite honest, I don’t think that’s something you can expect of this pairing.

Goals For Per 60

Here’s the most important statistic, since it most tangibly affects the result of every game. First up, let’s take a look at goals for per sixty minutes:

I’d just like to point out that the pairing that actually improved in CF/60 from the first eight games of the season to now has also improved in goal scoring. More shot attempts has to have at least some correlation to more goals scored, just due to volume.

Obviously, you’ll have those rare games where goaltenders stand on their heads for 60 minutes and steal a game, but that’s the exception to the rule. Both the Orlov-Jensen and van Riemsdyk-Schultz pairings had a drop in CF/60 rates, and then suffered a subsequent drop in GF/60 rates.

The zone deployment, roles, and responsibilities of each of these pairings also has an effect here. Any pairing with John Carlson on it is going to be de facto the offensively focused pairing. Orlov and Jensen, as previously mentioned, are the shutdown pairing. Schultz and van Riemsdyk are somewhere in between.

Since Orlov and Jensen are the shutdown guys, it’s more likely they’re going to be on the ice with the checking forwards, especially at home where you get the last change to make sure your best defensive players are matched up against the opponent’s best offensive players.

Goals Against Per 60

Here’s goals against per 60:

For the Fehervary-Carlson pairing, I wouldn’t put this as a complete breakdown in play. Yes, John Carlson isn’t the most effective shutdown defenseman in the league. That’s not really his skillset at this point in his career. It seems more like another regression to the mean. 1.11 GA/60 is extremely low for that pairing. Through the first 8 games, they had an expected goals against rate of 2.41. That’s both luck and timely goaltending.

Orlov and Jensen are just giving up more chances, resulting in more GA/60, but they’re still the first overall pairing in GA/60 in the NHL. 0.51 GA/60 was just an absurd rate that no one can keep up, especially without elite goaltending.

Van Riemsdyk and Schultz’s GA/60 is so close to expected goals against that I’ll hop into that in the next section.

Expected Goals For and Against

Here’s how each pairing performed in expected goals for per sixty minutes:

I’ll harp on this again for the Fehervary-Carlson pairing: more shot attempts leads to more shots on goal. More shots on goal lead to the possibility of more goals and more rebound chances (which are categorized as high-danger chances). That pairing is generating more shot attempts and getting more offensive zone deployments.

The Orlov-Jensen pairing should get some extra commendation here: they’re generating a higher rate of expected goals for while playing an extremely defensively focused role.

And then there’s the van Riemsdyk-Schultz pairing, which is just floating out there in the inexplicable ether, where they’re generating less expected goals for than they were earlier this season, even though they’re getting a solid amount of offensive zone deployments. For pairings that have skated over 300 minutes together, they rank 41st in the NHL. That’s not exactly shabby for your third pairing.

Here’s xGA:

This is one of those charts where you don’t want to see the rate in blue to be higher than the rate in the red. The most interesting part is that the Van Riemsdyk-Schultz pairing is 9th in the NHL in pairings that have skated over 300 minutes together. Hockey can just not make sense sometimes.

The good part here is that each of the pairings are allowing fewer actual goals against per sixty than expected. It just so happens that the van Riemsdyk-Schultz pairing is allowing 2.0 GA/60, with an 2.04 xGA/60. So, they’re allowing nearly as many goals as expected.


When the lineup is healthy and these pairings can stick together, they are largely successful within the confines of their roles. Something to keep an eye on is shot attempt generation by the Fehervary-Carlson pairing. The drastic improvement throughout the course of the season has made that pairing so much more effective on offense, which is the role we should expect out of those two.

Orlov and Jensen can keep on keepin’ on. They’re the Capitals’ best pairing, and a true shutdown duo. Jensen has really ascended this season as a great complimentary piece for Orlov, who hasn’t had a cohesive partnership on defense consistently since the 2018 Cup run with Matt Niskanen.

The van Riemsdyk-Schultz pairing is performing essentially as expected when taking their statistics into account. Sure, you’d like them to be better offensively or defensively, but very few teams can count on a third pairing to be real difference makers.

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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