Over the summer the Washington Capitals signed Erik Gustafsson to a one-year deal worth $800k. The signing was to serve as an option on the left side of the defense, likely on the third pairing.
With Justin Schultz’s departure in free agency to the Seattle Kraken, the Capitals saw a need for an offensively focused defenseman to fill the role on the point on the second unit of the power play.
Then came the cavalcade of injuries that hit the Capitals. On top of losing John Carlson for a brief stretch, the Capitals were without the services of Dmitry Orlov. Gustafsson was elevated in the lineup and also served on the top unit of the power play. Currently, Gustafsson is getting top pairing responsibilities with John Carlson.
In this post, we’ll take a look at how Gustafsson is performing so far this season. The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and Hockey Reference. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
First up, let’s take a look at how Gustafsson has fared in terms of his player value in Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and in Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM). Here’s how Gustafsson fared compared to his defensive counterparts on the Capitals: [Click to enlarge]
Gustafsson squeaks ahead of John Carlson for last on the Capitals’ defensive corps in terms of GAR. Interestingly enough, for an offensively focused defenseman, his offensive GAR value is what’s dragging down his overall value as a player in comparison to a replacement level player. The most interesting piece here is that the two so-called offensive defensemen are struggling the most at generating offensive value.
Now, let’s take a look at Gustafsson’s RAPM, which compares his performance in relation to the rest of the league with replacement level performance falling at the zero axis:
Where Gustafsson struggles here is in goals for per sixty minutes (GF/60), rather convincingly below replacement level. The key with this statistic is that it’s really a measure of team success while he’s on the ice.
It’s no secret that the Capitals as a whole have struggled this season, so it’s not necessarily a surprise that Gustafsson is struggling jere as well. The promising piece is that expected goals for per sixty (xGF/60) is tracking considerably better, which points at a turnaround in GF/60.
Gustafsson performs well in the possession game (CF/60 and CA/60) and performs slightly above replacement level in terms of expected goals against per sixty (xGA/60). Gustafsson, as we should expect from a player with his skillset, performs rather well on the power play.
I mentioned that GF/60 can reflect more on team performance with individual players having an impact on that metric. Here’s what the Capitals’ team RAPM looks like so far this season in comparison:
The Capitals struggle to score goals in relation to the league and have similar struggles in xGF/60. That’s not super promising for a turnaround through regressing to the mean, but for a team who has had its fair share of injury induced absences, it’s not necessarily surprising.
Gustafsson performs well individually on a Capitals’ power play that is performing at a below-average level in comparison to the rest of the league. Here’s Gustafsson’s player card from Evolving Hockey:
This solidifies what we’ve mentioned so far in this post. In relation to the league, he falls in a similar place as he does in terms of value on the Capitals’ defensive corps.
Although Gustafsson looks solid on the power play, in relation to the rest of the league, he still falls below replacement level. That’s not necessarily an indictment of his performance so far, but more that the Capitals’ power play has been powerless.
I mentioned earlier that Gustafsson performs well in the possession aspect of the game, and that’s historically been true for him as well. Here’s what his last three seasons of work looks like in that area:
In terms of Corsi For percentage (CF%) and Fenwick For percentage (FF%), Gustafsson has had a strong showing this season in Washington. It’s not rare to see a defenseman to have a lower FF% than CF% since CF% measures all shot attempts while FF% excludes blocked shot attempts.
Considering the majority of Gustafsson’s shot attempts are going to come from the point, it’s more likely that a shot attempt will be blocked than in the case of a forward making a shot attempt.
What’s concerning here is that Gustafsson’s xGF% trails so far ahead of his GF% this season. That means the Capitals aren’t converting at a high enough rate when Gustafsson is on the ice, which is doubly concerning since he’s getting a high volume of offensive zone starts (75.86%) and he’s paired up with another offensively focused defenseman in Carlson.
On top of that, it’s even more likely for Gustafsson and Carlson to be deployed with the Capitals’ best offensive lines in the offensive zone. There has to be some closing of the gap between GF% and xGF% as the season progresses, especially as high-caliber players return to the lineup up front.
Gustafsson is performing well in some key areas, but he also has room to improve. Based on player value, it’s pretty clear that he probably shouldn’t be paired with John Carlson any longer.
Additionally, they both have rather similar skill sets, which results in the two other pairings being more defensively focused and the offensive talent on the blue line being too concentrated on one pairing.
I’d expect to see Gustafsson’s player value start to come up as the Capitals get healthier and hopefully see performance improve across the board. The bright side of the Capitals continuing to struggle is that all but John Carlson are on expiring contracts and could be moved at the deadline to help bolster the Caps’ draft capital and prospect pipeline.
By Justin Trudel