Defining Lines: Evaluating The Capitals Forward Lines’ Performances After 34 Games

Although the Capitals have dealt with a bevy of injuries to their roster throughout the first part of the season, the forward line combinations have remained relatively constant for a few weeks now. Outside of TJ Oshie entering and exiting the lineup due to injuries he’s suffered in games, we’ve seen a fairly steady dose of those relatively similar forward lines.

In this post we’re going to take a look at the performance of the top four forward line combinations so far this season based off of ice time as a unit together. We’re also going to take a gander at how each winger performs with each center to determine if Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s line combinations are maximizing on-ice performance as much as possible.

[The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.]

Current Forward Line Performance

As mentioned earlier, we’ve seen some constants develop when it comes to forward line usage over the past couple of months. Here’s a look at how the top four line combinations deployed this season have fared: [Click to enlarge]

Overall, this is a great sign for the Capitals and their rise into the pack that’s competing for a playoff spot in the crowded Eastern Conference. Each line above incorporates all of the typical forwards we’d see in a given night, and all four of these lines are above the 50% watermark in expected goals for percentage (xGF%). Many of the advanced stats for the Capitals have been trending upwards for about a month, so it’s not a surprise to see all four lines posting solid numbers in terms of xGF%.

Outside of the Sonny Milano, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and TJ Oshie line, all three are also above the 50% watermark in the possession stats consisting of Corsi For percentage (CF%), Fenwick For percentage (FF%), and Shots For percentage (SF%). It’s surprising to see an offensively talented trio like Milano, Kuznetsov, and Oshie struggle mightily in shot generation metrics.

In comparison, the Milano-Kuznetsov-Oshie line has 48 fewer Corsi shot attempts than the Johansson-Eller-Mantha line in only three minutes and change in fewer ice time. In order for the Milano-Kuznetsov-Oshie line to start performing at the 50.14 xGF% we’re seeing, they need to start generating more shot attempts.

The top line of Ovechkin-Strome-Sheary has had solid results so far this season, although their actual goals for percentage (GF%) trails a bit behind their xGF%. That means that the top line is leaving some production on the table, but can also mean that they’re bound for some production improvement as well.

The fourth line of Protas-Dowd-Hathaway is posting elite numbers. Protas has been moved around in the lineup quite a bit this season, but that trio has done very well when together. When the roster gets healthier, we can likely expect these three to be back together as one of the best fourth lines in hockey.

Winger Performance with Dylan Strome

Now, let’s take a look at how each winger (who skated more than a few shifts together) fared with Strome as their center:

As we showed above, the top line of Ovechkin-Strome-Sheary fared really well together, so it’s not very surprising to see that those two had the highest xGF% with Strome so far this season.

As far as optimizing the top line goes, that trio is in a good spot. In terms of line combination flexibility, we could see Anthony Mantha or Marcus Johansson fare well alongside Strome. Mantha and Johansson are the only two other wingers outside of Ovechkin and Sheary on the squad currently that have above a 50 xGF% with Strome this season.

Winger Performance with Evgeny Kuznetsov

Next up, let’s see how forwards fared when paired with Kuznetsov:

The two top performers in xGF% with Kuznetsov are Mantha and Protas. That would be an interesting trio, with big bodies in Mantha and Protas able to give Kuznetsov some space on the ice to make plays.

Ovechkin and Sheary have also performed rather well in xGF% with Kuznetsov as their center. When Protas and Kuznetsov are together on the ice, they put up some gaudy possession numbers, with both CF% and FF% above 60%. That’ll certainly do.

Winger Performance with Lars Eller

Let’s get into the third line with Lars Eller:

Line combinations with Eller as the center on the third line are a bit more flexible here with six wingers rating in above a 50 xGF%. Milano’s stats with Eller are gaudy, but we’re looking at a relatively low sample size of 19:48 in TOI together.

Having a combination on the third line of Milano, Eller, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel could be formidable in terms of xGF% and the mix of skill sets there that could help Milano out in the defensive zone.

Winger Performance with Nic Dowd

Let’s see how wingers have fared with Nic Dowd as their center:

Dowd has been really solid this season in terms of production and advanced statistics performance. With Oshie out injured, you could look at a fourth line of Johansson, Dowd, and Hathaway, and have a solid fourth line that has set the tone for the Capitals all season long.

Optimizing the Line Combinations

We’ve seen how each winger has fared with each center on the roster, so let’s take a look at one of the possible lineups for forwards with TJ Oshie out of the lineup due to injury:

Alex Ovechkin – Dylan Strome – Conor Sheary

Anthony Mantha – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Aliaksei Protas

Sonny Milano – Lars Eller – Nicolas Aube-Kubel

Marcus Johansson – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway

This forward lineup blends offensive production and defensive responsibility, with a spark of both on the fourth line. We’ve seen solid production out of the top trio, and with the differential in GF% vs xGF%, we could even see some improvement there as well. The second line gives Mantha more offensive minutes to jump-start his scoring production with Kuznetsov setting him up, with Protas as the defensively focused and puck-possession driver on that line.

The third line of Milano, Eller, and Aube-Kubel gives the third line defensive responsibility with some scoring touch with Milano on the wing. It could be a good way to insulate Milano defensively while also giving Eller a scoring option so they’re not solely a checking line.

I’m really a fan of this fourth line construction. Johansson is decent enough defensively, but with the way Dowd has been playing this season, giving him another option on the wing that can be productive offensively can really drive up this line’s value. It’s already one of the top end fourth lines in the league, but giving them the tools to score more goals will make it a juggernaut.

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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2 Responses to Defining Lines: Evaluating The Capitals Forward Lines’ Performances After 34 Games

  1. Jon Sorensen says:

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent analysis. We need to forward this to the folks in Ballston.

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