During the second period of Tuesday night’a tilt with the Sabres, Washington Capitals Head Coach Peter Laviolette decided to put the forward lines in a blender and change things up… a lot. Many of the typical lines we’ve seen over the course of the season were taken apart and reconfigured in an effort to further jump-start the Capitals’ performance after a period and a half.
The most intriguing part of these line changes is pondering if this was just a temporary effort to boost the effort on the ice, or if this was on-ice testing of potential line combinations now that Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are inching closer and closer to a return to game action.
SHAKE IT UP
In this post, we’ll take a look at the performances of the forward lines before and after the lines were shaken up. 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 analytics glossary.
Although the Capitals put together a solid second period after digging themselves a hole in the first period in possession metrics and shot attempts, they still trailed on the scoreboard 3-2. It was clear that the coaching staff wanted more from the forward group, so it made sense to try to reconfigure the de-loymente. For context, here are the lines the Caps started the game with:
Capitals lines vs Buffalo:
— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) January 3, 2023
And here are the resultant lines after Laviolette went to the blender in the second period:
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) January 4, 2023
It’s also important to note that the new second line might have started with Marcus Johansson, Dylan Strome, and Aliaksei Protas, but Garnet Hathaway was placed on that line more frequently.
This was likely due to a rather rare bad showing from Protas, who ended up posting a 18.18 Corsi For percentage (CF%), a 20 Fenwick For percentage (FF%), 22.22 Shots For percentage (SF%), and a 10.68 expected goals for percentage (xGF%) and was on the ice for a team high three five-on-five goals against. Protas ended up only skating 8:43 in five-on-five time on ice, and it was clear that Laviolette had seen enough from the young forward.
Here’s how all the forward lines that were deployed in significant enough time on ice performed against Buffalo:
One of the lines that was deconstructed was at the top of the table above: the Milano-Kuznetsov-Mantha line. Although that trio was on the ice for a goal for and none against, they really struggled in possession metrics and were giving up the lion’s share of quality chances against, resulting in a 31.45 xGF%.
The new second line (as mentioned above with Hathaway instead of Protas) turned out relatively solid possession numbers, controlled all of the shots on goal while on the ice, and posted an xGF% of 93.12.
While the Ovechkin-Strome-Sheary initial first line was rather strong, posting solid possession numbers and an xGF% of 70.41, they were missing out on the scoreboard. Laviolette swapped Strome out for Kuznetsov, and that trio hummed for two five-on-five goals and was key in keeping the Capitals in the game against the Sabres.
The initial third line of Johansson-Eller-Oshie actually looked rather strong in possession stats, but suffered similar struggles as the original first line. They were generating shot attempts and controlled the majority of xGF, but were kept off the scoresheet.
The promotion of Dowd to the third line, and moving Milano to the third helped add defensive responsibility and the ability to finish on chances. The new trio of Milano-Dowd-Oshie posted even stronger numbers and potted a goal.
The initial (and typical) fourth line really struggled against Buffalo. They were on the ice for two five-on-five goals against, and were routinely out attempted in shots and were utterly dominated in xGF. They were the only line on the night to give up a five-on-five goal against.
The new fourth line surprisingly came as Mantha-Eller-Hathaway, which is probably the most intriguing change of them all. Most folks penned Mantha as a top six forward on this team, but his offensive production of nine goals and 13 assists through 40 games makes you wonder if the Caps’ front office is happy with him right now.
Although Eller and Mantha have played well together so far this season, their reunion wasn’t as strong as the other reconfigured lines. They only controlled 44.3 xGF%, and were about even in shot attempt metrics.
I mentioned in the introduction that it’s been reported that Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are very close to returning to the lineup. Outside of just spots in the lineup, there’s also salary cap concerns that come into play.
According to CapFriendly, the Capitals have a full roster of 23 players and have $6,639,166 in salary cap space. The only player on the roster that is waivers exempt is Protas, so if the Capitals have to make room, he’s almost certainly going to Hershey. The Capitals will have to make room for both Wilson and Backstrom, so one other forward will have to be moved from the NHL roster.
The Caps could take a chance on sending Nicolas Aube-Kubel through waivers and down to Hershey. If he successfully clears waivers or gets claimed by another team, the Capitals will have $7,228,333 in cap space with Backstrom and Wilson added to the active roster and John Carlson moved to the long term injury list.
The question that comes into play is that later in the season when Carlson returns from the injured list. Since the Capitals are an LTIR team, they won’t accrue cap space by the deadline. The Caps would not be able to activate Carlson without clearing additional cap space. At that point, you’d likely not want to carry eight defensemen. The Caps could send down the trusty Matt Irwin in hopes he wouldn’t get claimed and you could bring him back for the playoffs when the salary cap no longer is enforced.
On the other hand, with Backstrom back in the fold, you now have five centers in Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Strome, Eller, and Dowd. Strome has wing flexibility, so you could potentially shift him to wing. But, with salary cap at a premium, could the Capitals move a more expensive contract at the deadline to ensure they have the cap space to activate Carlson when he’s healthy?
With Eller in the last year of his contract, earning $3.5M, he could get a decent enough return to allow you the flexibility to activate Carlson when he’s healthy and remain cap compliant. On the other hand, Backstrom is working back from a surgery that has unclear and unproven results on long term NHL performance success.
Would the Capitals consider trading Mantha? He’s making $5.7M and has another season remaining at that price point. With the Capitals entering an off-season where 14 players currently on the roster have contracts expiring, that $5.7M could go a long way in keeping players like Sonny Milano or Conor Sheary.
Food for thought.
By Justin Trudel