The Tuesday Night Shakeup: The Stats and Rationale Behind The Line Changes, And What It Could Mean For The Capitals’ Roster Going Forward

Screen cap: @Capitals

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.


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.

Forward lines

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:

And here are the resultant lines after Laviolette went to the blender in the second period:

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.

Line Performance

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.

Roster Management

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

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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10 Responses to The Tuesday Night Shakeup: The Stats and Rationale Behind The Line Changes, And What It Could Mean For The Capitals’ Roster Going Forward

  1. Barry Landew says:

    Mantha is a skilled player and good skater who, despite his size, plays a very soft game with a very apathetic style. If I had to give up Mantha in order to keep Milano and Sheary, then I (and every other serious Caps fan in my view) would gladly do so. We need to win more puck battles, pick up the intensity of our game, control the tempo, get better O-zone rushes, move around more, and create more high danger scoring opportunities. This challenge falls on more than just our star players…it’s a shared responsibility (sadly, even some of our frequent scratches, like 91, bring that kind of game when they’re on the ice which is not very often).

    • hockeydruid says:

      Totally agree on Mantha. And Eller is starting to show his age also. The problem that this team is facing is one that management created; holding onto some players to long. They did this just to try to win a 2nd Cup and that has not worked out to well. They overpaid some players and in order to keep some of these UFA or RFA after thsi season several things have to happen: 10 trade mantha as he is fast but soft and very inconsistent; 2) Backy needs to retire and his salary is 11.5% of the salary cap;3) there is a need to sign Orlov but only to a 4 year deal; 4) as for Kuzy he is brilliant at times and then he disappears for lengths of time that prevent him from being one of the best centers in the game so trade him and his salary is 9.5% of the salary cap; 5) trade or cut or buy out Oshie, I understand that many will get upset but as his age and injury history he is not worth the salary or 7% of the Cap space when this team needs to get younger; 6) resign TVR, Gustafsson, Fehervary, Alexeyev; 7) with Carlson and Orlov and the before mentioned 4 D-men one of the youngsters can be the 7th D next season; 8) resign Strom, Sheary, Milano, Brown and Shepard; 9) that means that the caps clear 47% of their cap and then can afford to resign players and maybe even entice a UFA or 2 to come unless CMM or Lapierre can grab the 2nd and 3rd line canter spots.

  2. hockeydruid says:

    Im sorry but as far as constantly changing lines that tells me the the HC is trying to out think himself. As in any sport there are ebbs and flows in a season or even in a game. When the lines are constantly changing mistakes are make, passes are not on the stick and players are not where they should be as they are used to other line mates. I really dont care what stats show unless they are negative stats over several games. I think constantly changing lines does a great disservice just so the HC can be seen as “Doing something”. Totally agree that Protas will be sent down and from looking at this team and the way it is generally playing over the last month, the LESS tinkering that the HC does the better off it will be. As much as I like Backy as a player I seriously doubt if he is going to ever be able to skate and play like he did before the surgery. Like you said ” from a surgery that has unclear and unproven results on long term NHL performance success”; and personally I would like to see him retire and say enough is enough and save his hip and unnecessary pain and most of all unnecessary trades or demotions just to bring back a player who is on, no pun intended, last leg and needs to retire for the health of his hip and to have a future where there is little or no pain to be able to do things with his family. Would Irwin and/or Aube-Kubel be taken if the Caps tried to pass them through waivers….maybe or maybe not; but why take that chance especially if the past players who have has this surgery are any indication of how Backy will perform. Backy underwent hip resurfacing surgery, a type of artificial joint replacement designed for younger, more active patients who have worn down the cartilage surface but still have good overall bone quality. Only two active NHL players before have had their hips resurfaced. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski underwent 10 months of rehabilitation after his 2013 procedure, then played in 36 games before getting bought out and subsequently retiring; forward Ryan Kesler never played again after his hip resurfacing in 2019. Form where I sit its not worth 1)disrupting the team chemistry to bring him back, 2) its not worth trading a player if as history of this surgery shows players generally do not last long, 3) its not worth possibly losing a young prospect to bring back a player just because he has played well in the past. Besides typical recovery for this type of surgery is 10 month and Backy is only 6 months removed from surgery. I fail to see the A) need to rush him back as at present all centers on this team are either passed his point totals for last year or are real close and B) fail to see where a player who has not played in a game all year will be better than anyone we have on the ice now!

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Druid, while I agree with your general philosophy regarding constant line changes, I do see some value in in-game adjustments. That doesn’t always work but on Tuesday you can see where the blender lines occurred, and the tremendous turnaround for the Caps in the shot attempts (and goals):

      • horn73 says:

        I wouldn’t describe Lavvy as a regular line changer. The Caps lines over the years are pretty much known but any Cap fan.

        I love your input Druid, but your thoughts on ruing the roster is insane.

        Addressing Your thoughts in order:

        First, no team is giving much for most of the players you want to shed and secondly still produce at a high level.

        1 – Agree on Mantha, but won’t get much

        2 – As much as 19 concerns me, he contributed at .6 points per game last season on one skate…I think he takes 3c and if healthy he’ll keep it. If not and he does retire, sign Bo Horvat

        3 – I think there is a better shot of me being on blue line for Caps than Orlov agreeing to 4-year deal. He’ll have many offers better/longer than that. But I do think he’d prefer to stay with Ovi buta long conversa won’t agree to 4 years to do so.

        4- I don’t completely disagree on Kuzy, but between Ovi relationship and pretty good numbers, I think he stays. But I am a goal scorer fan more so than assist guys. Trade him and sign Horvat…

        5 – Get rid of Oshi….you’ve lost your mind., but mainly due to lack of return, but 40% because he is the glue to the chemistry on the team. Oh yeah, and nobody will give much for him and secondly, if you just eat it by trading him and a #2 to unload him, you are getting rid of a still productive player. It’s not about us that disagree with you being upset…it is about it cost too much to get rid of him if we did agree with your premise which I don’t.

        6 – agree. Not sure that they sign all 4, but I like all 4. Will depend on Jensen and Orlov decisions. Some very good free agent defensemen available this offseason.

        7 – Similar to 6. Will depend on where GM decides to spend his big allocation for D on how many he retains. I think TVR gets a nice raise. Hopefully he stays with us. I was hoping they’d re sign him by now. GM does a good job of not falling in love because they are “ours”. Few thought he’d let both goalies go after last season, but he had a strong plan and thought he could get better goalies and accomplish the same. As much as I like what our defense has done, GM might be thinking, yeah, I’d like to keep a TVR or Gusty, but he may think he can get more value by finding the next Gusty/ TVR (righthander – more difficult to replace).

        8 – Agree in general. Biggest prioroty of them for me is Strome. But so much depends on what they do. If they keep Kuzy and 19, they Strome is all they can afford. If Backy does retire or Kuzy is traded, they they need to get legit 1 (Horvat) and ideally still re sign Strome. Brown likely to expensive and pretty risky coming off injury (when…???). Shearly may be pricing himself out, but hope they can afford. I like 15, but can’t keep everyone that scores under 15/20 goals.

        Second ramble / post….

        why risk Irwin or Kubel to waivers?? Well, let’s start with the simple answer, because you can’t force Backy to retire even if GM wanted to which I doubt he does. He’d probably love to be able to re structure his contract though. Second reason, you can’t be too afraid to dangle 4th lines and 3rd pair defensemen…As much as I like both, there is a reason they were both able to be “claimed”, which is the same reason you make them available again if needed. How disrespectful you are to Nicholas Backstrom is astounding.

        As an aside, you mentioned Eller… —-what would you give us if you were GM of a team looking for a center for Eller…a 3rd, 4th?? Maybe…for a 2 month rental…. please

        Lastly, you state; fail to see where a player who has not played in a game all year will be better than anyone we have on the ice now! So many answers to this stupid statement, but I will just drop the mic with 43, Tom Wilson.

        Druid, very unimpressive take brotha. Be grateful that most won’t take the time to call you out for such garbage as they don’t have the time.

        I take the other perspective…it is important to let folks know when they are wrong, especially when as wrong as you are.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Got to trade Eller for future assets. His position is replaceable with Protas or CMC. Or Backstrom if he truly makes it back. Can’t let him walk for nothing. Doubt Mantha is tradeable but would move him if someone will take him no matter the return. Need his cap space for D. Tough calls with other FAs but should move on where we can to get future assets including Sheary, Mojo, Milano and TVR unless they can be extended before deadline. Need to play AA now.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      It’s gonna be very interesting when Backstrom returns. I can only see him playing at 3C to start. I don’t see any other centers but Eller sitting. The Caps will see how NB19 does and then have to make a call on Eller.

      • Mark Eiben says:

        This is a great post and a great debate. I don’t hate personally when coach mixes lines up. Maybe in long seasons players need a little different experience to keep them engaged? I know they are paid pros but still not bad to mix it up once in a while. I am really intrigued to see how Bmac handles this whole roster juggling. I would not hate a Mantha trade as long as a good return would come back. Not a 1st or a top 4 d man, but something fair. Caps could use that cap room too though.

        • hockeydruid says:

          For trade bait there is Eller and Mantha and probably several others. What I would like to see in return is picks and lots of them. With all the UFA and RFA we have this summer we need lots of cap room to resign some, maybe go after a big RFA to fill a slot or 2 and the rest of the slots to be filled with guys from Hershey.

  4. Anonymous says:

    NAK is the hard one for me. He’s playing really well. I would think Protas is sent to Hershey and Snively is (unfortunately) waived in hope of getting him to Hershey.

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