Capitals Blueline: What Pairings Have Been Tried And What Has Been Working Since John Carlson’s Return

Photo: NHL via Getty Images

It’s only been two games since John Carlson returned from injury and the Capitals have (finally) had their full compliment of blueliners in the lineup. While it’s so too soon to conduct any kind of in-depth analysis, the first two games do shed some insight as to the intended structure and use of the newly formed blueline crew going forward.

The following graph plots each and every blueline pairing deployed over the last two games. The graph includes the total time on ice (TOI), offensive zone start percentages and the expected goals for percentages for each pairing deployed at five-on-five. [Click to enlarge].

I must admit that I initially saw Sandin as a better fit with Carlson, just based on their style of play and the strengths and weaknesses of the two defensemen. Both players are optimized in the offensive end, and Sandin has had a rough start in the Capitals defensive zone. Give the two offensive defenseman as many offensive zone starts as possible (top pair).

And while the pairing of Carlson and Sandin has seen the second-most time on ice together, the numbers (so far) say they might be better off with other partners. (Again, it’s just been two games). Regardless, it’s clear Laviolette and the Capitals are looking hard at this potential pairing.

Carlson and Fehervary have done the best on the top pairing, although their offensive zone shift start percentage is less than 50%. More o-zone starts for the pairing, please.

Sandin and Jensen have also worked well in the first two games, all while logging the third -most minutes. It’s clear that the Capitals are also looking hard at this pairing for the future.

But maybe the most impressive pairing in the last two games has been the van Riemsdyk and Alexeyev pairing. They have logged the most time on ice together and have an expected goals for percentage of 80.1% all while getting a majority of their shift starts in the defensive zone. That’s excellent.


The graph presented above is helpful in gaining an understanding of what is being tried by Laviolette and the Capitals coaching staff, but it also sheds some light on other possible pairings that might be showing some promise, but haven’t been deployed for a significant amount of time.

Carlson and Alexeyev have worked well, but with minimal time on ice together. We could see more of this pairing in the final eight games as a part of in-game lineup changes that normally take place. The van Riemsdyk and Sandin pairing has also shown some early promise, but more ice time is needed.


It’s only been two games, and by all means the laboratory pairings should continue for the remaining eight games of the season. Now is not only the time to find out what works (and what doesn’t) but it is also critical for identifying any discernible gaps (needs) that may need to be addressed (player acquisition) in the off-season.

[The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, MoneyPuck and the NoVa Caps Advanced Analytics Model (NCAAM). If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary]

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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21 Responses to Capitals Blueline: What Pairings Have Been Tried And What Has Been Working Since John Carlson’s Return

  1. KimRB says:

    I know we’re still mathematically in the chase for a WC but…..for all intents and porpoises, we’re toast.

    We’re now in 12th place in the lottery. Ottawa can leapfrog us with a win, St. Louis can tie us by winning their games in hand. We need to be in 11th or higher for a chance at Bedard, 12th or better for a chance at consolation prizes Adam Fantilli or Matvei Michkov.


  2. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been saying that since ever ( did not even need a numbers for it since I am huge anti fan of judging performance by numbers) and was just called out …..

    Don’t break what works

    Alex is now in such shape that he can play with everyone from TVR, Jensen to Marty and all good in that pair but with TVR that really works. They are doing very good job and suit themselves in style of play. But as I said there are more opportunities to pair him with.

    JC-MF worked since forever they exactly complement each other. But I believe any of MF and NJ duo can play there if that was about performance ( problem is Jens is way better on right so it stays with Marty) Alex not only because he sometimes looses pucks but he is getting there and is potential partner for next season for JC in case we want MF and NJ back.

    NJ-RS seem like similar duo as one ☝️ if we wanna Rasmus to work than give him a D man ! Strong and responsible = you can choose from 3! What makes possibility of clearly defensive pair I have mentioned impossible!

    Everything else is forced wannabe!

    We lack one more good and 1-st pair ready D man or two way player like Orlov was ( which can come out of one youngsters, but not yet they are too young).

    Alex can be that missing D-man soon thanks god. Than we can get one shut down pair made from any combination of AA-NJ- MF while third goes to first to John. Untill that happens and Alex is not fully ready ( just needs more experience he could already have had, if we have not played Irwin over him). But Even than I am bit uncomfortable with Sandin -TVR. So best possibility for year to come is current state with this roster.

    I would just add in Ice time for AA happily over Sandin.
    I see nothing special about him except ability to score.
    He is great player just not Dman = something like Karlsson. And as crazy as it may seem , We have nothing to loose this year either way, what about putting Sandin up there as forward and if works look for additional Dman?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I like Sandin with Carlson as well. Both are defensively lacking, but have high offensive upside.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I still think we need to add a defensive defenseman

  5. Anonymous says:

    Bring Gus back

    • Anonymous says:

      How that solves need a good Defensive D-man Situation by adding Third Carlson\ Sandin like player ?

      They are of course needed and I am first to defend John anytime he is critisized, but must be paired right.

      Keeping Gus over getting Sandin may have been solution. We have Rasmus now, so no additional defenseman like that.

  6. Dave says:

    Jon –
    I realize the data sets involved here are really small (just two games) but do you have any sense of why Carlson/Sandin, two offensive players with 60% O-zone starts, would only get an expected goals for of 35% while Carlson/Fehervary, with only 33% O-zone starts would get an xGF of 53%?

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Very good question, Dave. As you mentioned, it’s just two games (but we will track each of the remaining games to get the best sense of things we can)

      The underwhelming is likely a combination of opposing players on the ice for their pairing, and the lack of familiarity between Sandin and Carlson. Probably a mix of several other factors as well.

      That’s what we will look at next – strength of opposition, etc.

      Good question Dave.

      • Anonymous says:

        It can also have something to do with what the forwards are doing. Dowd is one of our best face off guys but he predominately takes d-zone draws. Often if you don’t get possession in the o-zone you end up spending a lot of time defending.

        Watching Sandin, he likes to jump into the play which I think is good in general but obviously comes with more risk. He’ll get better at figuring out when to push and when to sit back.
        Plus Carly and Marty have played together quite a bit, Sandin hasn’t even got 20 minutes yet.

        • Dave says:

          This is an interesting point. The overall O-zone % statistic doesn’t differentiate between O-zone starts with a face-off win and those with a face-off loss, even those these would seem to be quite dissimilar situations, calling for different skill sets and presumably leading to very different expected results. I haven’t seen a more refined breakdown of these categories on, say Natural Stat Trick, but it could be really useful.

  7. GRin430 says:

    To me, the most important part of this stretch for the Caps is getting these guys enough time together to get a real sense of what they have for next year. If they stay healthy for the rest of the year, and the kids show well, it puts less pressure on GMBM to spend money or draft capital on another defenseman. Let Iorio and/or Johansen, or a vet on a minimum contract, rotate as cheap 7th/8th D. Spend those scarce cap $ on a top-6 forward.

    If the kids start really falling off over the next couple of weeks, then the Caps will have to look outside of the organization for defensive help, and that will keep them from improving a forward group that is severely lacking in finishers. In that case, I fear that the steady decline we’ve seen over the past few years will continue.

    So far I like what I’ve seen from the kids, aside from Sandin’s defensive issues (some of those goals against are not his fault, but enough are to be worrisome). Marty is a proven NHL defenseman in my eyes, and a likely stud/top-pair guy (he has all the tools and he’s 23). Alexeyev has played at an NHL level for several games now. If that continues, the Caps should be pretty well set for next year on D.

  8. dwgie26 says:

    I like the pairings that popped out. Tarik says they will likely add another dee. I don’t think we should. Lately it looks like AA can hold down the 3 LD spot.

    Health is a bit of concern but LuJo is on a one-way contract next year and he can be 7th dee. Iorio can be a free call-up as 8th dee. And I’d like to see Gabe Carlsson resigned on two-way contract to be the dee leader in Hershey but also can be a call-up to Washington. maybe McIlrath on an AHL contract as his NHL days are over. And maybe there is a younger (24-26 year old tweener we can sign with intent to be in Hersey).

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      I don’t see LuJu as a full time NHLer. Injuries aside, he has played 250 AHL games and still doesn’t look like he can make the jump. He turns 26 this fall.

      Iorio is at least another year away. He’s made large development strides this season, but still has a ways to go.

      • dwgie26 says:

        I’d agree with Iorio not being ready for a year or two for full time duty, but having him pegged as 8th dee (first up on right side) or 9th with Carlsson. And not expecting LuJo to be a full-timer, but a 7th dee. And again, he is on a one-way contract.

        But here is the real issue. If we sign another dee then Alexyev will almost surely sit. You would have to be signing someone who would be fine with being 7th dee. Kinda like TVR three years ago or Irwin. But the reality is they will play over Alexyev.

        • Jon Sorensen says:

          I agree with all your points on Alexeyev. From your first comment, I think he is making good strides. We are going to do an analysis on him at end of season, but as you can see in post above, there are a few very encouraging signs.If he and TvR are ready to lock down a pairing, I agree with you, no need to go get another blueliner.

          I also agree about the risk of sitting him, if he is 100% ready to start full time in the fall. He might be ready. Maybe not fully. If he needs a little more time than 7D isn’t too bad. I see him at worst 7th D come September.

          • GRin430 says:

            Some of this will depend on who the coach is. If it’s Laviolette, 7th D would be a major problem for Alexeyev. He needs to play. Here’s hoping he makes a strong enough case to be playing for the Caps for the next several years, preferably under a new coaching staff, but playing in any case.

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