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Posted at 10:53 AM ET, 01/12/2011

Statistical analysis: What are the Caps' best line combos?

By Neil Greenberg
Statistical analysis

We have all made the argument at one point or another along the lines of "Yeah, but he plays with better/worse linemates than [insert player here]."

One of the benefits of logging the scoring chances every game is that you get to see just how true this is. So when Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau's lineups before the second Florida game had one goal scored -- combined -- during 5-on-5 play, I knew it would be a short-lived experiment. I got to thinking; what should the line combos be? I made the data available here so you can make your own picks. All data is during even-strength play.

The offense begins and ends with Alex Ovechkin, so it seems fitting to make sure that any top line has the Great 8 as an integral part.

Line Games TOI SCF/60 SCA/60 GF/60 GA/60
Backstrom-Knuble-Ovechkin 25 284.9 19.0 13.3 1.9 2.1
Backstrom-Ovechkin-Semin 24 163.0 21.4 14.7 4.4 2.6
Backstrom-Laich-Ovechkin 7 29.9 40.2 6.0 8.0 0.0
Backstrom-Fehr-Ovechkin 8 25.8 30.3 18.6 7.0 0.0
Johansson-Knuble-Ovechkin 6 17.2 17.5 24.5 0.0 0.0
Games = games where the combo appeared, TOI = time on ice, SCF/60 = scoring chances for per 60 minutes of ice time, SCA = scoring chances against, GF = goals for, GA = goals against

It's odd that the worst-performing line has seen the most ice time, presumably hoping that the power trio will somehow find its stride. It has been the Nicklas Backstrom-Eric Fehr-Ovechkin combo, however, that has produced some decent results, converting on 23 percent of its chances and not yielding a goal against during even strength. Could that be the best option for the top line?

If we go with Backstrom-Fehr-Ovechkin as the top line, that leaves Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and perhaps Mike Knuble to anchor the second.

Line Games TOI SCF/60 SCA/60 GF/60 GA/60
Laich-Perreault-Semin 9 59.8 22.1 10.0 6.0 0.0
Johansson-Laich-Semin 6 41.2 17.5 10.2 0.0 1.5
Knuble-Laich-Perreault 4 21.0 22.9 8.6 5.7 0.0
Johansson-Knuble-Laich 4 15.5 23.2 11.6 0.0 0.0

With the trade of Tomas Fleischmann to Colorado, one of the young centers needs to step up --- at least until General Manager George McPhee makes another trade. The chemistry between Laich-Mathieu Perreault-Semin seems almost identical to that of Knuble-Laich-Perreault, the former benefiting from almost twice the ice time, so that combo gets the nod. The benefit here is that Knuble, with the recent injury to Semin, can be paired with Laich and Perreault almost without a loss in production. When Semin is healthy, I question where Knuble fits on this team. Locker-room leader? Sure. On-ice producer? Not this year.

The third-line and fourth-line options seem to give Boudreau the most flexibility, but it is an "all or nothing" proposition. Tough-to-find combos that have both produced and prevented goals and scoring chances.

Line Games TOI SCF/60 SCA/60 GF/60 GA/60
Bradley-Hendricks-Steckel 14 113.1 10.1 12.2 2.1 1.6
Beagle-Hendricks-Steckel 5 34.6 15.6 13.9 0.0 1.7
Bradley-Chimera-Johansson 7 31.6 11.4 24.7 1.9 1.9
Bradley-Chimera-Steckel 3 25.7 11.7 14.0 4.7 7.0
B. Gordon-Hendricks-Steckel 5 21.3 19.8 14.1 0.0 8.5
Bradley-Chimera-B. Gordon 6 19.6 21.4 12.2 3.1 9.2
Bradley-B. Gordon-Hendricks 3 18.3 16.4 9.9 3.3 0.0
Chimera-Johansson-Knuble 4 13.4 31.3 22.4 0.0 4.5
Hendricks-King-Steckel 2 13.4 4.5 4.5 0.0 0.0
Chimera-A. Gordon-Johansson 3 12.7 23.6 18.8 4.7 4.7

Matt Hendricks, Matt Bradley, Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson along with AHL call-ups Jay Beagle and Andrew Gordon give Boudreau a blend of skill and grit, but Chimera is a cause for concern. The linemates Chimera has scored with leave his goals against per 60 minutes at a level that is simply not acceptable. Need scoring in a close game? Put Bradley-Boyd Gordon-Hendricks out there. Want to protect a lead? Bradley-Hendricks-Steckel is probably the right choice.

I can already hear the keyboards clacking with "Yeah, but could these sample sizes be any smaller?" to which I concede, yes - and no. It is true that some of the line combos have been on the ice longer than others, but when Boudreau reverts back to lines with which he is more familiar about 10 minutes into the second period, isn't that also judging on a small sample size? Or is that just how the game of hockey is managed?

Neil Greenberg also writes for Russian Machine Never Breaks. You can follow him on Twitter.

By Neil Greenberg  | January 12, 2011; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  Statistical analysis  
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I can only hope Bruce reads this article. I'm so fed up with the Ovi-Backstrom-Knuble line, but BB keeps returning to it with maddening regularity.

Would love to see Fehr given more of a shot on the top line.

Posted by: chombie13 | January 12, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Um, it appears to me that the Ovi-Backstrom-Laich line is clearly the most effective, if you believe these stats. Am I missing something? Then maybe Neil should test out Fehr on the second line.

The sample sizes are small for some of the combos, but the notion that Knuble has been less effective this year does seem to meet the eyeball test.

Posted by: zmega | January 12, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse


The reason I guess Neil says use the Fehr line is that way you wouldnt move Ovi from the LW.

And for people saying Knuble has been less effective, have you guys not watched him recently. Him and Fehr have basically been the only two truly effective forwards. Early this season he was ineffective but right now he is plenty effective.

Posted by: ThePat | January 12, 2011 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I don't think Knuble is a "first line" winger anymore. We need a legit, vet, leader, scorer, second line center. Wishful thinking, I know. Umberger has been mentioned...he would fit nicely.

Posted by: lylewimbledon | January 12, 2011 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Or how about Mike Fisher?

Posted by: lylewimbledon | January 12, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I vote for Fisher as #1 target for 2C. Even ahead of Richards, who would cost a lot more IMO.

Posted by: zmega | January 12, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Here's how the PP could be fixed:

1) #39 takes the initial draw; Stecks is a beast in the dot, so this cures a problem pointed out by another poster in a previous thread: Possession establishes control and helps maximize our zone time.
2) A cycle of sorts is established that gets #39 off and 19# or #90 on.
3) Defencemen should be at the points...not Ovie.
4) We must always have a crease presence. Doesn't matter who. Just somebody in the opposing goalies' sight-lines.
5) Whomever is on the half-wall assignment should also be moving between the dots.
6) Above all, everyone must MOVE THEIR @#$%&*?+=^ FEET!!!.


1st unit:

--#74 & #52 @ points
--#39-->19 pivot
--#16 or 26 crease
--#8 half-wall

2nd unit:

--#3 & #27 @ points
--#90 or #85 pivot
--#22 or #25 crease
--#21 half-wall

Thoughts, anyone?

Posted by: Rhino40 | January 12, 2011 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Best Line Combos:

Bondra-Oates- Ovie
Miller, Kelly- Ridley- Franschetti



I know that I forgot a few, but that will get you started...

Posted by: SoaringCaps | January 12, 2011 12:02 PM | Report abuse


Where are Scott Stevens, Sergei Ginchar and Steve Konowalchuk?

Posted by: PhilR | January 12, 2011 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Kypreos and Gould?

Posted by: lylewimbledon | January 12, 2011 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Should be "Gonchar", stupid fingers!

Posted by: PhilR | January 12, 2011 12:13 PM | Report abuse

dino ciccarelli? michal pivonka?

Posted by: goldenpack | January 12, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Mike Liut?

Posted by: PhilR | January 12, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Knuble is a "first line" winger anymore

Talk about an understatement. While he's not whiffing on quite as many chances as he did the first 1/3 of the season, it seems like the guy's often a zone behind Backis and especially Ovie.

BB certainly has his favorites, however.

Posted by: Timbo_1 | January 12, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Olaf Kolzig?

Posted by: PhilR | January 12, 2011 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Rhino, are you assuming Semin is traded or injured, because I don't see #28 anywhere in your rotation.

Posted by: mjw4m | January 12, 2011 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Best Caps line ever? HUNTER-BERUBE-SIMON :)

Posted by: vermontcaps | January 12, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

How about this for statiscal analysis (more like rudimentary math):

Caps Goal Scoring:
-126 Goals through 43 games. Pace ~250 for year.
-Last season: 318 goals

we're looking at a 21% decrease in goal production, or nearly 1 fewer per game.

reasons: PP is part of it. maybe the other part is the increased focus on D.

so how about that increased focus on D? let's compare goals against:
-113 GA through 43 games, on pace for ~215.
-233 goals against last season

so we're looking at a 18 goal reduction, or 8% decrease.

Stats aside, yes I think the Caps are more responsible defensively this year (notwithstanding their blown 3 goal lead vs Leafs in 3rd period, among other such incidents through 43 games).

but i don't think the focus on better D has to be this painful. I just think BB is an offensively-gifted, offense-first coach who is overcompensating to instill D, making for an unnatural balance and an unfavourable compromise. If Caps want to play a different style of hockey, how about a different style of coach.

Again... I wouldnt ask my Econ prof to teach me French Lit. They're both professors/professionals, but each with their own specialty.

ps is cstanton still on here? havent seem him since Holidays

Posted by: PSD1 | January 12, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I thought the Ovi-Backstrom-Laich line was the most effective all year in its limited run. So what if Ovi's not on the LW? That line worked great because Ovi was actually burning D on the outside and Laich was fast enough to keep up and crashing the net.

Posted by: c_majors | January 12, 2011 12:31 PM | Report abuse

On the 2C issue, I think matter is moot unless the team starts playing better. If the team remains this inconsistent, a deep run in the playoffs is not foreseeable. In that case, keep the prospects and try again next year, maybe with some off-season moves.

Posted by: zmega | January 12, 2011 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the comments. The challenge with putting Laich on the top line is the opportunity cost of not having him on the 2nd line - esp no data with Fehr as a 2nd liner so you don't know if it will be worse or better. We know it is almost as good as Laich, so I went with it.

It is also the reason I made the data avail this time: to see what other people thought.

I will also be doing forward line combos on the PP and d-pairings on the PK, so stay tuned and let me know if there are other ideas you want to see in the blog.


Posted by: NeilRMNB | January 12, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

You forgot:
John Druce
Larry Murphy (the turkey calls on our defensemen have to stop. All of them have gone on to Hall of Fame careers after they left, ala Murphy, Gonchar and Hatcher--US Hockey Hall of Fame)
OLIE! He's number one
Mike Gartner!!!! That's a crime to leave him off
Bobby Carpenter
Geoff Courtnall
Take Tikkanen off. he blew for us

Posted by: jmurray019 | January 12, 2011 12:43 PM | Report abuse

This is awesome. THANK YOU for this

Posted by: Mike4169 | January 12, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

No Calle-Jo on the Blue line? WTF?

Posted by: Rhino40 | January 12, 2011 1:01 PM | Report abuse

This can't be a "Best Line Combos" thread since Ovie never played with Bondra and Oates. we go the hypothetical route, then these are mine

Best Caps Potential Line Combos:






Posted by: FrankM73 | January 12, 2011 1:21 PM | Report abuse

...meant IF we go the hypothetical route!

Posted by: FrankM73 | January 12, 2011 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I've been muttering this stuff to myself like a lunatic for a while. I thought Fehr looked really good in his limited opportunities on the top line, and I can envision him filling Knuble's role on this team.

That being said, Knuble is a slow starter. His second half numbers are typically better than his first half stats. He might pick it up.

I also just don't undersand where Chimera fits in on this team. The Caps have no shortage of third- and fourth-line wingers, and Chimera judst doesn't seem to fit on a grind line.

Posted by: JohninMpls | January 12, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I think this analysis is somewhat misleading. Scoring chances and scoring arre not just a function of line chemistry. They depend on the defensive response from the opponent.

An effective line might be a surprise line, a situation where Ovie is double-shifted with a defensive pair that is not prepared to deal with him.

Also, the line with Knuble may appear to be less effective simply because the opponent is most prepared for that line, with both tactics and defensive pairings.

You probably need to go with line combinations against specific defensive pairings. To have enough data, you may need to stay within the division so enough matchups are available.

Posted by: mirf59 | January 12, 2011 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I think Neil and Rhino40 are on to something. Trade Semin.

Posted by: McLobo | January 12, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

While I do agree that Knuble may have lost a step over the past year, it seems to me that he's scored goals with a lot more consistency over the past month than a lot of the other guys on the team. I think it would add greater insight if stats for this for the past month or two were included as well. Guys like Semin and Chimera haven't really produced a whole lot recently, but if you factor in the whole year then their early season production is going to boost their stats.

In addition, Knuble's never been a guy who will create his own chances. A lot of his production rides on that of Ovechkin and Backstrom, assuming they are on the same line. Neither of those two have been able to create much lately and get pucks to the net no matter who's on the opposite wing. If those guys get going though I think you would see his production increase as well.

Lastly, Knuble is the kind of guy you want to have on the ice in the playoffs, he's a guy that can wear teams down and get garbage goals, that's the sort of thing that has added value come postseason time. So I think your arguement that he doesn't really have a place on this team outside of locker room leader is a rather drastic one.

Posted by: nhcaps | January 12, 2011 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Similar to JohninMpls, I've been thinking ever since Dec--when I first recall seeing it--that Fehr should get more time on the AO8-NB19 line. Seemed to be good chemistry, seemed productive. But shoot, Neil, I was sort've hoping no one else would catch on until we sprang it on 'em. Now you've done it!

Seriously, thanks for the research and number-crunching.

How much of what we saw was excitement on EF16's part? Would it decline like MP85's as EF16 grew used to it? Is it telling that we haven't seen it since--and if so, what does it tell us, pro/con?

Posted by: aphid69 | January 12, 2011 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Do the Caps have a strictly defensive coach?

Sort of like a defensive co-ordinator?

If not, perhaps GMGM should consider finding one.

Posted by: alecw81 | January 12, 2011 3:29 PM | Report abuse

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