DSP on Top Line Cost Caps a Playoff Game

Posted May 4, 2018

Playoff hockey, as every cliché-riddled columnist has explained ad nauseam, is decided by inches. The smallest of details. The slightest of adjustments.

Thus, it is rare that there’s one poor decision that everyone can point to as a satisfying explanation for a loss. As Capitals forward Joel Ward once explained: hockey is rife with random variables and trying to pin down a single cause can be a recipe for a simplistic disaster.

That caveat aside, tell me if something in this line deployment chart from Corsica doesn’t, well, stand out just a bit:

(Quick note: blue is advantage home team, and the darker the blue, the bigger advantage for the home team.) You’ll notice, amidst the sea of slightly tinted squares, six bright blue dots. These dots, of course, are the Capitals top line (with Devante Smith-Pelly and minus Tom Wilson), which simply got crushed by the Penguins.

In fact, in a game where the statistics were tilted towards the Penguins, the newly minted first line Devante Smith-Pelly experiment represented the entire Penguins advantage…and then some.

On Ice Corsi +/- Shots  +/- Scoring Chances +/- High Danger +/- Goals +/-
Total (5v5) -3 -3 -7 -7 -1
W/ DSP -15 -8 -10 -7 -1


Admittedly, there are obvious limits to this approach. Top line DSP drew a large amount of time with Sidney Crosby, who will make anyone look bad statistically. End of story, this was just another instance of Crosby doing Crosby things.

Yet, this isn’t a satisfying answer either, because the Capitals had done an OK job on Crosby this series…with the glaring exception of Game 4:

It may be easy to blame other Capitals on that line, such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, for poor play. Yet, if you look at Kuznetsov’s performance by game in this series, this game sure looks like the outlier:

At this point, it seems pretty clear that DSP was the problem with the first line. However, let me be clear here: this is NOT DSP’s fault. DSP cannot control how he’s been used, and he’s a perfectly serviceable fourth line player.

Instead, it seems clear that the bigger problem here was Barry Trotz placing a clearly overmatched player in an impossible situation. The maddening thing is that a quick look at DSP’s regular season performance with Kuznetsov & Ovechkin should’ve clued in Trotz that this wasn’t likely to be successful:

Perhaps it would be one thing if Trotz had been willing to realize that this was a failed experiment and ratchet DSP’s ice time down or, at minimum, take him away from the first line. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen either. As we can see from hockeystats.ca, DSP’s ice time didn’t decline in the third period, and he continually remained paired with Ovechkin & Kuznetsov.

And here we arrive at the single most frustrating part of Barry Trotz’s Capitals tenure: there is no real evidence that anything is going to change. Trotz’s postgame presser was illuminating in this respect, as he repeated on multiple occasions that the top line had actually played well:

Ultimately, as has been frequently noted, Trotz is consistently slow in making changes, particularly when it involves veteran players. This isn’t something that is likely to change with Trotz, and as mentioned in the RMNB podcast yesterday, the Capitals will have to find a way to win in spite of their head coach, not because of their head coach.

(NOTE: This article uses data from Natural Stat Trick, Corsica and Hockeystats.ca, which everyone should subscribe to. The data here is score & venue adjusted unless mentioned otherwise.)