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Who should play point on the Capitals’ power play?

22 February 2016: Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson (74) in action at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. where the Washington Capitals defeated the Arizona Coyotes, 3-2. (Photograph by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

Mike Green was long a critical component of a Washington Capitals power play that has regularly been the envy of the league. Even last year, though, with Green still in the fold, defender John Carlson played a significant amount of time as the primary option at the point of the team’s heralded 1-3-1 formation.

It was assumed that this year, with Green moving on to Detroit, Carlson would have undisputed claim to the role, with Matt Niskanen joining the second unit.

That script hasn’t exactly played out, though. Yes, the Capitals are leading the NHL in 5-on-4 goals for per 60 minutes for the fourth straight season. Yes, Carlson started the season on the first unit and has had moments of brilliance.

But through a combination of injuries and Niskanen’s sharp play on a second unit that has been more efficient at times, that position seems more up for grabs than ever. Even with Carlson back in the fold this week, Niskanen has been playing the first unit minutes, with the American as understudy.

With the playoffs approaching, and the team still quite reliant on its special teams, an extra power play goal may make the difference between moving on and yet another upset defeat.

So the question needs to be asked, which of those two right-handed players should play point on that first unit?

Considering its a topic on which Capitals fans have demonstrated strong opinions, twitter weighed in.

Approximately two thirds of respondents went with the conventional choice in Carlson, though prior to this season, it’s unlikely anyone would’ve had a reason to choose Niskanen.

So let’s examine this debate first on a macro and then on a micro level. The problem with any analysis, stems from the fact that very little that we have available to use is predictive when it comes to special teams. That said, on-ice shot and goal generation is certainly at least suggestive of power play true talent.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 11.09.24 AM

Another of the confounding problems when it comes to evaluating individual power play performance is that teams tend to operate as units.

The Capitals, in particular, keep those units very consistent, so these numbers for Carlson are in reality mostly numbers for Carlson with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie, while Niskanen’s data is composed of time spent on both units.

Therefore, it’s really apples and oranges. However, it helps that Washington’s second unit is no dud, as evidenced by second-unit half-wall man Evgeny Kuznetsov leading the team (and sitting sixth out of 262 league-wide power play staples) in 5-on-4 on-ice goals for per 60 minutes.

Carlson’s units appear to get more shots off, while Niskanen’s thus far have scored slightly more. Still, it’s difficult to know what that means without breaking down each player’s specific contributions to those results.

Let’s begin with zone entries, which are vital to power play success.

For the Capitals, the primary objective of the zone entry is twofold. The units either want to enter the zone in such a way that they can quickly get set up in formation, or they want to spring a player for a dangerous rush shot.

Thanks to my Special Teams Project, we can see how the team fares at accomplishing these goals with each player on the ice. I defined a “dangerous rush shot” as a home plate shot attempt within five seconds of an entry (prior to the team getting set up), and classified each of the team’s entry attempts as either succeeding or failing in at least one of its stated objectives.

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The first two columns of data in the above table are composed of all on-ice entry attempts with each player on the ice. As shown, the Capitals with Carlson on the ice complete one of their objectives slightly more than with Niskanen on the ice. Of course, Carlson does have that first unit ice time advantage when he’s healthy, and it’s important to note that both of those rates are among the highest of the six teams I’ve tracked.

The Capitals are very good at entering the zone and getting set up; their talent and scheme allow for that.

The next columns involve entries in which either Carlson or Niskanen was the primary contributor. That means if there was a pass that led directly to an entry, the passer was credited as primary contributor. If not, the player who entered the zone with the puck was awarded that label.

Despite less ice time due to injuries, Carlson has been the primary entry contributor more often than Niskanen, and has been considerably more successful in that role. It’s fair to say that despite the slight differences in linemates, Carlson is a better zone entry option than Niskanen.

What about offensive zone contributions?

Thanks to Ryan Stimson‘s passing project, we know that counting pass assists can be valuable. Stimson developed a metric called Personal Shot Contribution (PSC), which adds attempted shots to shot assists. In my project, I included to that tips and screens — though obviously those aren’t relevant to either of our point men. I also tracked giveaways in the offensive zone that lead to clears.

By dividing PSC by O-zone giveaways, we get a proxy for how effective players are with their touches in the offensive zone. We can use that to compare players who play similar roles on the power play, and obviously our two test subjects fall under that umbrella. I’ll tentatively call this metric Power play Effectiveness of Touches (P.E.T).

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Not only is Carlson more than twice as effective with his touches than Niskanen by this metric, but he’s also second best (behind Philadelphia’s Michael Del Zotto) out of all players with at least a PSC of 50 amongst the six teams I’m tracking.

On the next graphic, note that blocked or missed shots that result in clears are marked as giveaways, while shots on goal that are then cleared are not. Carlson hardly ever turns over the puck in the offensive zone. Is this a result of never getting shots blocked or missed?

CarlNiskShot

It doesn’t appear as though there is a difference in terms of the shots these two players take. Niskanen has in fact managed to score a few goals from the point whereas Carlson has not.  it’s difficult to say for certain how much of those low giveaway rates are the result of blocked and missed shots being recovered by his teammates.

We can get a better sense of the quality of those shots, though, by looking at each player’s one-timer shots, the foundation of the Capitals’ power play (click to enlarge).

CarlNiskOTShot

Carlson has done a better job this year at getting his shots on net, even though none of his shots from the point have actually gone in.

Considering that Niskanen has played more minutes this year, it’s notable that Carlson has taken more one-timers overall. This is understandable considering the quality of the two shots — most people wouldn’t debate the fact that Carlson’s shot is superior.

But does Carlson shoot too much? Does that take away from the opportunity for more high-quality Ovechkin one-timers?

We can’t know for sure, because neither the Passing Project nor the Special Teams Project track passes that don’t result in shots, but we can get an idea for the quantity and quality of those passes that do result in shots by looking at the one-timer passing charts for each player (click to enlarge).

CarlNiskOTPass

While Carlson’s one-timer passes or tip passes have resulted in fewer goals than Niskanen’s, they have led to a much larger proportion of shots on goal, in particular those from Ovechkin.

Niskanen, on the two right-most goals, has taken advantage of playing big minutes with Evgeny Kuznetsov, who isn’t afraid to shoot or head to the net for a tip. Now as mentioned, this doesn’t account for missed opportunities, but the samples (84 and 55, respectively) are large enough to at least hint that Carlson’s passes — whether through speed, timing, or accuracy — lead to more chances on goal.

Overall, this data is more suggestive than conclusive. It gives us small pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle we must fit into place in order to make decisions.

Certainly, better data along with first-hand Capitals coaching insight would grant us more of those pieces. But from the outside, the selection we have seems to point towards the preseason consensus; while Niskanen is a quality point option, Carlson is truly the man to spearhead the top unit.

If a long playoff run is to be a reality, Washington knows who they need on the point.

Arik is a hockey data analyst who has written at NHL.com, but has most frequently been found at Hockey Graphs, Hockey Prospectus and his own blog APHockey.net. This season he has been tracking and analyzing power play effectiveness at nhlspecialteams.com. He is a former goalie who started too late and retired too young, but used to be on the radio for Washington Capitals broadcasts, and can be found on Twitter @ArikParnass.

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