To say the Washington Capitals have dealt with a lot of injuries during the 2022-23 season would be a major understatement. Team doctors have certainly earned their pay this season, tending to the Capitals steady flow of casualties.
As a result, the Capitals have been required to make quite a few corrspaonding roster moves continuously throughout the season, which included the signing of free agents and numerous callups from AHL Hershey. One of the Capitals forwards caught-up in the perpetual roster flux has been forward Aliaksei Protas.
THE VIPER OF VITBSK
Before digging too deep into the performance and management of Protas, it should be noted that Protas was the Capitals only “flexible” forward this season, as he could move freely between Hershey and Washington without having to clear waivers. That’s very handy when you are juggling a number of other forwards and trying to figure out what works best for the team. Moving him to and from Hershey (paper or for real) was simply the path of least resistance with regards to roster management.
However, that roster flexibility has also limited Protas’ playing time this season, which has obviously been a hinderance in his development. In fact, Protas has only been able to work his way back into the lineup when there was an injury among the Capitals forward group.
But is that the best play for the team? What if Protas was needed full time in Washington, and has proven he belongs in Washington lineup every night? Let’s take a look at Protas’ performance so far this season.
Let’s begin by taking a quick look at the basic numbers for Protas. Protas has played 45 games for the Capitals so far this season. The Capitals are 22-16-7 with Protas in the lineup. That’s a points percentage of .567%.
Obviously there are numerous other variables that go into winning games, so lets take this as one data point and continue the analysis.
Protas returned to the Capitals lineup this week, out of pure necessity, when Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin (injury) and forward Sonny Milano (non-Covid illness) were unable to play. His last game action was more than a month prior against San Jose on February 12.
Regardless of the month layoff from actual game action, Protas returned and made an immediate impact on the team in both games he’s played so far. Here’s a brief breakdown of his line performance for each game:
[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]
The following table plots the expected goals for percentage (xGF%) line stats from the Rangers game. [Click to enalrge]
The fourth line of Protas, Dowd and Aube-Kubel returned the fourth line to the prominence demonstrated earlier in the season and in recent season’s past (more on that later). The fourth line posted an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 60.27%, the Capitals second best offensive line in the game.
Protas returned to the lineup again the following night, as Sonny Milano was still unable to return to the lineup. The fourth line would be the only line that remained consistent throughout the entire game, as they played well right from the start of the game. [Click to enlarge]
It bears repeating, the fourth line is primarily charged with facing and neutralizing the opposing team’s top line, so any time they can post an xGF% greater than 50%, the opposing teams stars are below 50%. That’s impressive, to say the least.
EXPECTED GOALS FOR PERCENTAGE (xGF%) – FIVE-ON-FIVE
Next, let’s dig a little deeper on Protas’ personal stats by first ranking his expected goals for percentage for the season. [Click to enlarge].
Protas currently has the second-best expected goals for percentage on the team. The only issue might be the fact that the player he competes with for roster spots currently has the best expected goals for percentage on the team, but that’s no reason to ride the pine. The two have worked very well together with Nic Dowd on the fourth line.
FORWARD LINE COMBINATIONS
Finally, let’s look at Protas’ performance with regards to his line assignments so far this season. The next graph plots all of the Capitals line combinations from this season (minus the players that were moved at the trade deadline).[Click to enlarge].
Protas has been on seven of the Capitals top 14 line combinations so far this season. There has been only one line combination that Protas has been on (Protas-Kuznetsov-Mantha) that has an average below 50%. That’s really impressive.
It’s understandable that Protas was the easiest moveable piece this season, as it happens to many young players in the early stages of their careers. I recall a season of callups and send-downs for Dmitry Orlov, before he was able to work his way into the lineup. The daily moves were made more for salary cap management purposes, but nonetheless, the situation became comical towards the end of the season.
The difference with Protas is the fact that he is more than ready and has consistently shown he improves the team when he is in the Capitals lineup. Who sits in his place is certainly a tough call, but it needs to be made, as not all forwards are producing at the level that Protas is producing.
I think we are seeing the first signs of this in advance of the Capitals tilt with the St. Louis Blues Friday night, as it looks like Protas will remain in the starting lineup while Anthony Mantha will sits.
By Jon Sorensen