Nick Backstrom defending the neutral zone

Photo credit: Scott Cunningham

After the Capitals’ humiliating 7-0 loss to the Rangers in December, head coach Bruce Boudreau changed his defensive scheme to include the neutral-zone trap. I won’t go into the how and why this system works, but it essentially looks to keep small mistakes from turning into major breakdowns that lead to goals against.

Over the years, the trap has often been associated with teams that have a “defense first” mentality – you know, boring squads. That’s a far cry from last season’s “run ‘n’ gun” Caps team that lead the League in scoring by almost 50 goals while being merely average at keeping the puck out their own net. Most notably, it satisfies critics who feel the system employed by Boudreau over the past few seasons is incapable of winning in the playoffs. But is it?

Here’s what I did:

  1. I logged a team’s won-loss record in both the regular season and playoffs for every year since the lockout (2005-2010), for each day of the season.
  2. Teams were labeled as being an “offensive” or “defensive” team based upon their goals for/against relative to the average goals for/against for that season. If a team was higher above the league average in goals-for than goals-against, I labeled them as an offensive team. If their goals-against was better than the league average than goals-for, I labeled them a defensive team.
  3. Then, I looked for matched pairs of teams where one team was an offensive team and one team was a defensive team and the game was not decided in a shootout.

2,488 games have been played since the lockout where teams with differing styles met during the regular season. Those teams labeled as “defensive,” such as the 2006-10 New Jersey Devils or the 2006-07 Dallas Stars, won 1,304 of them — good for a .524 win percentage — while offensive juggernauts like the 2009-10 Capitals or 2008-09 Red Wings had a win percentage of just .476, showing that a defensive style of play has a clear advantage during the regular season when matched up against offensive powerhouses.

The playoffs, however, are a different story. Out of the 426 playoffs games since the lockout, opposite style teams matched up in 165 of them, with the defensive minded teams winning only 42.4% of the time, almost a fifth less than they did in the regular season.

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  • http://www.calacirian.org sonja

    Sooooo … what yer sayin’ is that this plan is gonna continue to stink up the house? Do I have that right?

  • Neil – RMNB

    @Sonja Thanks for reading! I’m saying that switching to a “defense-first” mentality does not necessarily equal playoff success – at least not when matched up with a more offensive team. Heck, it’s not even translating to better regular season success for the Caps.

  • http://twitter.com/vtcapsfan Andrew

    I think teams change their mentality come playoff time, teams that are “offensive” in the regular season buckle down and play less risky come playoffs. I think the Red Wings would absolutely fit that model, and we all know how successful they’ve been. I think this caps team is better fit for the playoffs than last years team. Last year, they were frustrated as soon as they couldn’t score, this year they are much more prepared for a 2-1 or 3-1 game.

    twitter.com/vtcapsfan

  • deann

    Neil, I love your statistical analyses. I wish I were that brilliant! In my mind, the Caps defensive prowess this year will only help them in the playoffs.

    For all the talk about “go back to the old system” of scoring offense, I just don’t believe the “old system” will work for us anymore. We were still using the “old system” last year in the playoffs right?

    Teams know how to take time and space away from us. So while people love to blame the “defense minded” style we are playing, in my mind, the reason why our offense isn’t successful is we still think we can get in those pretty shots from the perimeter. Games where we crash the net and dig in the corners are where we have the most success.

    And a pet peeve of mine: the constant shuffling of lines that Boudreau does even when they are working.

  • http://www.calacirian.org sonja

    “And a pet peeve of mine: the constant shuffling of lines that Boudreau does even when they are working.”

    I think that there can be a balance struck between offense and defense, as Deann notes … where crashing the net and digging the corners gets rewarded with some goals. That’s not happening with enough regularity at the moment.

    Just playing defense isn’t going to win any games, either in regular season or post-season. Just like a goalie can’t win a game for you. He can save a game, but he can’t (statistically speaking) score any goals. It’s not reasonable to anticipate that this new system is going to win in the post-season … although it might make losing more palatable.

    Deann, I completely agree with you about the line bobbling. It’s making me crazy. I think a large part of this team’s problems may be traced to a lack of line chemistry that has not been allowed to develop. While I don’t think lines should be allowed to set in stone, neither should they be so ephemeral as they’ve become this season. It makes play development very difficult.

  • Joel

    Defensive intensity tends to step up during playoff time. Given how good the Caps are at it now, I think that they can be positively dominant on defence during the playoffs. Scary dominant.

    I think we have a good chance at Halaking a team. I hope the Caps can rely on more than luck and good defence in the playoffs, but I see us doing quite well if we win the division.

  • deann

    Sonja, I am in complete agreement with you. Especially you agreeing with me. :-)

  • Tattoed Enigma

    After looking at the article and everyone’s comments it makes me remember back to the days of Old Time Hockey (I’ve been around hockey since the mid to late 80’s) when defense was the most important reason for winning championships. Look at the Devils, Red Wings, Avalanche, and Flyers. For years, almost an entire decade dating from 1994-95 to 2003-04, these four teams were always considered the top 4 teams because they knew the balance of a solid defense with balanced scoring. And a side note 3 of the 4 teams won Stanley Cups (NJ 3, COL 2, DET 3). I like the system, and I am liking what I am seeing on the ice. Yes the loses are aggravating but remember, when the Caps went to the Finals in 1998 they were 4th in the East.

  • Tattooed Enigma

    After looking at the article and everyone’s comments it makes me remember back to the days of Old Time Hockey (I’ve been around hockey since the mid to late 80’s) when defense was the most important reason for winning championships. Look at the Devils, Red Wings, Avalanche, and Flyers. For years, almost an entire decade dating from 1994-95 to 2003-04, these four teams were always considered the top 4 teams because they knew the balance of a solid defense with balanced scoring. And a side note 3 of the 4 teams won Stanley Cups (NJ 3, COL 2, DET 3). I like the system, and I am liking what I am seeing on the ice. Yes the loses are aggravating but remember, when the Caps went to the Finals in 1998 they were 4th in the East.

  • Chris (VaMedic)

    I think Andrew raises a good point (VT reference in his name aside). If the label “O-fensive” or “defensive” were assigned based on regular season data, I would be interested to see if that label still applied using only post-season data, and if the post-season matchups seen with the ‘post season’ label had a different win percentage.