Photo credit: Rob Carr
Warning: You’re about to read statistics from someone who can’t keep score at Scrabble.
The Washington Capitals started their season with a 7-game winning streak. They were the talk of the league, a team made of smiles and wins.
They would go on to lose 12 of their next 18 games, their head coach, and their confidence. As of game 25, the Capitals are in a three-way tie for 8th in the Eastern Conference. For perspective, the players on the 9th place team usually get started on their suntans a little earlier than everyone else.
This article takes a look at the numbers behind the Caps season to date to try and give its schizophrenia some context. I’ll look at shots on goal, save percentage, puck possession, power play, and penalty kill.
Because with all of the opinions about why the Caps have fell so far (many I’ve posited myself), I owe you guys some objective assessment without the usual bluster or pageantry.
Before we get into it, a few caveats:
- All data are up to date as of Sunday, December 4, and the Capitals’ 25th game.
- My data are the NHL’s data.
- Stats for game 23, a 2-1 loss to St. Louis, have disappeared from the NHL site. It wasn’t a good game, with only 19 shots on goal for the Caps in total.
- I’m relying on shots on goal a lot. Too much. As a metric, shots are inferior to scoring chances. Neil Greenberg at the Washington Post will have better intelligence on scoring chances.
- I appreciate any feedback or peer review. Put them in the comments or shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shots on Goal
This is what I’ve heard the most: the Caps just aren’t shooting. In my recaps I’ve lamented the Capitals woeful shot output, blaming it for many losses. I wasn’t correct.
The red bars indicate even-strength shots on goal by the Capitals. The blue bars are those shots that yielded goals. Game 23 is MIA. I’m only counting 5-on-5 shots on goal; we’ll look at special teams later.
- The Capitals opened the season with respectable EVSF (even-strength shots for) totals, especially in that blowout with the Red Wings in game seven.
- That precipitous drop-off in games 14 and 15? That’s the Capitals getting frustrated by the New Jersey trap. Somehow the Caps got 3 out of 4 points from those games anyway.
- The next three games were all Caps losses, but even-strength shots on goal fluctuated. Totals of 36, 20, and 30 all yielded one or fewer even-strength goals.
The glut of losses in November doesn’t show a dramatic departure from October’s winning ways. The culprit for the Caps’ decline must lie elsewhere.
Finally, let’s group games 1-10 and games 11-20 together to see if we can notice a decline in even-strength goals for (EVGF) and even-strength shots for (EVSF). Remember: the Caps were 8-2-0 in the first 10 games and 4-5-1 in their second 10.
|Second 10||18 (Δ -8)||237 (Δ -16)|
That’s a decline of only 16 shots. Did you expect more? I did. So yes, the Caps haven’t been shooting much lately, but that wasn’t why they started losing.
Shots Against and Save Percentage
This is the flip side to the above, and it is more telling. Consider this to be two-fold: how many shots are the Caps defense allowing, and — of those shots– how many are the goalies stopping?
The red bars indicate shots against while the teams are at even strength. The blue bars are the portions of those shots which yielded goals. Game 23 is the Bermuda Triangle.
- Look at the blue portions in those early games! They’re so small. Games 5, 7, and 8 (two wins and a loss) were shut-outs at even strength.
- Jump ahead to games 12, 13, 21, and 22. They all included 4 or more even strength goals against, and they’re all losses.
- The Capitals have allowed more than 25 even-strength shots on goal in half of their games (excluding game 23). Remember: this doesn’t include power plays.
This is a bigger problem than offense and perhaps more connected to the win-loss record overall. Here’s the breakdown of even-strength goals against (EVGA) and even-strength shots against (EVSA) in the games 1-10 (8-2-0) and games 11-20 (4-5-1).
|Second 10||24 (Δ +7)||217 (Δ -13)|
The Capitals haven’t been facing more shots against, they’ve just been stopping far fewer.
So how much do we lay at the feet of the goalies? Here’s the same data plotted as a percentage– to illustrate the goalie’s stopping power at even strength.
The red line is the NHL average even-strength save percentage, about .920. I probably should have identified which games were Vokoun or Neuvy, but oh well.
- Tomas Vokoun’s SV% in game 2 was scary bad. That’s 5 goals on 20 shots.
- Look how the Caps goalies soared above the NHL average throughout the 7-game winning streak. Then came crashing down.
- After that loss to Edmonton in game 8, the goalies nosedived (nosedove?). The last 2 games (both with 2 even-strength goals against) are the first time they’ve sustained a better-than-average save percentage since the streak. Are they finally turning it around?
Tomas Vokoun is an elite goaltender. In Florida he faced tons of shots and turned tons away. Now with Washington, he’s not performing the same. Vokoun is way outside of the Vezina conversation now. We know how good Michal Neuvirth can be; we’ve seen him perform over the last two years. But his numbers this year are awful.
So what accounts for the drop-off? It could be bad conditioning, the loss of Arturs Irbe as goalie coach, the loss of Mike Green on defense, injuries, psychological problems, a gypsy curse, or game fixing. I just don’t know.
Neil already covered this ground over at WaPo, and he recommended patience. If a player is performing below his talent, he usually turns it around eventually. We’ve got two players, who are crucial to the team, performing below their talent. They’ll get better.
Back in the day, the NHL used to record zone time– how long each spent on its ice or the opponent’s. That stat has been deprecated in favor of Corsi and Fenwick, which kind of tells you the same thing: which way the ice is tilting.
Corsi and Fenwick gives you a single number to represent how many shots were directed at each net. If your number is positive, that means your team is firing at the opponent’s net more often than they’re firing at yours. It’s a zero-sum thing, so if your team’s number is plus-6, the other team’s is minus-6. If your numbers are high, that means you’re driving play in the offensive zone. If your numbers are low, you’re defending a lot.
Both stats track only even-strength shots. I’m using Corsi here, because it includes blocked shots.
This number fluctuates a bunch and doesn’t really correlate to wins [Update: This article on Objective NHL proves I'm wrong. Might just be the small sample?]. For example, Detroit was firing shots like crazy when the Caps trounced them in game 7, so the Corsi score is low (minus-12). When Edmonton handed the Caps their first loss on the season one game later, the Caps recorded a season-high plus-37 because they were desperate to score.
In games 1-10, the Caps cumulative Corsi was 57. In games 11-20, Corsi fell to 34. Both numbers tell us that the Capitals are an offensive team that limits opponent activity, but there was a noticeable drop-off when things got rough.
According to Behind the Net, the Capitals are still ranked 7th in Fenwick, which is good, but they’re still 25th in Goals Against/Game, which is atrocious. A few of my game recaps have attributed losses to poor puck possession, but I was wrong. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, but the Caps can’t say possession is their primary deficiency.
Power Play and Penalty Kill
Once upon a time, the Capitals were the best in the league with the man advantage. In 2009-2010, Washington converted 25.2% of their power play opportunities. Last season, that number dipped to 17.5%, which was about average. After 25 games this season, the Caps are converting at 15%, 21st in the league.
Here’s how that breaks down by game.
The red line is the NHL average– about 16.7%. You’re looking at conversion percentage here– the ratio of goals per opportunities. This does not calculate shot totals during the man advantage, but that’d be fun for a whole other post.
- The Caps are actually getting tons of power play opportunities this year: 93 overall, more than 3 per game. They’re drawing penalties consistently well.
- The Caps haven’t had a multiple PPG game since the end of the streak in game 7.
- The power play flatlined during the home-and-home with the Devils. They had no PPGs in that series or the three games that followed.
- Actually, the evaporation of the power play lines up with the team’s misery overall. The last 11 games, over which the Caps have a 3-7-1 record, have seen just 2 power play goals. The PPG in game 19 was the margin of victory.
This doesn’t tell us why the power play went lame after game 7. For now, it’s enough to say this is a problem. Three games were lost by a one-goal margin, which a power play goal could’ve filled.
Let’s jump to the other end of the ice and the penalty kill. The Caps are killing 81.8% of penalties, putting them in the bottom third of the league. Last season’s kill rate of 85.6% ranked them 2nd behind Pittsburgh.
Again, you’re looking at percentages, not a breakdown of shots. These are the percentages of opposing power plays that the Caps have killed per game. The NHL average PK% of 83.08% is the red line.
- Don’t worry too much about that ranking. No team has finished a season above 88% since the lockout, but there are currently three teams above the mark. No way the Rangers can kill 94.6% all season.
- The Caps have been shorthanded at least once in every game. [Perfunctory Alex Semin joke here]
- The Caps have given up multiple power play goals against (PPGA) in 5 games, 3 of which they lost.
- Surprisingly, PPGAs led to defeat in only one game, the 2-1 loss to Edmonton. Both Oilers goals came on the power play.
- Toronto bled the Caps in game 18, getting 3 goals on the power play for the season’s worst PK rate.
The PK hasn’t slayed the team, but like all things there is room for improvement. Maybe an investigation into goalie performance on PK vs 5on5 is warranted.
It’s all about the even strength goals against. While the offense has certainly declined recently, that’s not the reason for the Caps imploding in November. The biggest factor in Caps losses has been the rate of scoring on even-strength shots on their own net.
You can use that to blame the goalies for underperforming or you can pin it on the blueliners, who could be mitigating the danger of those shots. You could blame it on the absence of Mike Green, a play-making defender with a perfect W-L record this season.
Washington’s power play needs a serious shot in the arm. Assistant coach Dean Evason and Dale Hunter will likely spend time tweaking the PPs (both the how and who), so we’ll be watching this for improvement. The penalty kill is not costing the Caps’ games, but it’s still a mild disappointment so far. But like Coach Hunter said, we gotta start in our end and work from there.
There are a few shortcomings in what you’ve just read.
- My math does not account for scoring effects. The team who is lagging on the scoreboard usually shoots more, and these shots are distorting my data.
- Scoring chances > shots on goal. In my math, a blueline slapshot counts the same as a point-blank wrister. This is silly.
- I have not distinguished individual goalie performance. That doesn’t mean that both goalies aren’t having trouble, but I don’t have precision on how badly Vokoun is doing compared to Neuvirth.
- I used PP opportunities instead of shots to measure special team success, and I made no distinction for two-man advantages.