Capitals During Wartime: Road-Weary

[Ed. note: this is the second article in our series about the Capitals' struggles leading up to the trade deadline. The first Capitals During Wartime post addressed the team's problems with the center position.]

At the end of All-Star Break, the Washington Capitals sit in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference and 1st in the Southeast Division, but their prospects for the postseason are not secure. The Southeast has two challengers– the Florida Panthers (with whom the Caps are virtually tied) and the Winnipeg Jets. Plus, the Capitals have a tough schedule down the stretch– including some tough games on the road. When Neil Greenberg at the Washington Post looked at the Caps’ remaining schedule, he was not encouraged.

That’s because the road is where the Capitals have had most of their troubles this season. The team’s home record of 18-6-1 is fourth best in the league, but away they are just 8-13-2, a dismal 25th. One spectacularly bad road game in Buffalo on November 26th probably cost Coach Boudreau his job. The power play and penalty kill perform vastly better in Verizon Center than they do when away. With 18 away games remaining, the Capitals will have to do better on the road if they want to make the playoffs.

The article looks at the Caps’ troubles away from D.C. from several angles: possession, shooting, special teams, and Alex Ovechkin. And because it’s interesting, I’m comparing Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter too. Uh oh.

Shooting

The Capitals are in deep trouble when it comes to generating offense. They are currently 28th in cumulative shots on goal and will likely become sole occupants of the league’s basement within a month. But surprisingly, the shooting malaise isn’t a problem of the road versus home.

The Capitals average 26.4 shots at home and 28.2 away. Both totals are measly. And it only tells half the story.

I counted even-strength shots both for and against, both home and away, under Hunter and under Boudreau.

Home minus-71
     Bruce Boudreau plus-31
     Dale Hunter minus-102
Away minus-42
     Bruce Boudreau minus-14
     Dale Hunter minus-28

The unfortunate conclusion here is that the Capitals can’t keep pace with their opponents– wherever they play. Specifically, during Dale Hunter’s time the Capitals have seen their hometown advantage on offense vanish.

It’s worth mentioning that the Capitals win over 70% of games when they outshoot their opponents (2nd best in the league), but only 45% when they’re outshot (17th in the league). If they win 45% of their remaining games, they will not make the playoffs.

At even strength, the Capitals have outshot just one team at home since Dale Hunter took over. It was the Calgary Flames. On the road, they have fared slightly better– just not recently. Right after Hunter came to town, the Caps outshot the Panthers, the Senators, the Jets, the Avalanche, and the Devils. But none of those teams are offensive powerhouses, and the Caps have been dominated ever since.

But at least it’s not a road-home thing.

Possession

Okay, okay. Not everyone is on board with advanced stats. But while a team’s overall record does a good job of telling you their outcomes so far, Fenwick is better at predicting their future.

Fenwick is the total of a team’s even-strength shots, goals, misses– subtracted by the opposing team’s total. I’ll tell you right now that the team is  minus-87 overall, and that ain’t good.

Home minus-70
     Bruce Boudreau plus-65
     Dale Hunter minus-135
Away minus-17
     Bruce Boudreau plus-8
     Dale Hunter minus-25

The team isn’t keeping pace with their opponents either at home or away. Yeah, it’s worse on the road, but what’s more noticeable is how the team’s possession has declined under Coach Hunter. Boudreau left the Capitals in the black — although much of that success was earned during the 7-game winning streak that opened the season. Since Hunter took over, possession at home has been obliterated.

These Fenwick scores disregard the game’s score. To be fair, the Caps are a bit stronger when the score is close (16th), but their dramatic drop-offs in possession when ahead or behind by at least two points exceeds other teams in the league (29th and 27th, respectively).

Power Play

The Capitals power play is ranked 13th overall with an 18.5% conversion rate. That middle-of-the-pack stat is hiding the truth of the matter, because this team is night-and-day depending on where they play.

Home 23.8% (2nd)
     Bruce Boudreau 20.5%
     Dale Hunter 27.8%
Away 13.0% (25th)
     Bruce Boudreau 11.9%
     Dale Hunter 14.3%

The Capitals have a terrific power play in Chinatown, hitting the net almost a quarter of the time. But once they leave those friendly confines, the man-advantage falls off a cliff.

The good news is that the power play has gotten better in both circumstances under Coach Hunter. Not good enough, clearly, but progress is being made.

Penalty Kill

Same story. The Capitals are ranked 23rd with a dreary kill rate of 80.8% overall. But that’s an average of two disparate PK units.

Home 85.9% (8th)
     Bruce Boudreau 82.9%
     Dale Hunter 88.4%
Away 76.6% (27th)
     Bruce Boudreau 77.8%
     Dale Hunter 75.5%

The Caps are in the bottom five of special teams while on the road. Their home penalty kill is sterling — and has improved under Hunter, but they’re dragged down by a road unit that fails about once every four tries. There is no way to sugarcoat how bad the Caps are on the road when a man down, but maybe they could mitigate the problem by committing fewer penalties while away; they’re currently 16th in that stat.

Alex Ovechkin

And here’s the most curious thing. Alex Ovechkin, who by most accounts is in decline, seems to be slumping at home most of all. Just 6 of his 20 goals have come at Verizon Center.

Here are Alex’s average goals per game, shots per game, and shooting percentage.

Home 0.24 G/g 3.24 S/g 7.40%
     Bruce Boudreau 0.09 G/g 3.09 S/g 2.94%
     Dale Hunter 0.36 G/g 3.36 S/g 10.6%
Away 0.61 G/g 3.91 S/g 15.6%
     Bruce Boudreau 0.61 G/g 4.09 S/g 15.6%
     Dale Hunter 0.61 G/g 3.75 S/g 15.6%

Ovechkin is shooting 7.4% at home. A good deal of that is due to his scoring only one goal on 34 shots over 11 games under Boudreau. But even under Hunter, Ovechkin’s 10.6% is under his career average. It’s worth mentioning that Ovechkin has 9 more assists at home than he does on the road. Still, there is room for growth.

On the road, Ovechkin is playing more like his old self. He’s firing more shots (although not nearly enough for a former league leader), and he’s getting luckier with them. His 15.6% road shooting percentage isn’t Stamkos-ian, but it’s still pretty awesome.

Ovechkin has got to shoot more in both circumstances. Even if Ovi were to shoot his road average of 3.91 times per game, he’d still finish the season with the lowest shot total of his career. We really need him firing 5 or more on the net every single game.

And like the honey badger before him, Alex Ovechkin does not give a hoot about who his coach is. His scoring drought at home snapped under Hunter, but his road performance has been identical. If Boudreau was fired because he “lost” Alex Ovechkin, Hunter hasn’t effected a change in the captain.

Conclusions

The Capitals need to shoot more. Doesn’t matter if they’re at home or away, they just need to fire more pucks at the net. They’re in immediate danger of becoming the most harmless team in the NHL. At home under Coach Hunter, the team has lost its offensive passion. The road is hardly better, and the nadir was reached on January 18th when the Caps fired just 10 even-strength shots in Montreal. That they somehow won that game is  heartwarming, dumbfounding, and seductive. No team can sustain success without more offense.

The home power-play unit is elite, but the away power-play unit is awful. The penalty kill is the same, but there have been improvements under Dale Hunter. In the tight games that the new coach says he is keen to play, these goals will often be the margin of victory or defeat. And if the Caps can’t get their road PK unit crackling, they need to commit fewer penalties. We’re looking at you, Bad Sasha.

Beyond the road-versus-home stuff, there is a compelling but uncomfortable conclusion we have to reach: the Washington Capitals have gotten worse under Dale Hunter. His modest improvements on special teams have been offset by deflated by even-strength performance. This team stunned the NHL two years ago with the best offense since Detroit in ’06, but now they’re headed for dead last in shots on goal. If firing Boudreau was supposed to turn this team around quickly, it failed. If it is supposed to improve the team in the long term, the trend lines are heading in the wrong direction.

When we previewed the Caps schedule, we told you to put a big circle around the ides of March. There are three road games in four nights– and they’re against Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia– three of the league’s best teams. Those three games will come after the trade deadline, which is George McPhee‘s last chance to make a course correction for a wayward season. If the Caps can prove themselves in those games, we’ll know that this team is still capable of great things.

In the meantime, we need to figure out why it is that a talented team can have such trouble away from their home arena. Is it the off-ice amenities– like a short commute and mama’s home-cooking–  that make the difference? Could it be that the Caps are more acclimated to the notoriously harsh and groin-sundering ice conditions at Verizon Center? Is it the customary unleashing of fury that makes the Caps turn up the heat  or maybe the 5 or 6 times they play Pantera’s “Walk” over the PA every single game? Is it The Horn Guy? Is it Goat? Is it Wes?

I have no earthly idea, but I’d like to hear your opinion.

Why do the Caps struggle on the road? How can they fix it?

I would have liked to embed this Tenacious D video here, but there are like 20 billion naughty words in it. So with my stern NSFW warning, feel free to check it out. All data from NHL and Behind the Net. If you’d like to see my compiled dataset, let me know. And finally, this:

  • Hale

    It’s all so baffling, especially about Ovi. Semin’s gotten better in terms of points and fewer penalties under Hunter. I think there was some weird juju going on with him and BB regarding the penalties that spiraled out of control. But, the shot numbers are a real problem. Some nights I watch the line Semin is on and the problem looks to be a possession issue. Usually it’s not that he can’t keep possession, but he never gets the puck from the teammate who has it because either they lose it or pass it it to someone else. That’s what I see. Maybe fancy stats say something else. Regardless, they have to have the puck to shoot it; when he has it, he’s just got to shoot it more. Of course, then he might take 44 shots, never score, and he will be accused of poor shot quality when the real problem is no one is near the net for rebounds! Really wonder if the team never should have been tinkered with last season and instead just kept trying to score our way to a cup.

  • Peter

    I don’t know much about what coaches do and do not impact, but I’ve gotta think that a coaching change has small impact on individual player performance. I included Ovi moreso because of his weird home/away thing rather than BB/DH32.

  • Jim

    As far as I’ve seen, Hunter has tried emphasis on a bunch of things.  Aggressive forechecking, aggressive backchecking, playing with a bit of a trap, crazy PP entries, chipping the puck out to the neutral zone without regard for who was going to pick it up, just to alleviate some of the defensive zone time.

    Whether there is a method to this madness I don’t know.  I’ve been hoping the plan is to put some of this together into something cohesive, but as time wears on its getting a bit concerning.

    Coupled with the fact that the schemes seem to favor strong defense when I’m not really sure we’re built to be a team like that (or at least we’d be allowing our strong offensive weapons to languish if we focus too much on D), I’m definitely worried.  

    But that was the danger of bringing Hunter in, wasn’t it?  Where do you go from here?  Fire GMGM and blow up the team?  Personally I think GMGM and BB should have just gotten back to basics and gone back to a more aggressive style of hockey, while trying some lighter defensive tuning.  But who knows.

  • Mike

    Thiss team was built to be an offensive powerhouse. After the loss to Montreal a few years ago all you hear is defense, defense, defense. This team isn’t built that way. Way alter the entire structure after one playoff loss? And what has the new focus on D led to?? Let the boys run and gun. If nothing else at least the games were fun to watch!

  • Peter

    MIKE FOR HEAD COACH.

    No seriously, I agree completely. 

  • Sonja Andrews

    Get me some peanut butter and burn all the damn notebooks …

    There’s still hope!

  • Racin23

    Got a feeling McPhee will be on the outside by the second week of April.

  • Peter
  • Jim

    Also in favor of that, as much as the Caps got labeled as not being able to get over the playoff hump because they didn’t play enough D, they were one bad game away from the ECF, against the Stanley Cup Champs.  That game was played so poorly it had nothing to do with their system, it was just a poor performance.

    That was their best year (ignoring the whole two 7 game series thing)

  • Mary

    I will say this, we did need to strengthen our defense. I just wish we had found a way to do this without losing our offense and thus the spirit of what made this team come alive over rhe last few years. With what I’ve seen of our road game under both coaches, unless we really change and play Capitals hockey again, I don’t think we will make it to the playoffs.

  • Bill in Reston

    Firing BB was a mistake. The regular season record and BOX OFFICE RECEIPTS alone should have assured BB of at least one more season behind the bench.  But it seems GMGM had his mind made up at the end of last season, and apparently became concerned during training camp.  Why do NHL organizations flip coaches mid-season? It doesn’t work in any other sport, but pro hockey seems to do it in stride.  It tells me that an organizations is in turmoil and/or can’t make up it’s mind about what to do.

    I think the Caps would have turned it around (eventually) under BB if the organization supported him.  It did not.  Read Gaby’s book and you’ll get a glimpse into the mind of GMGM and what he thinks of bald, rotund coaches.  Sad.  So, GMGM places the reigns of an all-star offensive juggernaut into the hands of a defensive pedestrian a la Glen Hanlon and we’re back to square one. WTF? But not before GMGM ditches critical role players likes Boyd Gordon and David Steckel.  Did someone say the Caps need help in the middle?

    The whole thing is sad and it rests at the feet of GMGM.  He’s been here 11+ years, tried on 6 different coaches for size, and no playoff success (I don’t count the first year GMGM came to Washington).  This is starting to look like The Danny and Vinnie Cerato show, except people actually like Ted Leonsis.

  • Peter

    In George’s defense, I bet there was a ton of pressure on him to make a move.

    We all know how anxious DC gets about championships, and the Caps in particular have been called “choking dogs” since the 80s.

    Plus, now that the salary cap is such a concern, each team has a limited window to win before players decline and their costs become too much to bear. The Caps were running out of time. 

    I also think BB would’ve turned it around as soon as his goalies stopped stinking– which they did once Hunter showed up.

    Sigh.

  • guest

    as far as i’m concerned, ovechkin showed himself as a quitter and a malcontent this year. his year and a half long battle with mediocrity shows little sign of ending.  i don’t know what has happened to him and won’t pretend to. but he is now as frustrating to watch as semin on offense…and probably the worst forward on defence on the whole team.  it would not surprise me in the least if the caps fail to make the playoffs – because two of their four best players are missing significant time due to injury…and the other two are awol even though they are on the ice every night.

  • Guest

    this is a bit depressing.  I don’t think it is quite a fair comparison for either coach because the sample size is too small, but either way, the initial results look abysmal.  I am just shocked that they are still able to win games.

    My biggest problem is not that we don’t get enough shots on goal (honestly I prefer quality over quantity), but it is that they seem content to play in the defensive zone.  They hardly ever establish a good rotation in the offensive zone, and this style of play is completely untenable. 

    Whenever they steal the puck back after a good defensive shift (which they have – I like that they are playing well defensively), they are too tired and need a line change, so they just dump the puck in the neutral zone and start it all over again when their opponent gets the puck back.  Hunter has been praising this stye of game.  He needs to find a way to cycle the puck better, and actually get a solid possession out of the time in the offensive zone.

    Dump – chase – cycle – crash the net

  • covesdog

    Awesome article, all around.  Although after reading it and the comments, I’m a bit depressed.  I wish I knew more about the subtle changes to the system that have caused the dramatic drop-off in shots.  Sounds like something Alan May could explain.

  • Capstronaut

    A couple of observations post coaching change. 
    1) Dale is a dump and chase guy
    2) Inconsistent line and D pairings
    3) Big ice time disparages (Wideman 27 minutes a game) he’ll be shot before the playoffs start. Players are noticeably tired by the 3rd period, especially #8.
    4) Poor break out passes and defensive break downs.
    5) Lack of speed, I like 44 but he’s toooo sloooow.
    6) Inconstant effort….

  • Pattyo

    Should’ve kept Arnott and Hannan…….. DAMN YOU GMGM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • random caps fan

    This isn’t really relevant to this article in particular (or is it? The Caps were at home for all but one of those goals against), but I was over at Backhand Shelf, which has just released its list of the top 10 goals of the season so far, and three of those goals (Jiri Tlusty, Nick Foligno, and Eric Nystrom) were against the Caps. BTW, no Caps goals showed up on that list.
    Make of that what you will. Here’s the link – http://blogs.thescore.com/nhl/2012/01/30/rundown-the-top-10-goals-of-the-2011-2012-nhl-season/ – if you want to look at the entire video, but I just thought it was interesting. (It also led to me yelling “No! No! ARGH GODDAMMIT NO GET THAT OFF OF MY SCREEN” whenever I saw a goal against the Caps, but that’s a different story).Oh, also, they had the list of the top 10 saves, and Vokoun made it on to that, at least *insert happy .gif here*

    Great job on the article, and even though it makes me feel depressed about the Caps, I can appreciate the effort put into this, and as always, RMNB never disappoints :)

  • http://twitter.com/ngreenberg Neil, RMNB

    “But it seems GMGM had his mind made up at the end of last season, and apparently became concerned during training camp.”

    He might havem however, the dagger was Boudreau saying, in essence, “I don’t know how to fix this team” after the loss in Buffalo. If that presser doesn’t go down that way, he is probably still with the team.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1262029985 Alison Latimer

    As a Caps & Redskins fan I am sick of fans wanting to be instantly gratified.  (How many of us heard Redskins fans sayin’  ” We goin’ to the sho” after McNabb became QB?)  When GMGM fired BB for DH – I knew in that instant there would be no cup this year.  Next year will be the test for me.  Of course we have no clue who is coming or going in the meantime….I just want our injured guys to get well.  I miss Backstrom.  

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  • RegularStan

    Kind of bewildered by the Bad Sasha comment. He’s gotten, what, 3 penalties under DH in 15 games?