Photo credit: Patrick McDermott
A few weeks ago I published a piece explaining why I wasn’t freaking out the Capitals. My point was that bad luck had been quashing good possession numbers, a trend that I predicted would soon reverse. That did not happen.
The Caps have just two wins through eleven games, making them the worst team in the league. During media time on Friday, General Manager George McPhee primarily blamed that record on bad goaltending and undisciplined, “selfish” penalties. CSN’s Alan May agrees.
I admitted on Thursday night that I was baffled by why the Caps were losing, so I thought we could use this time to figure out what exactly isn’t working. Because I’m pretty sure it’s not the penalties.
I guess I should start by checking in on my previous assertion: that the Caps are a good possession team with bad luck.
That is not really true anymore. While PDO remains low, the Caps’ possession advantage has fallen. Going by Behind the Net’s Close Fenwick stat (percentage of pucks going at the other guy’s net while the score is close), the Caps are now 21st out of 30 teams with just 47.51 percent. That number has really got to be above 50.
The Caps lost four of the five games in which they outshot their opponents, usually a signifier of success, and that’s why I thought luck would turn around. It hasn’t happened yet.
That is part of why I’ve begun to worry about the resolution of the PDO stat in describing the Caps. PDO adds up the team’s shooting percentage and save percentage to try to quantify how bad bounces affect output. Through eleven games, the Caps have had above-average PDO just three times, including both of their wins. Earlier this week, Cam Charron of NHLNumbers ranked the Caps as the league’s 4th most unlucky team with an aggregate PDO of just 967 (the average is 1000).
To try and get more information out of it, I’ve broken down PDO into its component parts, shooting and saving.
The Caps rank 15th in the league at 5-on-5 shots on goal, meaning they’re right in the middle of the pack when it comes to putting rubber on net. But in actual scoring, the Caps are a dismal 28th out of 30– so about half the league is scoring more despite shooting less than the Caps.
You could chalk that disparity up to a number of factors: the scoring talent of the team or a system that might not privilege high-percentage shots, but I think the most likely culprit is luck. I still maintain the Caps scoring will naturally improve over time. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be shooting more and crashing the net more– they definitely should, but even the Washington Capitals of the last few weeks will eventually break the 3-goal plateau just by getting lucky.
The other half of PDO is goaltending, which I think is the Caps’ biggest problem right now. Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby combine for an .875 save percentage, miles below average and among the three worst in the league despite seeing fewer shots against than 11 other teams in the league. Last time, I said that the goalies were just suffering horrific luck, but now I’m not so sure.
Over the last few years, Michal Neuvirth‘s save percentage has been 91 percent, which is a little below average. Through 180 shots this season he has stopped just 89 percent. We know that Neuvy has been observed to have a .91 Sv% over 2800 shots, which would make his true talent level somewhere between .899 and .920. But let’s go with the middle, .910. Based on that, the chances of his decline this season being an artifact of luck is just 19.2 percent (see the bottom of this post for notes on nerdery). It’s plausible, but I suspect there is something else going on as well– namely a poor team defense allowing too many high-risk shots. Put another way: Neuvy is getting screwed.
I ran the same function on Braden Holtby to dramatically different results. Holtby has seen far fewer shots over his NHL career than Neuvy, so the data we have to pull from is less mature. That’s why I’m more than a bit dubious that his true talent level is .93 Sv%. If he were truly that good, there’d be less than a 1 percent chance he’d be performing so badly this year.
So while I think we need to forgive Neuvirth for some of his play so far, I think we should also admit that Holtby is neither as good as he was during last year’s playoffs, nor as bad as he’s been this year.
In his press conference, George McPhee blamed penalties for the team’s poor performance. I’m not so sure about that. The Caps are just 13th in the league in penalty minutes per game and minor penalties per game– not so bad, really. What’s bad is what happens when the Capitals actually are a man-down (or two). The team ranks 27th in the league in penalty killing with a terrible 70.6 kill rate.
So it’s not how many times they’re going on the PK, it’s how bad they are once they do.
Given the problems we saw above regarding goaltending and team defense, I suspect when those improve so too will the PK unit. We may be dealing with just one problem with two manifestations.
And we can safely dismiss the power play as a problem. The Washington power play is converting 21.4 percent of their opportunities, good for 12th in the league, partially due to the efforts of offseason pick-up Mike Ribeiro. Captain Alex Ovechkin has become a power play machine as well, consistently firing shots from the left circle that either hit the net or create a rebound opportunity in the crease. If Ovechkin keeps that up, and with more traffic up front, we may see even better PP numbers from the Caps.
I’m not doubling down on my earlier assertion. While the Caps will see some improvement just due to progression to the mean, the goaltending numbers we’ve seen (from Neuvirth at least) may be too dramatic to simply be explained away by luck. But if we accept that the Capitals’ main problems are goaltending and the penalty kill, we may see both improve simultaneously as the Caps better adjust to the Oates system.
With the exception of a few bad apples, I still think George McPhee has built a good roster that — with augmentation– could again become a competitor. I’m not advocating blowing it up (despite the atomic bomb imagery I’m using in recaps). The Caps just need a little scoring help, a renewed commitment to team defense, and the patience of a monk.
Of course, none of that should excuse the Caps from their basic obligations: crash the net and scoar moar goals.
With help from boy genius Steven Kern, I used R’s binomial test function to calculate the chances of Holtby’s and Neuvy’s seasons being pure luck. I used regular season data from the last two seasons to get Neuvirth’s save percentage, but I had to use the postseason to get (much less reliable) numbers for Holtby.
Neuvirth: binom.test(160,180,0.91, alternative="less") Holtby: binom.test(126,147,0.93, alternative="less")
UPDATE: I clarified the difference between Neuvirth’s true talent and observed talent. Thanks!