I have no idea who the Washington Capitals are. We are exactly halfway into the 2013 season, and the team seems to change identities on pace with the weather. After one of the slowest starts in memory, the Caps put forth some pretty stirring wins in late February. But now in March, the team seems poised to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007– unless they can turn things around.
This article takes stock of the Capitals’ first half and asks what the back half could look like. Plus like 7 megs of Game of Thrones GIFs.
There’s a lot here, and while I tried to bold all the salient stuff, here’s a quick summary in case you don’t wanna scour the whole article. I won’t be offended if you bail after these bullet points, but the GIFs are pretty crucial too.
- The Caps don’t appear to be playoff-bound this year. How will the front office respond?
- The Caps are a bottom-10 possession team, but their performance when winning is encouraging.
- Goaltending has leveled out, but the Caps have to learn how to win even when Holtby isn’t stupendous.
- The power play is either magic or lucky. Let’s root for magic.
- The Caps penalty kill is both bad and overworked. The Caps have to commit fewer penalties or the PK will cost more games.
- The Caps can expect better puck luck, but that won’t be enough to turn their fate around.
- Mike Ribeiro’s faceoff performance is not up-to-snuff for a first-line center, and it’s probably cost Alex Ovechkin goals already.
- Recent play from Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, and Nick Backstrom should inspire some line shuffling.
As of Sunday afternoon, the Capitals have 21 points. That puts them 6 points out of 8th place (with one fewer game played than NJD). Carolina leads the Southleast Division with 29 points– a spread of 4 regulation wins. By the time you read this, those gaps may have grown.
If the season ended today, well, first everyone would be like “what happened to the second half of the season?” But also, the Caps would be in contention for the number-one draft pick.
This puts the Caps front office in an awkward position. They can mount an honest effort to make the playoffs (something Ted Leonsis said the team should be able to do for the next decade), or they can rebuild for next year. Rebuilding would mean becoming “sellers” at the deadline– i.e. trading away players to contending teams in exchange for high future returns. The worst possible scenario is that the Capitals try to make the playoffs– signing additional players at a premium– and then fail. Last year the Caps saw little or no return for free agents Alex Semin and Dennis Wideman. They can’t afford to let that happen with Mike Ribeiro.
There is no better predictor of success than how a team possesses the puck. It’s more accurate than both goal differential and standings. According to behindthenet.ca, when the game is close, we know the Capitals send 47% of shots towards the opposition’s net. That ranks them 22nd in the league. For reference, the top-5 possession teams are LA, St Louis, Boston, Chicago, and the Rangers. (One of those teams is gonna win the Cup if you ask me.)
In a weird happenstance, the Capitals are actually the league’s second-best team when they’ve got a big lead. Teams usually sit back with a two-goal lead, but the Capitals have a hunger for scoar moar goals. That is a great sign. If the Caps can tap into that confidence all the time, they will become a much, much stronger team.
Okay, so this one is weird. The Capitals have the eighth-worst goals-against average in the league, stopping all but 72 of the 753 shots their goaltenders have seen. But that’s not the whole story.
Braden Holtby has started 16 of 24 games so far and posted a .909 Sv% in all of his appearances. That’s average. Dialing in a little closer, we see that Holtby was a pretty awful goaltender in the season’s first 10 games, and among the league’s best since then. So where is Holtby’s actual talent level? What can we expect from him in the future?
Dunno yet. It’s somewhere between the two extremes. We cannot expect him to stop 19 out of every 20 shots like he did during his 11-game streak, and the Capitals can’t depend on that level of play to win games. Caps goaltenders have provided 10 quality starts so far, and those games represent all but three of the Caps’ wins.
Regardless: the Caps still have two cheap goalies who play around league average. While goaltending burned them early in the season, the Caps’ fortune in the back half will have less to do with the guy in net and more to do with the five guys in front of him.
Let’s start with penalties, because I think that’s the more telling stat. While penalties are up overall, the Capitals have truly distinguished themselves with 101 minor penalties, the 10th highest in the league. Jason Chimera seems to be leading that charge, taking about two penalties per every 60 minutes played.
On the flip side, the Caps see the 7th fewest power plays in the league, a side effect of low puck possession and also a multi-national, far-reaching conspiracy by the NHL and referees to screw the Caps over at every turn. Alex Ovechkin continues to be a huge generator of power plays, drawing 2.4 per every 60 minutes he is on the ice.
The Caps have insane-o power play numbers. They convert more than one-quarter of their power plays, good for 3rd best in the league, but they’re not really generating more shots than their peers. The Caps fire about 0.8 shots per minute on PP, just 17th best in the league. That suggests that Caps PP conversion rate won’t stay among the league’s best unless Adam Oates’s 5-on-4 tactics continue to be magic.
The Washington penalty kill is digging its way out of a very deep hole. They have the second worst PK in the league, killing just 75.5% of man-down situations. No team has more power play goals against than the Capitals, which is why the Caps desperately need to commit fewer penalties. One way to do that, not at all incidentally, is to possess the puck more. If the Caps can limit their shorthanded time (via fewer dumb penalties by Mike Ribeiro for example) and can cohere their penalty kill strategy, they’ll see these numbers improve, and they will win more games.
Some people take umbrage at the term luck. To those people luck dismisses individual effort and makes the game a cold calculation. I don’t think most stat geeks actually think this way at a micro level, but if you have that hang-up, try using the term “non-repeatable skill” instead. It’s still a fantastic achievement to score on 3 out of 4 shots or to earn a shutout, but we can’t expect a player to do that every game. Hence: luck.
Once more, we measure luck through a proxy called PDO, which we now pretend stands for “percentage-driven output” even though it doesn’t. PDO is just your shooting percentage (averaging around 9%) plus your save percentage (averaging around 91%). It basically explains away plus-minus (individually) or goal differential (for a whole team) as being the result of a lot of short term craziness that doesn’t really shake out in long stretches. On a long timeline, teams end up with a PDO right around 1000, which is why the number of shots (i.e. possession) is more valuable than conversion rates when predicting how the last 24 games of this season will go.
As of last week, the Capitals had a PDO of 992, making them the ninth unluckiest team in the league. Much of that deficit is attributable to a below-average shooting percentage (we’re looking at you, Jason Chimera), though the team’s suckiness in net earlier also hurt them. The good news is we can expect the Capitals to get better bounces as time goes on, but that alone isn’t going to get the Capitals into the playoffs– and it’s definitely not a foundation to build a team off in the long run.
I haven’t been paying enough attention to faceoffs this season, and I’m sorry for that. After seasons of watching Boyd Gordon and Dave Steckel win 6 outta 10, I guess I got spoiled. Nick Backstrom is winning 53% of his faceoffs, but he’s taking most of them in the defensive zone. Meanwhile, first-line center Mike Ribeiro is winning just 43% of his faceoffs, and he’s taking 54% of them right near the opponent’s net.
Let’s consider that more closely. Mike Ribeiro, Alex Ovechkin’s assigned pivot, wins just 40% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone. Shooting percentage actually spikes up right after a faceoff win, so Ovechkin is getting deprived of opportunities to score. It might behoove Oates to give Ovechkin and Backstrom some more offensive-zone shifts together; it might do wonders for both of them.
Robert Vollman at Hockey Abstract packages these terrific charts that visualize how Caps players are playing relative to their assignments. Here’s how that data looked as of the morning of March 9th:
Players in the top-left are facing tough assignments. Players in the bottom right are sheltered. Big and blue circles are good. Big and red circles are bad. You can see more player usage charts on Some Kind of Ninja.
We’ve already talked about Marcus Johansson, so let’s just skip over that poor-possession elephant in the locker room. It appears that Ovi and Ribeiro are being effectively shut down despite getting favorable deployments, whereas the team’s bottom 6 seem to be kicking ass with somewhat tougher jobs (although let’s not pretend that defenders are playing Ward and Fehr in any way comparable to Alex Ovechkin).
Among forwards, Ward and Fehr are the big achievers, and frankly both deserve promotions to the top six (where Fehr has been for the last week). Joey Crabb’s continued absence from the press box is a continued mystery to me, although we should acknowledge that he is taking lots of defensive shifts. Nick Backstrom is as dependable as a rock, but his scoring is also eerily rock-like. He could use some kind of change. (If you haven’t detected that my agenda is to put Ovechkin and Backstrom together yet, you haven’t been reading closely.)
On D, it’s time we released John Carlson from the doghouse. Together or apart from Karl Alzner, Carlson has been driving play against some of the league’s best players. That he has been on ice for so many goals against is probably just a funny artifact of bad luck and small sample size. Carlson is a stud, plus he no longer looks like that kid in 8th grade who discovered Pantera and then stopped cutting his hair.
I don’t think the Caps will make the playoffs. The team’s fundamentals just aren’t strong enough for us to expect them to catch up to Carolina. Instead of frittering away team assets for a doomed playoff push, they should be sellers at the deadline and begin assembling a kick-ass team for 2013-2014– with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg not far behind.
Special teams will be a big X-factor from here on out. The PP will probably cool down, and the Caps will have to be a lot more disciplined to keep their PK unit from being overworked. A lot of that performance stems from Adam Oates and his coaching staff– who will have to be both vigilant and reactive to keep the power play plugging and reinvigorate the penalty kill.
Performance data suggest that the Caps aren’t optimizing their lines effectively. Strong players are being scratched in favor of weak players, and the team’s best scorer is playing with a bad faceoff guy instead of the team’s best possession forwards. What the Caps have tried so far isn’t working, so it’s time to shake things up.
One thing I didn’t address is injury. It’s hard to quantify. The Caps are now without the services of Mike Green, and they haven’t seen Brooks Laich all year. Both are strong players, and both can contribute to the weaknesses I identified above– though it’d be naive to think the distance between the Caps and the Cup is just the 6’2″ frame of Brooks Laich. It’s bigger.
So that’s a whole lot of numbers, a whole lot of opinion, and a whole lot of Tyrion Lannister. Below, please tell me where I’m wrong, if you think the Caps can make the postseason, and what you think they can do to make the back half better than the front.