Photo credit: Bridget Samuels
In speaking to the press last Friday, George McPhee talked about about pretty much everything there is to talk about: his plans for the trade deadline, the Capitals’ outlook for future success, and what in particular has been the team’s problem this year.
And he was wrong about pretty much everything. McPhee either doesn’t recognize how bad his team is or he refuses to acknowledge it publicly.
But first, this mandatory and not-at-all untrue GIF:
So I’ve collected quotes from McPhee’s Q&A with Mike Vogel and his press conference with the whole press corps. I implore you to watch and read the entirety of both, as I’m about to cherry-pick the hell out of them. Below each quote is my opinion/evidence-based analysis/bloviation.
“Those [formerly injured] players have made a real impact since they’ve returned and our team starts to line up the way that we thought it would and we’ve become a good team.”
Certainly Brooks Laich has made an impact since he returned (1 goal, 3 assists, positive possession despite starting in the D zone a lot). Mike Green‘s comeback has been marked by anecdotes both good and bad, but he too has been solid considering his overwhelmingly defensive assignments so far. I’m not sure we can say the same for Dmitry Orlov, who has just one shot on goal in over 75 minutes of ice time and has no detectable influence on ice tilt thus far (one caveat being his team-lowest 38.7% starts in the offensive zone).
But McPhee’s argument is that the team has become good by virtue of these players’ returns, and I don’t think the data back him up.
At the end of February, the Capitals had very low possession — 47.24% of unblocked even-strength shots went the right way– and below average PDO (a combination of shooting % and goalie save percentage, 97.9%). A little over a month later, PDO has jumped up to 100.5% thanks in part to some great goaltending, but possession has dropped to 46.87%. The statistical noise that is PDO is just making it seem like the Caps have improved, but they have not.
The Washington Capitals may actually be worse now than they were earlier in the season. Yes, they have more wins, but they’re still plagued by defensive breakdowns, and the pattern of their play bodes really poorly for their future. I worry that injuries are just an escape goat, a convenient excuse for a team that is either missing crucial components or effective coordination (or both).
“We like this team going forward. We like the players we have in our system; they’ll be real good fits for this team the way things are lined up now. The organization is in really good shape and it’s a real solid team. We’ve just got our fingers crossed that we can get a little bit healthier here and have a real nice run.”
Again, the Capitals are currently ranked in the bottom five at puck possession, the single best predictor of future success, and they are trending in the wrong direction since that ugly start to the season. That is neither good shape nor real solid.
It’s tempting but unwise to expect a “real nice run” in the playoffs. The players this team has seen return in the last month have not made them appreciably better by any metric that predicts success, and even if they get into the playoffs, they probably wouldn’t last long. Recent Stanley Cup-winning teams are the ones that have obliterated their opponents when it comes to possession. The Caps were that team back in 08-09, but they’re not today. The question shouldn’t be how to keep their fingers crossed to buck a convincingly determinative system; it should be how to return to that level of performance.
Blaming injury often a scoundrel’s refuge. McPhee did the same thing last year, and back then I agreed to some extent, as a healthy Nicky Backstrom tends to make the players around him better. But that’s not a well we should drink from often. One player– even one as good as Backstrom or Laich– isn’t the difference between a 47% possession lottery pick team and a 59% possession Cup contender. The Caps’ problems are way bigger than one or two injured players.
“We’ve got a chance to be a real good team and have a good run.”
He is absolutely correct. They have a chance. The Capitals have something like a 1 in 4 chance of making the playoffs. That’s not a good chance, but it is by definition a chance. Now, the team’s chances of actually going deep in the playoffs are worse. Both the team’s record and its possession data predict that they’ll likely lose a 7-game series against their probable playoff opponents (though I think they’d have a chance against Toronto!). If Braden Holtby gets hot or Alex Ovechkin scores on every other shot– great! But one shouldn’t build a team based off a hope of exceptional and temporary brilliance, and that article of faith is no reason to wave away a real opportunity to improve a team for next season.
“There are nights when we are playing the way we can play, there are glimpses of how good we can be.”
That’s the thing about glimpses: they’re ephemeral. The problem with a player who has one good night for every five bad ones is not inconsistency, it’s just that he’s not very good. Even Mr. T can score a goal from center ice on a single attempt. How many times can he do it in 528 attempts? A glimpse doesn’t inform. It doesn’t illuminate. It distracts, and it seduces.
The Washington Capitals need a roster upgrade to become truly good. Until then, fans will take solace in glimpses of greatness, but they won’t last. Management has to take the long view. Subsisting on the illusion of sustainable success for too long will eventually make even the most die-hard Caps fans into jaded cynics. Like Cubs fans or Leafs fans or people who watch the McLaughlin Group.
“Our penalty kill– since that 2-8-1 start- we’re probably top 10 in the league or better.”
I think this is provably false. The next chart shows how the Capitals penalty kill has performed (in ten-game moving averages) since the beginning of the season. The league-average PK as of Monday morning is in red, and the threshold for the top 10 is in orange.
The Capitals are not in the top 10 on the penalty kill. They were for a moment. Now they are average, maybe a little worse. If you go by McPhee’s methodology and cut out the first 11 games of the season, the Caps PK is 81.3%– almost exactly the league average.
“I’m not going to do anything at the deadline that in my mind would set us back.”
This is a topic I touched on during while on CapsCast on Easter Sunday. I’m choosing to interpret McPhee’s “set us back” as meaning in the short term since in the long term making a run for the playoffs seems likely to hurt the team’s chances at building a good team for 2014 and 2015.
There’s a lot of talent coming down the pipeline, and by not dealing away temporary players like Mike Ribeiro while his value is at an absurd peak, he’s lessening the punch that guys like Filip Forsberg and Evgeny Kuznetsov will have once they don a Caps uniform. While I’d love watching the Caps in the playoffs, I still think McPhee is mortgaging the team’s future for a way too slim chance at postseason success.
Okay, enough of the grumpy pants stuff.
“We’ve sort of changed our blueline on the fly here the last few years and have created this mobile blueline that can generate some offense.”
I can’t think of any good way to measure a blueline’s mobility, although I’m a bit suspicious that John Erskine and Jeff Schultz have the mobility of which McPhee speaks. Instead of quibbling over that, let’s see if Washington’s defenders are actually generating a larger share of offense compared to years past. I’ll measure that contribution using the percentage of shots on goal that came from defenders in each of the last 4 seasons.
|Season||D % of shots|
McPhee is right. The Caps certainly have got a larger share of offensive contribution in recent years. Last season may have been an anomaly considering how little offense the Caps offered and how much Dennis Wideman was shooting early that year.
I should acknowledge that while the defense is proportionately generating more this year, the team overall is shooting less. Shots per game has trended down over the last four seasons.
“We really like the way Marcus Johansson is playing now.”
Me too! I wrote an inflammatory hitpiece about Johansson back in February that I’m frankly embarrassed about now. We’ve since learned that Johansson was playing through a concussion during those first nine games. He shouldn’t have been playing at all.
Since he’s returned, Johansson has been much better. He’s actually improving the play of some of his linemates now, he’s a relatively stronger player on the puck. He’s contributing to the offense for the first time in nearly a year. While he’s not all the way there yet, I’m really encouraged by his progress and embarrassed by my attack on a player who needed help, not criticism.
(Tangent: Hey, wouldn’t it be nice to have fully disclosed injuries for all players? Wouldn’t it be cool if there were transparency to a system so clearly broken that some players try to “tough out” their concussions and others medicate themselves to death? It would also enable fans and scouts to evaluate players in context, but that’s small potatoes considering the health of the players themselves. I know this has nothing to do with George McPhee’s statement, but the NHL– like most pro sports — still seems helplessly broken in this respect.)
I am not saying McPhee is a liar or an idiot. Far from it. He built my favorite hockey team (yours too, I suspect), and his job is phenomenally hard. He’s been deviously clever in the draft and has masterfully managed his goaltending talent. The facts certainly agree with some things he said on Friday, and some of my points above are purely subjective.
But the Capitals team I’ve been following so closely doesn’t resemble the one McPhee described. Maybe the Caps have internal metrics that would dispute what I’ve got– (I’d really welcome more data). Maybe McPhee was speaking strategically to position himself for some big moves on the trade deadline. Maybe he was speaking aspirationally, as if the mere saying of these things might help make them true. Maybe he just wants the players to know that they have his confidence at a crucial part of the season.
Still doesn’t make it true. Here’s one last McPhee quote:
“No one likes criticism.”
Well, yeah. I don’t think I’ll be getting a Christmas card from the McPhee McPhamily this year, but I’m still a fan. I still think this organization and this team can do great things. I just think a shared understanding of a problem is essential to its solving. So this is that.
Crash the net.