My Apology, and How We Got Here

Patrick McDermott

Photo credit: Patrick McDermott

Sooooooooo… I was wrong about the Capitals. And I’m sorry.

Early in the season, I waved away the Caps’ struggles, citing some strong puck possession numbers. But as those numbers eroded and the Caps kept losing, I hedged my bets. The Capitals were giving up too many penalties, performing poorly on the kill, and were not really tilting the ice. By the middle of February, I became wary. Cut to early March, when my last ounce of pollyannaish pluck was depleted. I said the Capitals weren’t headed for the playoffs, that their possession was debilitating, and that a turn of good luck wouldn’t be enough to turn their fortunes around.

I was wrong all over. My bad.

Photo credit: Patrick McDermott

Photo credit: Patrick McDermott

So how did I get it wrong? How did the Capitals make the playoffs?

I’ll tell you right now that it’s not possession. The Capitals are still in the bottom third at even-strength shot attempts when the score is close, but then again Toronto made the playoffs too– and they’re the second worst team in the league at that same statistic. So maybe puck possession is a scam and geeks should turn their gaze elsewhere.

No, that’s not it. Puck possession is still the best predictor of future success we’ve got, but a shortened season has given those deterministic factors less time to take effect. Instead, we’re seeing a lot more statistical noise than we might’ve thought.

If you add up a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, you can get a decent idea how statistical variance has lifted or sunk that team. We call it PDO, a meaningless acronym that is sort of a proxy for dumb luck. Halfway into the season, the Capitals were the ninth most unlucky team in league. Now they’re the ninth most lucky. I think that a good chunk of that improvement isn’t due solely to regression, but rather to an improved team defense that helped Braden Holtby play like a stud  again. Holtby, who has taken the lion’s share of starts this season, deserves oodles of credit for pulling his team out of a deep hole.

And then there’s Ovi.

The best statistical projections estimated that Alex Ovechkin would score 31 goals and 68 points this season. But that was for a full 82-game season. We’re not even done 48 games yet and Ovi has already tied that goal total. He’s done that by way of a few factors, but the fastest way to explain it is this: Adam Oates.

Oates rescued Ovi from the possession charybdis that is Mike Ribeiro and reunited him with setup man Nick Backstrom. Oates moved Ovi to the right wing, where he was forced to modify his stale tactics. Oates reformulated the power play, positioning Ovechkin as a one-touch goal machine. And, perhaps most importantly, Oates convinced Ovechkin to trust his linemates to carry the puck more, freeing him to focus on finishing rather than playmaking. As I said the other day, the Caps’ fortunes improved exactly when Ovechkin’s performance did. And while I repeatedly spoke aspirationally about this exact thing happening, I never relied on it to make predictions. For a player that so many people said had been “solved” and had grown predictable, Ovechkin’s greatest trick was becoming unpredictable again. Heh.

There’s a lot of other factors that I underestimated, but none more than Marcus Johansson. On February 4th, I wrote a lengthy item detailing Johansson’s wretched season, blithely unaware that he was suffering from a concussion. Soon after, Johansson was benched, and when he returned, he was changed. Sure, he had better linemates, but Mojo should be applauded for transforming from a lowly 38% possession player into one that is decisively driving play.

But that’s kind of true for everyone. Robert Vollman’s indispensible player usage charts help us visualize how the Caps went from meh to whoa. The bottom-right quadrant means sheltered deployments and top-left means tough, two-way play. Red bubbles means negative possession, and blue means driving play. The bigger the circle the more positive or negative those possession stats are.

Capitals Usage, March 9th


Capitals Usage, April 19th


It’s pretty much global improvement. Again, Johansson is transformed from a liability to an asset. Alex Ovechkin is both more optimized and more productive. Joey Crabb is gone. And the team’s reliable role players– Fehr, Perreault, Backstrom, Carlson, and Alzner– continue to hold the team together. (Ribeiro is still a problem at even strength, but you probably already knew that.)

This isn’t the story of the team’s captain singlehandedly hoisting his team on his back and carrying them into the postseason. Ovechkin absolutely led the effort, but Adam Oates tended to the whole garden.

But there’s one more factor– one more thing I was wrong about, and it’s the big one. Exactly one month ago, I looked at the Capital’s chances of making the post season and I was not enthused. I predicted they’d lose a big chunk of these final games, and I was super duper wrong.

Opponent Δ Ice Tilt% Win/Loss
Rangers -7.34 Win
Islanders -3.64 Loss
Sabres +1.95 Win
Flyers -4.44 Loss
Hurricanes -6.12 Win
Islanders -3.64 Win
Panthers -4.50 Win
Lightning +1.87 Win
Canadiens -7.29 Win
Hurricanes -6.12 Win
Lightning +1.87 Win
Maple Leafs +0.61 Win
Senators -4.15 Loss
Canadiens -7.29 Win
Jets -4.36 Win
Senators -4.15
Bruins -8.20

That was certainly a surprise– but even that is not why the Capitals made the playoffs.

Here is why the Capitals made the playoffs:

win percentage

I wrote that playoff story around game 32. The Carolina Hurricanes were already 7 games into a pronounced losing streak at that time, but Winnipeg was still a few days out from their own implosion. The Jets then lost five games in a row– opening a window for the Capitals to take the division title.

The Capitals turned their season around by themselves, but that herculean effort would have been meaningless without the unimaginable incompetence of the Southeast Division.

While I wasn’t the rainiest of rainclouds this season, I wasn’t a ray of sunshine. And I was wrong. Errr… kind of. Each time I filed one of these miserable and under-read stories about the Caps’ woes, I mentioned how they might turn it around– how they might pull out of the tailspin and soar again.

And soar is exactly what the Capitals did. I’m filled with gratitude that I was around to watch it. Bravo to Alex Ovechkin, who reclaimed his title as the world’s best hockey player. Bravo to Adam Oates, who enlightened his team with a professorial eye for detail. And bravo to George McPhee, who built the playoff team he said he would.

Now onto the playoffs.

  • Adam Oates may be the best thing to happen to the Capitals, ever. As a player and coach he is a gamechanger.

  • You think an argument could be made that Oates is one of if not the best coach/player in the NHL in terms of stats?

  • Interesting Q. Worth looking into.

  • Ben Reed

    Agree with this. So happy to have him.

  • dcvibes

    “that herculean effort would have been meaningless without the unimaginable incompetence of the Southeast Division.”

    Maybe for the division title. As it stands now, they’d still be in the playoffs (6 or 7 seed) even if they didn’t win the division. Of course, it helped that they won almost all their SE games, but they likely could have made the playoffs even without the losing streaks by WPG and CAR. It just would have been a bit more difficult and these last 2 games would be nail-biting time.

  • Andrew Wissler

    We saw flashes of great hockey from this team all season. Granted it was few and somewhat far between in the early going. It was only a matter of time before they nailed it down and made it happen night in and night out. There is just too much talent on this team to keep them down for long.

  • ray2k

    Props for going back and taking your predictions and admitting you got it wrong. Far too many (particularly on tv) act like people don’t remember their predictions when they fail miserably.

  • WRONG. They made te playoffs because of CANADIANS like TROY BROUWER and MATT HENDRICKS and NICKLAS BACKTROM.

  • yv

    Just that you are not to be wrong again in your conclusion, I would like to correct you on one critical point: Caps in playoffs are not because Jets and Car fell of the cliff and that Southeast is mediocre division, but because Caps winning the games, including against them, and collecting points that are enough to be in playoffs. Caps playing 18 games inside division, while teams from other divisions only three less, 15, so nothing prevent(ed) them to collect a lot of points against SE. As a strategic plan for the whole campaign and based on point % of many previous years, every team can have two goals before the start of the season, either to win a division or collect 54-55 points in this shortened season, that will practically guarantee place in playoffs. Caps have done exactly that and the division championship is just extra prize on top of collected points.

  • Phil

    Don Cherry? Is that you?

  • Fair point. Thanks for adding that.

  • Leef

    Nick Backstrom isn’t Canadian…

  • YEAH RIGHT! Look pal, you wouldn’t know a canadian if Jack Hillen and John Carlson came over to your house bearing maple syrup.

  • capsyoungguns

    Bravo for a great post. Favorite line: “Adam Oates tended to the whole garden.”

  • Chukwukamso

    Is part of the reason we’re in the bottom 3rd of possession out awful, awful start?

  • DustyBoots

    Matt Hendricks isnt Canadian either………..

  • You were just letting Greenberg get to you, lol

  • Mark Novack

    We would make the playoffs even if the Peg kept winning (except vs us) we would still be 6th or 7th in the standings. An article about how the Caps have turned things around that ends with, “it wasn’t them their opponents were miserable,” is somewhat insulting.

  • My only disagreement–I’m not sure it is really a disagreement but I can’t think of a better term right now–is with the notion that the SE Division is weak/incompetent. This is the common thought among commentators around the NHL media. True, the Canes and Jets collapsed, which IS why the Caps have won the division/3rd seed. It is also why the SE division is seen as weak. But the division as a whole–certainly on paper–is potentially very tough. The Canes and Bolts have been done in by goaltending. CAR was fine until Ward’s injury. Players like the Staals, Semin, Tlusty, and Skinner are not to be taken lightly. The Bolts, of course, have a guy named Stamkos to go along w/ St. Louis, Lecavalier, Purcell, and Pouliot. They don’t have goaltending, though, and it has killed them. The fucking Atlantic division right now has only two teams who have clinched a playoff spot. Philly stinks, the Devils–like the Canes–collapsed, and the Rangers are very close to missing the playoffs and being the ultimate underachieving team in NHL history (they will probably get in as they have 2 games more than the Jets and it is hard to imagine they will screw it up). But here’s the thing: no commentator will ever call a division w/ such storied franchises as PIT, NYR, NYI, NJD, and PHI weak. Without the Isles inspired story, though, this division is just as “weak” as the SE this year. Why doesn’t Mike Milbury or any Hockey Night in Canada commentator call the Northwest division weak …’cuz I certainly am! Canucks, you got it easy; the NW is a weak, incompetent, pathetic division. There, I said it.

  • JenniferH

    Beautiful mea culpa, Peter. But it’s certainly understandable why you had doubts. I think many of us did, but like true fans we all stuck with the team and we were rewarded last night with a cry of “Playoffs, Baby! WOOO!”

  • Not really. The Caps had pretty strong possession numbers early on– but really awful goaltending and shooting numbers.

    Then the shooting/saving improved but the possession dropped off.

  • If the Peg kept winning, then the Caps couldn’t have kept winning. They played each other– including a back-to-back of which the Caps won both.

  • I think we agree in substance, just not in style.

    The Southeast has maybe three of the best scoring duos in the league (Semin/Tlusty, Backstrom/Ovi, MSL/Stamkos). I think the problem is there’s a big falloff after that elite talent on many teams.

    And hell yeah about the Northwest.

  • Netminder71

    Steven Oleksy. Season turned around the day they signed him…pretty much. And Ovi, and Oates, and Holtby too…but Binky rules.

  • Even as angry as I was with OV’s lack of production, I will be the first (second, in this case) to admit I was wrong about him. I always knew he could turn it around but I figured it would have been with a different team, So Oates has been quite the trump card for that argument. As much as I’ve always loved the advanced stat articles RMNB has always put up, it’s good to keep in mind that stats and averages are dynamic, and projections don’t always come to fruition. Good article here, and so were the ones you apologize for!

  • I hate when you’re right.

  • SIKE, no I don’t.

  • Weeeeeelllll I wasn’t projecting or predicting stats for Ovi, and I have been saying all along that he COULD improve by doing something like the things he’s done– I just didn’t trust it would happen.

    Sooooooooooo– yeah. I was still wrong, but in a way I’m okay with.

  • I was wrong right along with you.

    It happens. Lets just forget about it and look forward to more years with Oates as the boss.

  • donator

    Could Adam Oates have turned around A. Semin?

  • Emily Casto

    Yeah, and Carlson’s an American. Just sayin’

  • Emily Casto

    Peter, if everyone is honest with themselves, they’ll admit that they were in the stands or watching their TVs asking “who the hell is this team? where is my team?”. No one thought we were going to be SE division champs- hell, we were dead last in the entire NHL. It wasn’t about a lack of collective loyalty as fans; we were still in the stands, watching the games on TV, tweeting and blogging. But it was reality. It was painful as hell, but it was reality. Those of us who don’t bring written, real-time commentary and insight to fans via a blog like RMNB find it much easier to forget, because our hopelessness and frustration wasn’t captured in writing after each game. You don’t owe anyone an apology – anyone who really thought our team was a SERIOUS Stanley Cup contender while we were dead last in the NHL should write a detailed account of why they thought so, complete with an analysis of each player’s stats and their performance as a cohesive team… not to mention an explanation of how our multiple losses were going to propel us into the top of the division. I love the Caps when they’re at the bottom of the heap just as much as I love them now, but at least I’m honest about it- and so are you guys.

  • Dark Stranger

    Speaking of Rangers who underachieved. If they had lost Lundquist for the season AND also had lost their 2nd string goalie at the same time (and that 2nd string goalie had returned too soon), they would have been in the same boat as Carolina.

    Of course, if I had realigned divisions the way I wanted to, the Northwest would have been worse. I would have put Winnipeg there and moved VAN to the PAC, Dallas to the Central, Colum to the Atlantic, and Flyers to the SE (by default). Okay, the SE would have still been bad due to Flyers “off” year.

  • Bucky Katt

    HIllen isn’t Canadian either, but I think Dylan is humorously channelling Don Cherry. So don’t be too hard on him.

  • Gotta admit along with you that in the past 2 years I’ve been less optimistic about the Caps even while remaining a fan and being glad to see them turn difficult situations around.

    I’ve been especially hard in my thinking and communicating at times about GMGM.

    So, I admit it. I was wrong. The team has been turned around and tweaked with a coaching change and what is more, even in the transition, they still made the playoffs.

    I expect a good playoff run and am already excited about next year when Oates and the Caps can return to a normal season with team chemistry and trust already in place.

    Fans magnify the present and project the future based on the most recent history. Professionals keep the big picture in mind and build the team with the long run in mind. McPhee obviously can do that and he’s shown it by making these changes and we’re seeing the benefits now. McPhee saw that as Ovechkin went so went the Caps and he found the coach, brought him in and brought in the supporting team to make it work.

    I will think twice before calling out McPhee again without remembering this.

  • Mark Novack

    They lost a lot of games besides “just the ones to us.” Which I already excluded in my argument. Your apology starts with, “sorry I made a mistake about the Caps.” Then in the middle you excuse yourself by saying, “they are a statistical anomaly though not as much as Toranto is.” Leading you to conclude your apology with, “I wasn’t wrong, the real reason the Caps are here is the other teams did something really bad.” So I say, “Appoligy not accepted.”

  • My realignment would have been different:
    • Conferences & divisions remain basically the same
    • Winnipeg moves from SE to Central Division
    • Nashville moves from Central to Southeast Division
    IMO, the only reason for the realignment to have been done the way it was, was to deliberately leave two open slots in the Western Conference for even more (ill-advised) expansion. Dammit, Bettman!

  • Mine was “…possession charybdis that is Mike Ribeiro…. Whether I agree or not, that was genius. Mad props, Peter!

  • The answer to that question may prove as elusive and mysterious as Sasha Minor himself…