Look at Ward’s face. (Photo: Patrick McDermott)
The Capitals line-up has been changing lately. Brooks Laich‘s groin is acting up again, Tyson Strachan has been sent down to the AHL, Patrick Wey and Dmitry Orlov have been called up, and Alex Urbom and Steve Oleksy are regular scratches. Martin Erat is somehow back in good graces, and Michael Latta is elsewhere. Despite– or perhaps because of all that upheaval, the Capitals are making real inroads towards improving their even-strength play.
My working theory for that improvement goes like this: the less-awesome players are playing less, the more-awesome players are playing more. I know that sounds radical, but hear me out.
These are the numbers as of noon on Sunday, December 8th. My sample doesn’t include power play or penalty kill situations– just 5-on-5 play while the score is within one goal in the first two periods and tied in the third. That eliminates the effects of blowouts and comebacks, when teams are protecting a lead or desperate to get a goal back. Stats of note are highlighted in powderpuff pink and discussed below.
- The team’s Fenwick Close (aka even-strength shot-attempt percentage in close games aka puck possession) continues to tick up steadily. This week it went from 47.22% to 47.86%, a small improvement, but a notable one considering there were only two games. The important thing is that the team is heading in the right direction, and as we delve deeper in it’ll be come apparent why.
- Like a lot of people, I’m concerned about Brooks Laich‘s groin. Katie Carrera’s report on Laich’s injury stated that it was similar to the one that kept out of all but 9 games last season. When Laich was playing, he was one of the team’s worst possession forwards (measured by shot attempt percentage, SA% above). Now that Laich is out of the lineup, the Caps are looking up– both collectively at 5v5 and particularly among Laich’s former linemates.
- …Like Troy Brouwer. I’ll have more on this on Monday, but Troy’s liberation from Brooks Laich has transformed him. Paired now with Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski— two of the team’s better possession players, he’s finally hanging out on the right side of the ice. Brouwer scored on Saturday, and I’m pretty confident he’s bound for more. Keep watching; I think the Fehr-Grabo-Brouwer line is gonna be doing good stuff in coming days.
- Dmitry Orlov has only been in DC for three games, but he’s done well so far. After a rough start paired with Tyson Strachan in Long Island, Orlov has been improving the team’s possession in every game since– including a strong 55% performance next to Patrick Wey on Saturday. I’m wary that Orlov’s not quite fitting into the Caps D system yet– there was one shift with the top line where Nick Backstrom had to bail Orlov out– but I’d like to see him get a longer tryout up in the big club this winter. And if he’s ever going to become the offensive
forwarddefenseman people keep saying he is (without any freaking evidence), he needs to maybe fire a shot. He’s had just 4 attempts in 45 minutes on ice– only one of them was on target.
- Just like Orlov, there’s Martin Erat— a solid player who, for some reason, hadn’t been given a real chance until lately. Serving on the third line with Chimera and Ward, Erat absolutely dominated the Predators on Sunday with an 81% possession score (17 shot attempts for, just 4 against). Erat’s doing what Grabovski did a few weeks earlier– adding puck control to a line flanked by physical players. It’s a good fit, and while they might not enjoy the same cosmically absurd luck the Grabo iteration did, this line is viable for scoring. But Erat’s performance has never been in doubt (at least not here and among our friends). Here are the real questions: Why does Erat feel like he doesn’t fit in? Why does Oates play Erat in the bottom-six? Does Erat still wish to leave town now? And, most curious to me: Why is Erat (and Orlov for that matter) getting more ice all of a sudden? One wonders if GMGM has been a bit more hands-on with his coach lately. Whatever the reason, it’s working!
- Jay Beagle continues to bound upwards from his slovenly possession early in the year, but I want to caution against taking these numbers without context. Possession stats like the one I’m using (which is basically Fenwick Close) are on-ice stats and therefore a function of a lots of stuff rolled into one number. To some extent individual players dictate their possession, but they’re all also at the whims of their team. As the Caps have seen their overall puck possession improve from awful to okay, so too have individual players. Beagle played a bunch of games early on where he and the team were barely above 40%, but he didn’t play for much of the climb upwards. Now the team is right about at 50%, and I don’t know if it’s wise to attribute entirely the improvement of Beagle’s personal SA% to individual effort. He might just be riding the wave. Let’s keep an eye on him, but I’m still itching to use beagle.jpg over here.
- On Friday we mused over the wretched luck of players not named Alex Ovechkin while on the ice with Ovi. At that point, there had been just one goal on 133 shots by people in that group. I said, ” I doubt this will last much longer” and pointed to low-shooting Marcus Johansson as a possible cure. I was wrong. It was low-shooting Karl Alzner who broke the drought instead. Alzner is way ahead of his shot pace from last season, and I’m already planning a parade for when he shatters his career record for goals in a season (2).
- One more note on Karl: he’s getting almost 30 seconds more ice per game than he’s seen in the last two years. John Carlson, already the team’s ice leader, has seen an even bigger increase. While some of those numbers might be due to the preponderance of overtime this season, I think it moreso reflects how untrustworthy the Caps’ third-pairing defensemen have been. Mike Vogel wrote a fantastic piece about Washington’s inexperience on the blue line that everyone, but especially the Caps front office, should read.
- I dunno, man. I think Mike Green might be good. Yeah, he’s making some questionable moves in his own end, but the proof is in the pudding and the pudding is a team-best 54% SA%. Green is knocking at the door of the league’s top-20 defenseman based on shot attempts, and he’s improving his team’s Corsi numbers better than any of those top 20 guys except Anton Stralman of New York. Note to self: keep this in mind next time Green does something boneheaded.
- Let’s do some quick math. I’m going to use Relative Corsi, a stat that describes how many good shot attempts a player is on-ice for compared to when he’s off the ice. Positive numbers are good; negative numbers are bad. Here are Caps players recently made inactive, for whatever reason: Laich, -6.9%; Urbom, -7.9%; Oleksy, -1.5%; Latta, -1.7%; Strachan, -14.7%. And now, some players who have been re-introduced or promoted to active duty: Orlov, +5.0%; Erat, +2.8%; Fehr, +2.2%. It’s like the Caps fixed a big part of what was hurting the team just by feeding the plugs nachos in the press box. (For the record, I don’t think Laich is a plug, but I do think his nagging nature of injury was making the team worse.)
- GP: Games played
- TOI: Time on ice
- GF: Capitals goals for which the player was on the ice
- GA: Opponent goals for which the player was on the ice
- SA%: Percentage of shot attempts (from both teams) that went towards the opponent’s net, excluding blocked shots
- Sh%: Capitals’ shooting percentage while the player was on the ice
- Sv%: Capitals’ goalie save percentage while the player was on the ice
- PDO: The sum of Sh% and Sv%, a number that regresses closely to 100 in larger samples; a proxy for luck, in a sense– i.e. high ≈ lucky
- ZS%: The share of shifts the player started in the offensive zone, excluding neutral-zone starts; data not limited to close games.
Note: It looks like last week’s TOI data were erroneous somehow. I’m not sure why, as the rest of the data were correct.