Photo: Nick Wass
The Caps are 42 games into their 82-game season. I could’ve offered my halfway analysis after the customary 41, but I figured the four days off between now and Thursday’s game in Tampa will offer us more time for careful reflection.
The Capitals used to be an easy team to describe. From 2007 through 2010, they were an offensive juggernaut that scored at will on the strength of puck-possession dominance and the world’s best scorer in Alex Ovechkin. Defensive worries (or perceptions thereof) tainted the team’s success, and a couple bad breaks– a hot goalie in the Montreal playoff series of 2010, a spot of bad goaltending to begin the 10-11 season, and the exit of several strong depth players– turned the team’s fortunes towards the mediocre.
Now, halfway through Adam Oates’ first full season as the Capitals’ coach, we have a better idea of who this team is. It is not nearly as strong as the Boudreau model, but it’s also not as wearying as Hunter Hockey. There’s a lot of gray in this painting, but there’s also a lot to learn from it.
Plus: Adventure Time GIFs!
|20-16-6||The Capitals’ record. 20 wins, 16 losses, 6 overtime losses.|
|3rd||The Capitals’ rank in Metropolitan Division, behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.|
|18th||The Capitals’ overall rank in the league, perhaps betraying the weakness of the Metro division.|
|12||Number of wins in regulation or overtime (ROW) by the Caps, the 6th lowest total in the league.|
Gary Bettman’s scoring scheme has been very kind to the Caps. The team has won few games in 60 or 65 minutes, but they’ve won 8 of 12 shootouts. Because of the paucity of ROWs, the Capitals will have a hard time winning a standings tiebreaker come April. Should the other teams in the Metro start improving– or if the Caps continue to lose to inferior teams like they did this past week, the Capitals will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
We use shot attempts as a way to measure puck possession. It’s been shown that possession stats, particularly in close games, have more predictive value for a team’s future success. Teams with possession under 50% (that is– teams who are playing defense most of the time) tend not to make the playoffs or get eliminated in the early rounds.
|22nd||The Caps’ rank in puck possession during even strength when the score is close.|
|48.69%||The percentage of unblocked shot attempts that belong to the Caps in that situation.|
|43||The number of unblocked shot attempts the Capitals allow per 60 minutes, 7th worst in the league.|
|40||The number of unblocked shots the Caps generate per 60 minutes at even strength, 18th in the league.|
Basically, they don’t have the puck much.
The Capitals are not a strong possession team, extending a decline that began around 2009 and turned sharply downward after 2011. Despite short periods of encouraging play, the 2012-13 Caps have not reversed the downward progress. Actually, the last half of December was perhaps the worst the Capitals have played since the beginning of the Hanlon era, but that may not be indicative of where the team will end up by season’s end. It’s unlikely the Capitals will peek above 50% when all is said and done, which will likely presage another early-round exit from the playoffs– should they make the postseason at all.
|Goalie||5v5 Sv%||Shots Faced|
The Capitals have employed three goalies this season to mixed results. Braden Holtby began the season successfully, but he struggled in December before getting benched for two weeks. Philipp Grubauer started the season in Hershey but has performed terrifically well in his appearances with the Caps, earning the lion’s share of starts in December. Michal Neuvirth seems to the be odd man out and has requested a trade.
The Capitals depend on their goalies too much. Caps goalies see an average of 33.4 shots on goal per game, the 4th most in the league. As the skaters don’t have much possession of the puck, it too often falls on the goalie to win games. Braden Holtby’s impressive start was responsible for a number of wins early in the season, but weak goaltending in the last two games cost the Caps wins despite strong puck possession. The Caps should endeavor to reduce the burden on their goalies in the back half, preferably via upgrades to the defensive roster and its tactics per Calle Johansson.
|100.0||The Capitals’ PDO, a stat that serves as a proxy for luck. The Caps are neither lucky nor unlucky overall.|
|15th||The Caps’ rank in PDO. Right in the middle.|
|7.2%||The Caps’ shooting percentage during even strength, slightly below average.|
|92.8%||The Caps’ save percentage during even strength, slightly above average.|
Despite some lucky wins and bad losses, the Caps can’t blame their record on luck.
The Caps started the season with some excellent goaltending– as well as a couple blowouts by the offense. The percentages have cooled significantly since, particularly in the back half of December, which was brutal. There’s a lot of fluctuation, but on balance the Caps have been neither lucky nor unlucky. Good bounces in the opening weeks masked some weaker underlying numbers, just as bad bounces cost the Caps six standing points in the last week. PDO regresses strongly over the course of the season, but we have no reason to think the Caps will see a big change in their fortunes in the back half.
|2nd||The Capitals’ rank on the power play.|
|25.3%||The percentage of power play opportunities that the Capitals have converted.|
|3rd||The Capitals’ rank in generating unblocked shot attempts during the power play, indicating a strong underlying system that can sustain success.|
|16.7%||The Capitals’ shooting percentage during the power play, among the highest in the league and prone to drop slightly.|
|150||The number of power play opportunities the Caps have had through 42 games, 8th most in the league. That number may be difficult to maintain for a low puck-possession team.|
|17||The number of penalties drawn by Alex Ovechkin, highest on the team.|
Adam Oates’s signature 1-3-1 power play has taken over the league in the last twelve months. Teams across the NHL have adopted some variation of it, though none with the effectiveness of the Washington original. The not-so-secret weapon: Alex Ovechkin threatening to score after a faceoff or with a one-timer from the left circle.
The Caps power play unit is rolling along, scoring on one out of every four opportunities. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have been more successful. The shot-generation numbers behind the PP are encouraging as well– suggesting that the Caps will continue to make their opponents pay for penalties for the rest of the season. The big worries should be the Caps’ ability to continue drawing penalties and the team’s ability to keep the man advantage productive even when the opponents put man-on-man defense against Alex Ovechkin.
|21st||The Capitals’ rank on the penalty kill.|
|80.5%||The percentage of penalties the Capitals kill without allowing a goal.|
|28th||The Capitals’ rank in limiting unblocked shot attempts while shorthanded, 88.4 per 60 minutes.|
|88.8%||Caps goalies’ save percentage while shorthanded, 10th best in the league. This number may not remain this high.|
|154||The number of times the Capitals have been shorthanded so far. Only six teams have had more penalties to kill. This is to be expected for low-possession teams– also teams that throw the puck over the glass all the gosh darn time.|
|21||The number of penalties committed by Tom Wilson, highest on the team. Mike Green and Troy Brouwer are tied at 19.|
|0||Number of penalties committed by Marcus Johansson.|
For a while, the Capitals had the best power play and the best penalty kill in the league. The PP has continued to be terrific, but the Caps have faltered on the PK since the beginning of November. That early success was due to some terrific goaltending numbers that could not be sustained given the number of shots the Capitals were allowing. Only the Stars and the Leafs put their goalie through more misery. While Adam Oates’ conviction to build his PK units out of forwards who skate together during 5v5 is admirable, it hasn’t paid off. We should expect the Caps to suffer more from their penalties in the future until they make big changes to their PK tactics.
|31||Goals scored through 40 games (with two missed due to injury).|
|62||Projected end-of-season goal total for Alex Ovechkin, which would be his highest total since his career-best year in 2007-08.|
|12||Assists by Alex Ovechkin, ranked 122nd among forwards in the league.|
|50.3%||Ovechkin’s puck-possession number during 5v5 situations. This is Ovechkin’s first 50+ season in three years He’s generating 4 more shot attempts per
Alex Ovechkin is the best scorer in the world. If you adjust for how goal production has dropped overall in the last twenty years, he may be one of the best scorers of all time.
While much is made of Alex Ovechkin’s bad plus-minus, we see that the culprit isn’t that Ovi is hogging all the shots, it’s that everyone else is ridiculously snakebit.
Ovechkin is not taking more shots in proportion to his linemates compared to recent years; it’s just that his shots are the only ones yielding goals. In fact, we see that Ovechkin is actually sharing the puck more with his linemates this season compared to the last three years.
We should expect other skaters to start scoring in the final forty games. Ovi’s big blue bar at the right side of the first chart above should be smaller by season’s end. And, if you care, his plus-minus should look a little better too.
After three years of Ovechkin being pretty much the only guy shooting, the Capitals’ top line is truly a multi-dimensional threat for the first time since the pre-trap Boudreau era. It’s just that they haven’t scored… yet. The Ovechkin assists are coming; all that they require is patience.
Ovechkin’s resurgence in 2013 is probably Adam Oates’ biggest accomplishment. While it’s seductive to say the strategy has been “get the puck to Ovi,” that’s just not true.
Ovechkin may or may not have a career-best season in 2013-14, but his comeback still flies in the face of everything we’ve learned over the past three years. It’s a very big deal. Despite getting older, playing in a league with fewer power plays, and playing for a team that prioritizes offense far less than it used to, Ovi is Ovi again. I doubt he’ll hit 60 goals, but I won’t be disappointed whatever the result. (And I won’t be surprised if I’m wrong.)`
- After recovering from a concussion in early 2013, Marcus Johansson has become a dynamic player, helping with zone entries and playing a surprisingly aggressive game as the low man on the power play. He is also disciplined, having yet to get busted for a penalty this season. But Johansson’s shot generation is lower than most Caps third liners, and that’s a big factor in the top line’s disappointing 5v5 play.
- Rookie Tom Wilson has not been given an opportunity to prove himself. He averages barely over seven minutes a game, and he has spent most of that time next to one of the worst forwards in the league, Aaron Volpatti. Wilson is just not getting the reps needed to stick in the NHL, which is doubly unfortunate considering the Caps parted with Mathieu Perreault to make room for his contract.
- Troy Brouwer had a very rough start. Adam Oates took a very long time to figure out that Brouwer and Brooks Laich had no chemistry together. Now that he’s skating with other players, Brouwer is seeing success at 5v5. His spot at the fulcrum of the 1-3-1 hasn’t paid off yet, but the Caps have a number of set plays involving Brouwer that should result in goals soon.
- George McPhee signed buyout victim Mikhail Grabovski over the summer. Grabo’s first success was as the pivot between Joel Ward and Jason Chimera, where he turned a meat-and-potatoes line into one of the best scoring lines in the league. Grabovski is now playing with Eric Fehr and Alex Ovechkin on a line that could become explosively productive in upcoming weeks. Grabo has acquitted himself well in every assignment he’s had, and it’s inevitable that the Caps will try to extend his contract soon.
- Brooks Laich missed most of last season with a groin injury. Returning to regular service in October, Laich struggled with puck possession– particularly when paired with Troy Brouwer on the “Black Hole Line.” Laich’s injury reasserted itself in December, but he has returned to action before Christmas. It is as of yet unclear if Laich is healthy enough to play a full NHL schedule at the level required. If he can, Laich may become a big role player as third-line center in the second half of the season.
- Martin Erat has been the team’s second best assist man this season, but he has scored no goals for himself. That’s surprising, but Erat’s assignments this year have included much less offense than he’s used to. He babysat rookies on the fourth line for the first few weeks of the season before finding a groove as Mikhail Grabovski’s replacement between Ward and Chimera. Since Laich’s return, Erat has again been relegated to the fourth line. Unhappy with the way Adam Oates has used him, Erat has requested a trade. He is not long for Washington, sadly.
- Despite constant criticism of his defensive play, Mike Green is enjoying a renaissance this season. He is the team’s best possession defender and the preferred quarterback for its terrific power play. After years of declining value, Green appears to be coming back– though his detractors still have a good point about his coverage during odd-man rushes.
|0||Number of man-games the Caps have lost to suspension this season.|
|3||Number of goalies on the Capitals’ active roster.|
|$241k||Estimated salary-cap space available to the Capitals, the lowest in the league.|
|19||Goals scored by an opponent within two minutes after a Caps goal, a time when the Capitals are a very weak team.|
|22||Games decided by one goal or by the shootout.|
|152||Number of people following RMNB on Pinterest, where we post pictures of adorable zoo animals.|
|36||Game recaps written by me. The other six were written by Chris Gordon.|
|0||Number of dates I’ve been on lately.|
The Capitals first took second place in the Metropolitan Division despite the apparent weaknesses in their even-strength play. Excellent goaltending (at evens and while shorthanded) and the Ovechkin-anchored power play vaulted the team up the standings, but it won’t be enough to keep them there. They’ve already dropped to third.
The team seems unable to win games decisively, as evidenced by the preponderance of one-goal games, shootout decisions, and opponent goals surrendered right after the Caps score. Add to that the team’s below-average puck possession, and the Capitals don’t look like a playoff team.
But the Metropolitan Division is not strong, and the Capitals’ not-so-secret weapon is capable of extraordinary stuff. Alex Ovechkin‘s shot volume should mean he’ll keep scoring through early 2014. In addition, Ovi should start racking up assists as his linemate’s shooting percentages return to league average.
Though it’s less certain, the team’s puck possession may be on the rise as well, which will mean a great deal towards the team’s prospects for a postseason and a meaningful run should they get there. But the team will have to combat a very tough schedule in March and their own deeply flawed penalty kill to get there.
The Capitals are not contenders for the Stanley Cup right now, but they’ve got enough talent to make some noise. They’ve also got enough motivation to make some big changes before the trade deadline. If that goes well, look out. With an upgrade on defense– both on the roster and in tactics, the Capitals may become dominant team again. Not Boudreau dominant, but still pretty good.
At least, that’s what I’m seeing.
What do you think of the Capitals after 42 games?
How would you rate Adam Oates’ job as head coach and George McPhee’s as general manager?
Do you think the Caps can make the playoffs in the Metropolitan Division?
Do you think Alex Ovechkin can hit 62 goals?
What changes do you want to see made to this team?
This article has been modified to clarify that Alex Ovechkin’s share of shot attempts have not changed when compared to recent years.