Photo credit: Jamie Sabau
I’m writing this late on Friday night after the Capitals have lost their fourth game in a row. My process for putting these stats together usually starts with scraping data from ExtraSkater.com and then reviewing the previous weeks’ reports. I noticed the title I chose for last week was “Need Points Now.” The Capitals got two of eight points this week.
So that’s bad. I’m tempted to be plucky, to point out again how the team’s underlying play– as measured by its shot-attempt differential– predicts future success. The team truly is improving, but at this point in the season it also matters what the rate of that improvement is, and what is its expected ceiling, and how much time they have left, and how likely they are to reverse the trend.
My guesses: not fast enough, not high enough, not long enough, and kinda likely.
The Capitals aren’t a good team right now. It’s fatuous and unfactual to put it another way. I have maintained and still maintain that they can be better. What I no longer know is if it matters.
That was fun. Let’s do the numbers.
Side note: I’m in New York City as you read this, getting ready to watch Caps at Rangers with my friend Johnny, who first radicalized me as a Caps fan. Johnny and his dad, who passed away almost exactly two years ago, used to drag me along to Chinatown to watch Chris Simon and Peter Bondra and some guy named Adam Oates play hockey. We had front row seats, right by the zamboni. That was all it took for me to become a lifer. As I crunch these numbers, I’m thinking about how much joy even a modestly good team can bring a kid who needs something to believe in. And I’m hoping on Sunday night I will feel just a fraction of the joy I did back at that home opener in 1998.
These are the numbers as of noon on Sunday, January 19th. The sample is restricted to 5-on-5 play while the score is close. That means within one goal in the first two periods and tied in the third. That way special teams, blowouts, and comebacks don’t color the data. Stats of note are highlighted in powderpuff pink and discussed below.
- Going by puck possession (i.e. even-strength shot-attempt percentage), the Washington Capitals have never been better. They have jumped from 48.84% to 49.36%. That means– when the game is on the line– the team is no longer being outshot dramatically. In the last 10 games, they’ve owned 55% of shot attempts in close games, which is something that Cup-contending teams do. That means a ton, but most importantly it means this: this team can win games.
- So why haven’t they? Two other percentages: saving and shooting. The Caps were under 90% goaltending in Columbus and Pittsburgh and under 4% shooting against San Jose and Buffalo. We can interpret those numbers a bunch of ways, ascribing blame and naming excuses however we wish, but the salient point is that these numbers fluctuate like flucking crazy. The Caps will shoot 15% sometime in the next three months and they’ll even get a shutout or two. For the purposes of projecting future success, crummy shooting percentages in the last four days are pretty useless. For the purposes of changing lineups or making trades, I’m sure they’ll matter a great deal, though I’m not sure they should. My guess: if you put this last week’s lineup on the ice for the rest of the season and you’ll win more games than you lose.
- But should you? Adam Oates has already changed his lineups, and I’m sure George McPhee is working on a trade. So before this iteration of the Caps is over, let’s take a look at the numbers.
- I used to think that Adam Oates’ deployment of Tom Wilson was unwise. I worried the coach was spoiling the development of the forward, who was getting just 7 minutes of ice a night. Now I think Oates might be accidentally mitigating the trouble of his fourth line by using them sparingly. Wilson committed two unfortunate penalties this week, but I have to admit that his possession numbers (and those of whipping boy Aaron Volpatti) improved significantly. Not sure why.
- Also improving is Brooks Laich, whom I’ve having a hard time figuring out. Isolation is a big problem with hockey stats, and I can’t tell if Laich has put his groin-related struggles behind him or if he’s just riding coattails on more talented lines. After weeks of getting just 13 or 14 minutes a night, Laich is now in the top six, where he’s getting around 20 minutes. His possession stats (SA%) are getting better too, though they still have a long way to go. He’s been under 50% puck possession overall (including blocks, during all of 5v5) just twice since returning to action in the new year. My question is for you: is Brooks Laich back? Or is he being carried on others’ backs? (See what I did there?)
- I’ve been asked to take a look at Nick Backstrom, which I’m delighted to do since Backstrom is delightful to look at. As we see in the table above, Backstrom is one of the stronger forwards on the team when it comes to driving play (SA%). Backstrom has spent 75% of his 5v5 ice time with Alex Ovechkin this season, but since the new year Adam Oates has split them up. In that time, Backstrom’s lines have generated four goals and his possession stats have stayed pretty stable (a minor tick down in overall shot-attempt differential). What’s noteworthy is that Backstrom is no longer feeling the Ovi effect: tons of shots in both directions. There are fewer events on both ends of the ice when Backy is on without Ovi. But if there are any suspicions out there that Nick needs Alex to be excellent, there is no evidence to back them up.
- I collected a ton of data about the Ovi-Grabo-Fehr line in hopes that I’d have some revelation to explain why they were so much fun and so successful– even if they weren’t reaping goals yet. My data ended up being kind of boring. It turns out that it’s almost tautologically obvious that good things happen if you put two great possession players, Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski, with the world’s most enthusiastic shooter in Alex Ovechkin. But none of that guaranteed a high and stable shooting percentage, and I suspect lack of production despite oodles of chances led to Oates dissolving the line after January 12th.
- Fehr is apparently on the fourth line now. Welp.
- On Friday Martin Erat got his first jersey since the Spanish Inquisition, which I didn’t expect. in 14:43 of ice time Erat attempted exactly zero shots, but his line kept puck possession even, and oh yeah he got another assist. Despite being a regular scratch and imminent trade, Marty still ranks third on the Caps in even-strength assists. Trade the bum, part XLVIII
- Ian and I were talking about Dmitry Orlov’s bad game on Friday. He was on for two back-t0-back Jackets goals, enough to put the game out of reach. But beyond that, he has been playing a really compelling game. He’s got the best possession stats (SA%) among the team’s defense and next to Mike Green, he’s driving 56% of shot attempts in the Caps favor. He and Green both seem like the kind of players who will go unappreciated if you only pay attention to the gaffes and goofs, but they’re both solid players.
- The last two bullets are dedicated to players that Adam Oates apparently does not want on the team. That’s embarrassing, but it’s not the whole story. I harp on Oates for making some obviously boneheaded mistakes (Laich + Brouwer, Volpatti > Erat, Carrick + Erskine, goalie triumvirate, scratching Fehr, drowning Wilson on the fourth line, etc.), but only because those things are easy. The team’s flaws go deeper than lineups and scratch decisions. The team appears to allow more odd-man rushes than they should, particularly considering their emphasis on the transition game under the Oates administration. And when forwards stop scoring and goalies stop saving, it’s important to appreciate why. I just want to draw a line between that appreciation for what has happened and projecting what may happen in the future. Those percentages will reverse– like any minute now. I just hope that when they do, the coach hasn’t undone all the progress he’s made with more of those boneheaded mistakes.
- 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.