Photo: Evan Vucci
Everyone sees how tough the Caps schedule will be after the Olympic break. It’s not pretty. Fortunately, the team won three of its four games this week. Those six points are going to matter, big time, come April.
But now we’re at a moment of reflection. With no games until Thursday the 27th, we’ve got an abundance of data to pore over before we see any more actual Caps hockey. Looking at the ledger this morning, I find myself surprisingly optimistic for the team’s future. Not because the Capitals have a strong roster or winning corpus of tactics; they don’t. But because the distance from here to there isn’t that far.
I’m not saying it’ll happen and I’m not even saying I’m confident it will. All I’m saying is a combination of not-all-that-major trades, some deployment adjustments, evidence-based lineup decisions, a few prudent scratches, smart goalie management, and one massive defensive systems overhaul could put this team back where we thought they’d be at the end of last summer.
Well, now that I type it all out, it seems like a lot.
Shucks. Oh well. Let’s take stock of the team one last time before we go crazy with Olympic fever. (Go USA!)
These are the numbers as of a little before noon on Sunday, February 9th. 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.
- The Capitals’ year-to-date puck possession (i.e. even-strength shot-attempt percentage) continues to inch upwards. It is now at 49.76%, up ever-so-microscopically from last week’s 49.67%. Depending on who’s healthy after the Olympics and despite a really really really tough schedule, I think I’d stake my lunch money on the Caps being an even possession team by the end of the season.
- Martin Erat‘s 44th shot was an empty-net goal. In the history of the league, only 14 forwards took 44 or more shots in a season without scoring a goal. Also, I still don’t know what the word shneid means. Erat ranks 1st among Caps forwards in close-score puck possession, 2nd among forwards in 5v5 assists, but he’s in a 3-way tie for 13th in goals. I’d expect that last one to change.
- Aaron Volpatti got just 3.5 close-game minutes in his one game this week. He’s the only forward with a sub-40 possession score (SA%), so I’m glad to see him get very little ice and/or a seat in the media area. On the other hand, protecting and sheltering weak players on the fourth line means limiting opportunities for scoring dudes on the top lines. For example…
- Alex Ovechkin rightfully takes most of his zone starts (ZS%) in the offensive zone– 59.7%, more than any other forward on the Caps. But there are 29 guys in the league who get even more favorable zone starts, including Mike “Jokes” Ribeiro at the tippy top. Adam Oates does optimize his players to an extent, but I posit that the weakness of his bottom six forwards limits his ability to do so effectively. And I’d add that it has probably cost Ovi goals and the Caps wins.
- John Erskine‘s on-ice save percentage (Sv%) is 90.6%, lowest among all defense with more than two games played. Statistical analysis tell us that most of that number is probably due to random chance. Intellectually I agree, but sometimes I’m like, watch the game, nerds. John is obviously struggling– both in driving play and covering assignments, and Oates seems to have taken his sweater away. While we’re probably all relieved that Ersk is scratched, we’re probably less enthused that he’s basically been supplanted by the Hershey Bears defense.
- Julien Brouillette isn’t in the snapshot yet. With only two games and just 13.3 minutes of 5v5 with the score close, he’s driven 48.6% of unblocked shot attempts in his team’s favor. He’s also got two points, a perfect on-ice save percentage, a 14.3% on-ice shooting percentage, and a 114.3 PDO. That tells us almost nothing. If this were an election, it’d be to (Way) Too Early to Tell.
- I had a discussion with Ian the other day about Karl Alzner and John Carlson‘s viability as a top pairing. Carlzner have been negative possession players (SA% below 50%) for the last three seasons, but they’ve also been taking on the toughest opponents. While there are shutdown defenders in this league who can eat tough minutes and still tilt the ice in their team’s favor, these two aren’t among them. The question we had for each other I now open up for you: do you think Carlson and Alzner’s possession scores are accurate reflections of their talent or just the systems they’ve played under Oates and Hunter?
- Jay Beagle has basically been promoted under these injury-depleted Caps. In his last ten games, he’s had a 50+ shot attempt percentage (including blocked shots, regardless of the score) just three times. He’s been under 30, i.e. blowout territory, three times as well. Playing the Devils on Saturday, the Caps got 18.2% of the shot attempts while he was on the ice. Now consider this: the difference between Jay Beagle’s salary this year and Mathieu Perreault‘s is $100,000. Look at ExtraSkater’s usage chart. Whoops, George.
- So what happens after the Olympic break? Here’s what I’d like to see: Mikhail Grabovski and Mike Green healthy and playing. Michael Latta called up and taking some tough shifts on the fourth line. Tom Wilson getting more than 10 minutes a night, some of it spent in the top six on an experimental basis. Aaron Volpatti and John Erskine playing Flappy Bird in the press box. Alex Ovechkin taking damn near 70% of his zone starts in the offensive zone with Grabo and Erat flanking him. John Carlson and Karl Alzner being free to be a bit more aggressive once the opponent attacks the blue line. Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby splitting starts almost down the middle with no one playing back-to-back games. Hershey defensemen playing defense for Hershey (radical, I know). Marcus Johansson scoring his second five-on-five goal of the year and maybe even a third. Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich refusing to even make eye contact let alone share the ice. And George McPhee making a trade for better defensive depth.
- What do you want to see?
- 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.