Ward played his first full NHL season at the ripe age of 28 and has been most productive during his age-33 and -34 seasons. I’ve written before that Ward’s rise in production isn’t sustainable. I’m still not convinced it is fully, but I’m less skeptical than I used to be. What Ward is doing now, namely crashing the net, might be behind the late bloom.
We’re going streaking! The Caps have won four of their last five games and taken points from all of them. Wins finally seem to be catching to the team’s generally good underlying play. Not every week is going to be smooth sailing like this one, but I think the hockey we saw over the last seven days is a reliable indication of what this team is: pretty good.
It’s tempting to chalk the recent success up to Green’s return, Chimera’s benching, or Backstrom’s heroics. Those are certainly big (and loud) factors, but I kind of see it as the whole team finally getting rewarded for playing well. If only the team had got these results in the season’s opening weeks, they might still be playing like they did in October.
Some commenters believe that, and I’m paraphrasing here, Green is a dominant possession player primarily because he plays against weaker competition. But is quality of competition that much of a driving force behind why Green is doing so well at shot-attempt differential? Does Brooks Orpik suffer at the same because of the tougher opponents he faces? If they swapped assignments, would Green would become Orpik in possession and vice versa?
Wins are paramount. In the end, this sport is measured in wins. Goals scored or prevented are the component parts of wins, and shot attempts generated or prevented are the component parts of goals. So when the Capitals got two important divisional wins this week– both in regulation– I reminded myself that those Ws are ultimately more important than the stuff happening under the surface.
That under the surface stuff, as we’ve been documenting, has been degrading since the end of October. But if this is the basement for the team, it ain’t so bad. The Capitals could presumably get a lot of wins and make the playoffs based on their current performance (plus a little more luck). They’re not gonna win a Cup, and we’ll all know deep down that they’re capable of more, but maybe we should just be grateful for what we’ve got. At least they’re not the Skins.
Tommy M gave me a hard time in the comments the other day.
I’d like to point to Green and Schmidt’s fancy stats. Are those two really our best defensemen? Should they be seeing the opposing teams toughest competition as Orpik and Carly are?
Tommy was kind of sticking it to me, which is totally fair, but I think he raises an interesting point. What does it mean for Brooks Orpik to be a first-pair guy and Mike Green to be a third-pair guy? How would they fare if roles were switched?
For background, Schmidt and Green, when healthy, are undoubtedly the Capitals’ third defensive pair. The best way to judge that is ice time, but it’s also reflected in the quality of competition they face. Whatever the measurement, Orpik is tops and Green is bottom. Even compared to defenders across the league, Green and Schmidt are in the bottom third. Green is at the very top of that bottom third, but he’s still down there.
That’s curious. His usage means that Barry Trotz has adjudicated Green to be inferior to as many as four other Caps defenseman, who all get more ice time, but Green’s performance is actually among the best in the league. Maybe Tommy is right and Green’s deployment against weaker competition is making look Green better than he is.
A couple weeks back, I looked at how the Caps are doing a great job of limiting their opponents’ shots under Barry Trotz. While shot suppression is crucial, if a team prioritizes it too much it can come at the expense of generating their own shots. In other words, being a great defensive team is important, but getting a good balance of offense and defense is imperative.
Coming into last weekend, the Capitals were generating 52.87 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, which ranks 20th in the league. If you look back over the past 5 season (2009-10 through 2013-14), this would place the Caps in the bottom 40% of teams in terms of generating shot attempts. A look back at teams over the past five seasons shows that this is cause for concern.
The primary source of frustration last season was knowing that, deep down, the Capitals had the potential to be a good team. Knowing that the Caps had decent players and that they merely needed to be freed of bad coaching was vexing, but it was also comforting in a strange way. We could wave away game-by-game results because careful, informed analysis told us they’d soon be better.
And when Barry Trotz’s Caps started the season as one of the best teams in the league, we felt vindicated. But for ephemeral reasons, the wins didn’t come in October. That’s okay; we knew they would.
Except then they didn’t. The reasons for the Caps’ losses were not static. The goalies got better (wayyyyyy better), but then the offense’s shooting percentages plummeted. Then the team stopped possessing the puck so much. And now, who knows.
The Caps just aren’t as good as they were in October. Punishing losses to the Sabres and Leafs this week have led to some quiet reflection and some not-so-quiet caterwauling from the community. And rightfully so.
In this week’s snapshot, let’s do some reflecting of our own.
With that in mind, but while also not ignoring or outright excusing a drop in offensive production, Niskanen has been a solid player for the first 1/28th of his contract. But the Caps should expect more from him and give him more of a chance to do so. Here’s a closer look at his first 20 games in a Caps uniform.
Lines aren’t everything. The players a team chooses to ice are more important than the manner in which they get iced. Still, when the beat writers tweet the morning lines, it’s fresh grist for the anguish mill. It’s an infinite stream of content to react to– our of excitement or despair. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else.
Though it’s not as if Barry Trotz has been particularly good at assembling his lines effectively, at least according to the evidence. After twenty games, the Capitals’ best lines have been used irregularly at best. Their most effective trio of forwards hasn’t even skated together since game eight, though Trotz has also found some surprising strength in the team’s depth.
There are lots of different ways to look at hockey information. The Sunday snapshot is just one of those ways, and it’s far from being comprehensive or fully circumspect. Sometimes the numbers sort of lose their meaning– as if in a vacuum.
Is a 2.14 CorsiRel good or bad? How good or how bad? Is it a percentage or a rate? How does it compare to the rest of the league? What is a CorsiRel anyway?
As a community, we need more and different ways of presenting and intuiting data that can sometimes be untidy and inscrutable.
Here’s one idea. Now that the Capitals have twenty games under their belt, let’s look at Cap forwards in the context of the whole league. No hard numbers here, just big-picture, stack-ranking stuff– a new way of looking at familiar stuff, but with pretty colors this time.