During a recent broadcast, CSN displayed a graphic showing where Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin currently rank on the Caps all-time assist leaderboard. It wasn’t the first time this season we’ve seen graphics showing those two, plus Mike Green, sitting near the top on Caps all-time leaderboards. Allow me to quote myself:
8, 19, and 52's place on #Caps all-time scoring lists is impressive. May we all appreciate watching this awesome time in club history
I know Ovechkin’s play frustrates some people. Mike Green has taken criticism as well– whether it be about his health or purported weakness in the defensive zone. Let’s put that last part aside for now, but I’ll come back to it.
Let me get this out of the way: Mike Green is a great hockey player. No matter how bad some people claim he is at defense or how “soft” he may be in the defensive zone, the Caps are a much better team when Mike Green is on the ice.
Last week, Brian MacLellan spent time answering questions from the media. During the session, MacLellan spoke about his two big off-season acquisitions, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. “I think they’ve added a lot of stability to [John] Carlson and [Karl] Alzner,” MacLellan said of Orpik and Niskanen. When it comes to Orpik, MacLellan is wrong. Very, very wrong.
When the Caps were losing games early in the season, it wasn’t a big deal. The Capitals were playing well when you measured their shot-attempt differential, but the goalies were letting in too many goals. Because goalies’ cumulative save percentages are extremely volatile early in the season, and because Braden Holtby’s career save percentage is pretty high, there wasn’t much cause for concern.
Now, after deflating losses to the Blues and Devils– both great possession teams– the Capitals’ possession seems to have eroded a bit. The goaltending, at least Holtby’s 96.4-percent effort on Friday, hasn’t been bad since early November. The problem now is that the Capitals can’t do the thing crucial to winning games: score goals.
You can chalk it up to urgency, and to some extent I do, but there is also mounting evidence that the Capitals are failing to optimize their offense. That’s the topic of this week’s snapshot.
Ovi backchecking? You better believe it. (Photo: Luis M. Alvarez)
Jen Lute Costello of Puck Daddy recently wrote a nifty post about shot suppression. I’m paraphrasing her, but the basic idea is that there’s more to being a great possession team than simply having more shot attempts than the other team. While having more shot attempts than your opponent is the essential ingredient, it is optimal to also limit the number of overall shot attempts or “events” (the combined number of shot attempts between two teams in a game). Again, my paraphrasing does not do Jen’s great work justice, so I recommend reading her work.
The Capitals are a much better shot-possession team this season compared to last. But our optimism shouldn’t stop there. The Capitals aren’t just owning a higher percentage of overall shot attempts, they are also allowing fewer overall opponent shot attempts, so they’re owning the puck more AND better suppressing shot attempts against.
There’s really no need to read this piece. Your life will be no better for having read what’s below. Your life might actually get worse. You should probably stop right now.
So the Caps have freed some players over the last few years, and it feels like all of them have turned into beautiful hockey butterflies. The team had good reasons to trade or release some guys; others… not so much. In this still very young season, those hockey butterflies are playing so good it’s like they’re trying to make you jealous. Well, it’s not going to work, hockey butterflies.
Okay, yeah, it is.
I’m gonna take a peek around the league, in a totally non-Facebook-stalker-y way, just to see how certain ex-Caps forwards are doing in their new homes. Pretty freaking well, it turns out. Starting with prospect-bust-turned-Calder-standout Filip Forsberg, lemme run down who has moved on and how they’re doing.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is among the players for whom Barry Trotz has struggled to find a consistent spot in the line-up. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty)
To break out of their slump, the Capitals needed offensive contribution from their second line. Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky scored four points each in the last three games, all Caps wins. Before that, when the Capitals struggled to get points, their third line featuring Joel Ward and Jason Chimera shone. Right now, the Caps have an eight-plus goal-scorer on each of their top three lines in Alex Ovechkin, Johansson, and Ward.
Coach Barry Trotz has found three successful pairs so far: Ovechkin-Backstrom, Johansson-Brouwer, Chimera-Ward. Andre Burakovsky seems to have secured second-line center position for now, which leaves two main vacancies in top nine: top-line right wing and third-line center.
The Caps power play entered Tuesday’s game against Columbus having converted 28 percent of their opportunities so far, good for second in the NHL, behind only Pittsburgh. A quick look at their PP shooting, 16.7 percent, might suggest that their success is unsustainable. While maintaining their current conversion rate over a full season is unlikely, there is reason to believe this power play could still one of the best in recent memory by the time this season is over.
The Caps penalty kill is currently ranked 23rd in the NHL, killing off 77.1% of all shorthanded situations. This may give you a ‘here we go again’ feeling due to how truly awful the Caps penalty kill was last season (They would have been much worse than 16th place if not for very strong goaltending.)
But rest easy, Caps fans. This Caps penalty kill is actually really good and could very well end up among the top in the league once goaltending improves. It could be even better if Barry Trotz starts deploying the penalty killers in a more optimized manner, as it seems he’s been giving the wrong penalty killers the most ice.
Since 2009 and excluding the short season, the top five teams in the league based in the standings control an average of 53.1 percent of unblocked shot attempts. Below them, the solid playoff teams (ranked 6 through 10) get about 51.5 percent of the shot attempts.
Teams 11 through 15 get 50.5 percent and teams 16 through 20 get 49.2.
The not-so-good teams own just 48.3 percent of shot attempts. The bottom-5 teams, who are basically your draft lottery teams, get 47.2 percent.
Last season the Caps most closely represented a draft lottery team. This year, with 54.25 percent possession according to fenwick-stats.com, the Caps look more like a Stanley Cup contender.
That doesn’t mean they are one; the season is still way too young. In the coming weeks we will learn for sure. In the meantime, next time save percentages throw the Caps into a five-game slump, look back at that chart and remind yourself that the Caps climbed from the far right to the far left in just five months.