What will Kuzya’s usage tell us about Adam Oates as a coach? (Photo: Chris Gordon)

The Capitals got two out of six points this week. They’re currently 18 points behind the division-leading Penguins and two points out of third place, behind the Rangers, who have a game in hand. While the team’s distance from first illustrates how far they are from challenging for the Cup, their proximity to the playoffs might be a bit misleading.

The Caps haven’t won a lot of games in rego or overtime this season (just 22), which is the basis for tiebreakers in the standings. Finishing the 82-game season with the same number of points as the last wild card team would mean the Caps are bound for the golf course, so they’re gonna have to leapfrog a team– or hope someone else melts down.

In this week’s snapshot, we’ll look at which teams might helpfully implode to make way for the Caps!

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Tom Wilson is Getting a Raw Deal

Photo: Chris Gordon

Yesterday Fedor shared a great story about how Tom Wilson is one of the most penalized rookies in the history of the NHL. Wilson has been of particular interest to me since the beginning of the season, when I worried about his OHL/NHL contract status, ruminated about how a rookie might distinguish himself in the NHL, and wondered aloud what his fourth line usage portended for his future. In raking in some of the most penalty minutes ever for a teenage rookie, Wilson kind of answered most of that, but I want to repeat Fedor’s closing:

Maybe other parts of Tom’s game will follow his record-breaking ability to get to the penalty box when he starts playing actual hockey.

That’s really important, I think. Because for all of his 133 PIMs, Wilson has played only 468 minutes total. That’s low even for a fourth liner. It seems at a glance that Wilson hasn’t had a lot of chances to prove himself this season, which may have been a factor in his choices to fight or make iffy hits. He’s gotta make an impression somehow, and he hasn’t been given a chance to do it the traditional way.

If you rank skaters by the quality of their teammates, Tom Wilson is second to last based on ice time and in the bottom 4 percent going by puck possession. Rookie or not, the way Adam Oates has deployed Tom Wilson makes him one the most disadvantaged skaters you’re gonna see. 

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erskine-orr

Photo: Rob Carr

We’ve assumed for so long that the problem with the Caps is lack of defensive depth. I’d wager 90% of everything written about the Caps and Wednesday’s trade deadline states that the team lacks a solid, number-four, right-shooting defenseman. It’s been pretty obvious that filling that one spot would help fill the ranks of Washington’s defense.

That makes a lot of sense. Since October, the Caps defense had essentially been Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and any other three guys.

But I’m not so sure anymore. Indeed, I’m starting to wonder if the Caps wouldn’t be able to succeed merely by upgrading their bottom pairing– namely John Erskine and Connor Carrick.

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Ovi looking up - Rob Carr

Photo: Rob Carr

By Wednesday afternoon, I expect the roster of the Washington Capitals roster to be drastically different.

I’ve been saying some version of that since 2012, but I really mean it this time. With a plural number of players having requested trades, a solid week of blown two-goal leads, and rumors of George McPhee’s contract expiring at the end of the season, you gotta think the Caps are motivated to make changes.

I’m no good at guessing trades and I’m not any kind of insider, but I really do think multi-player trades are coming down the pike. Keeping the playoff streak in tact, negotiating a new contract from a point of strength, striving for results while Ovi is in a renaissance– these all seem like good reasons to be active this week.  I’ve got a bunch more of those reasons in this week’s snapshot, which, despite two wins and five points, isn’t all that sunny.

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Team Russia and Alex Ovechkin in Five Charts

Russia

Photo: RIA Novosti

I think Team Russia is fascinating. Scoring just eleven goals in their first four games, the much-ballyhooed offense of the home team hasn’t really shown up yet– especially from their NHL stars. After a brilliant start with back-to-back goals by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in game one, Russia broke up its top line, sending Alex Semin to the dreaded checking assignments of the bottom six. The team’s power play, meanwhile, has converted just two of its 13 chances despite having a handful of the best offensive players in the world.

To most observers, Russia has been a disappointment. They’re still very much alive, playing Finland at 7:30 am on Wednesday, but what they’ve shown us so far isn’t what we were promised. Of course, four games is a measly sample– particularly when measuring rare events like goals and power plays. While there aren’t a lot of data available, let’s take a big old grain of salt and play with them anyway.

I don’t really have an agenda in sharing this stuff. I looked it up because I was curious; I thought you might be too.

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Week 19 Snapshot: Hold That Thought

Evan Vucci

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!)

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George McPhee Bruce Bennett

Photo: Bruce Bennett

On Sunday, Joe Micheletti of NBC Sports reported a quote from George McPhee that has been making the rounds. Except it’s not really a quote actually– just hearsay. According to Micheletti, GMGM said that the Washington Capitals would have ten more standings points if only they had better goaltending this season. McPhee declined to elaborate on that little piece of apocrypha on Monday, and the team didn’t get back to us when we asked about its veracity.

Katie Carrera of the Washington Post ran a wonderful piece about it on Monday. My favorite part was this quote by Braden Holtby:

“I think if we pay any attention to comments like that it brings the team apart.”

For perspective: That is a goalie talking about his employer, whose words might tear the team apart.

So… that’s not good.

I would like to set Braden’s mind at ease. If George McPhee actually said that (and I’m not sure he did), he’d be categorically wrong.

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Week 18 Snapshot: Thinning the Herd

Greg Fiume

Photo: Greg Fiume

The Capitals managed to earn half the points available to them this week, a good reversal from the last month, but not enough to put them back on pace for a postseason just yet. To make matters worse, a slew of injuries now imperil the team’s ability to even maintain their middling performance. Top-four defenceman Mike Green went down with an injury this week (he may or may not return on Sunday), as did top possession center Mikhail Grabovski, whose leg injury has him “a ways away” from returning. Brooks Laich is struggling with an injury of his own that he says is unrelated to his nagging groin problems and will be a game-time decision as well.

Those injuries will result in diminished team play for sure, but they’ll also lead to some new lineups and pairings. Players who haven’t gotten a lot of ice so far are about to get promoted in a Grabo-less, Green-less, Laich-less world. How those players will fare in their bigger roles may go a long way to determining this team’s life after April 13th.

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Francois Lacasse

Photo: Francois Lacasse

Finally. The Caps got positively crushed over the past few weeks, but it’s over now. Before they lost that game to Buffalo on the 12th, the Caps had a 60% chance of making the playoffs. It got as low as 12% before they finally won on Saturday. That losing streak hurt badly, but as we’ve seen from the last two weeks it has been driven by bad shooting and save percentages, not overall awful play (unlike the Habs, who really are eroding).

The streak ended in spectacular fashion, a five-goal shutout that typified everything we’ve learned about this team: their puck possession is getting better, their shooting percentage couldn’t possibly stay so low, their opponents’ shooting percentage couldn’t possibly stay so high. Saturday was a perfect metaphorical storm of regression and solid underlying play asserting itself.

None of that means the Caps won’t get ice cold again, but it should help us remember a simple truth: no team is as bad as it looks during a seven-game losing streak.

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Week 16 Snapshot: Waiting Out the Percentages

columbus-goal

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.

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