The Caps won two of their three games last week, so by anyone’s definition it was a success. Tuesday’s shootout victory over the Jets was a rollercoastery, nail-biter-y affair that revealed the team’s previously hidden secondary scoring, the same thing that propelled them to a big win over the Oilers on Thursday. But both of those games continued the Caps’ tendency to get hemmed in their own zone– particularly at the start of games. Washington’s lack of puck possession was in full effect on Saturday night during the loss to Calgary, and it remains the team’s biggest worry.
So, like all things: little bit of good, little bit of bad.
Adam Oates made much-needed adjustments to lines on Friday morning, resulting in happy outcomes for the second line collectively and Marty Erat personally. The top line, however, is not doing much at even strength, and the third line is getting swamped in their own end. While the Caps have glimpses of hope and a ton of potential, the overall picture remains a bit gloomy. Should the Oates power play ever stop turning underpants into profit, stuff will get dire quick.
But there remains a ton of potential in this roster. There’s a winning team in here somewhere. Let’s explore.
The Capitals only played two games this week, and one of those was a blowout 5-1 loss to the Avalanche. As a result our even-strength close-game data has not done much maturing, but there are still a lot of things we can learn about how this team is — or rather, is not– progressing.
The Capitals didn’t score on any of their seven power-play opportunities this week, and their 5v5 production alone wasn’t enough to win either game. While we saw some improvement, particularly on the third line, the Capitals are still struggling. And the precise nature of those struggles is beginning to become more clear.
There are lots of great statistical resources out there, but few of them allow you to see how players progress during the course of a season. To get a better idea of how individual Caps players are doing, I’ll be taking a snapshot of player stats each Sunday.
The data I’m using are all from even strength when the score is close, typically the circumstance that best predicts future success. Most of the stats I’ve selected are on-ice, not just individual performance. You’ll see how the ice tilts judging by unblocked shot attempts (I’ll call it SA%, but some call it Fenwick), actual score outcomes based on goal differential, and shooting/saving percentages to see who is overperforming or not (a la PDO). I’ve also included zone starts, which will tell you if the player is starting lots of favorable shifts near the opponent’s net.
I’ll highlight some cells in peachpuff pink if I think they’re interesting. Discussion and observations are below the tables.
As the season moves on and the sample size grows, the numbers will gain fidelity and may indicate how players and the team are trending. The sample is woefully insufficient right now, but it’s a good way to kick off conversation on what we’re all thinking about: how the Caps are doing at evens. (Hint: not good.)
This time of year, we tend to get one question more than any other: what do you think the lines will be? I haven’t the foggiest idea really, and I was awful at guessing how Oates would marshal his forwards last season. (The whole thing about mandating lefties play on the right wing still surprises me.) It seems everyone has his or her own guidelines for formulating lines, and ultimately they’re all subjective.
But if we did start with data, how would that work? What kind of line combinations could the Capitals have if they were purely evidence-based and is that ever a good idea?
I grabbed three years of data for all 2013-14 Capitals forwards and began sorting the players by each statistic. Some of these are going to be super insightful; others are going to be arbitrary and weird. In the end, I think we’ll have a better understanding of what objectively drives these coaching decisions– before qualitative judgments get involved.
On Sunday morning, The Hockey Writers published an article about the Caps by Tim Bourcier. Titled “Caps Back to Early Playoff Exit Status with Grabovski Signing”, the article contains some of the most worrying hockey writing I’ve read this year. Normally I’d just ignore something like this and starve it of pageviews, but this example is egregious. Every once in a while, we should give voice to the debate so that we might shout down the trolls all the louder.
Since Thursday, our comments and Facebook page have sort of been railroaded by Ribeiro loyalists. These folks have been saying that Mike Ribeiro is the superior player compared to Mikhail Grabovski. I’m gonna let two guys in particular have the floor for a moment, and then I’m gonna be a jerk and tell them why they’re wrong.
Alex: This is ridiculous. Grabovski didn’t do anything for the Leafs last year. How can you possibly compare Grabovski to Ribero? It’s a good signing for the caps, but he does not replace Ribero at all.
Nick: Yeah, Ribeiro knows some crazy [fecal expletive] with the puck. Grabovski has potential, but he seemed pretty much worse than useless last season.
Nick: I prefer to look at real stats. You know, goals, assists, PPG? As opposed to teammate-played-better-assists. tl;dr Objectivity over subjectivity.
Alex: Grabovski can’t even replace Ribeiro, let alone be an improvement. Nick’s right; you cant judge two players by some [fecal expletive] stats. The only stats that matter are the real ones. The other stats are just a replacement for not actually watching the guy play.
Nick: You can say that Grabo was playing with terrible linemates, or that Ribeiro had more favorable ice time, or whatever. The fact still remains that Ribs has produced way better. [. . .] Plus Ribeiro is just jokes to watch [. . .] Anyway, Grabovski will do well, good signing, but I can’t see this is an upgrade.
(Comments were edited for clarity, brevity, and profanity.)
So the argument goes like this: Grabovski didn’t help the Leafs in 2012-13. Ribeiro had more goals and assists, which are better indications of how those players will produce in the future anyway.
And also Ribeiro is something called “jokes”, which is apparently good.
They’re both presumptive second-line centers in UFA status, but George McPhee upgraded big-time when he signed Mikhail Grabovski to take over Mike Ribeiro‘s spot. “Grabovski is not as good as Ribeiro as a point-producer or set-up man for his wingers”, said Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal, “but he is a better two-way player.” That’s technically correct, but it overestimates Mike Ribeiro’s impact on production and underestimates how Grabovski makes his teammates better.
People on Twitter often ask us for some kind of resource that explains advanced statistics in hockey. From now on, Robert Vollman’s Hockey Abstract will be my go-to answer. Vollman. In 242 pages of crystal-clear prose, Vollman uses age-old debates like “who is the most undervalued player?” and “who is the best defensive forward?” to introduce statistical metrics like Fenwick and Goals Versus Threshold in a way that will make sense to any level of reader.
Free of bombast or antagonism that might put off casual fans, Vollman’s tone is always cheerful and conversational. The creator of the brilliant player usage charts you’ve seen on RMNB and Japers Rink, Vollman revisits and re-stokes classic barroom debates, in the process delivering both a primer on statistical analysis and a crash course on the habits of a highly successful hockey player. It’s a great read if you’re curious about player evaluation or if you just wanna have some extra ammo next time you’re talking hockey with some hardcore fans. And obviously, nerds will love this book.
But I think Hockey Abstract has some special value for Caps fans in particular. The book is packed with lists of guys you wish were on your team’s roster– containing bunches of Caps. Former Caps.
With the signing of Karl Alzner, the Washington Capitals are just one Johansson-shaped puzzle piece away from finalizing its roster for 2013-14. Maybe. There’s still a lot of time to make moves between now and October, but what we see now might resemble the opening-night lineup. Most of the other teams in Division D (aka the Patrick++ Division, aka the “Jagr” Division) have already set their teams, so we’ve got an interesting– if a bit premature– idea of how those general managers have allocated their salary for next season.
In short: George McPhee has pinched his pennies on defense and opened up his wallet George Jetson-style for forwards.