The Caps grabbed three of six available standings points this week against teams that are far from the NHL’s elite. Their performance was uneven and uninspiring at times, particularly at even strength. So, it is time to take a long look within to right the ship before their play slides further? No. In fact, it’s time to stay the course.
Uneven play is inevitable over an 82-game season, and standings points can be fickle. In the end, the standings are what matter, but over a week’s time a team’s W-L record can be random and cruel. The process is what a team has more control over and the Caps process remains strong, despite the admission above that they looked a bit uneven at time this pass week.
The Caps 54.8 score-adjusted shot attempt percentage is second in the league and they are also on the right side of the scoring chances at 52.7 percent. The song remains the same: This is a very good hockey team who continues to play very good hockey.
10-3-0. Through thirteen games the Caps are 10-3-0 good for fifth in the NHL with 20 points. The team’s possession numbers are dynamite and their plus-12 goal differential ranks fourth overall. The first snapshot of the season focused on the Caps being who we thought they were (i.e. good) and, two weeks later, that remains true. During an 82-game season, rough patches are inevitable so all these points the Caps have banked so far will come in handy when a cushion is needed.
Often in the snapshot we perform a full weekly physical on the team. We look at all the different parts, point out things that are going really well, but we also diagnose areas of concern and get out our prescription pad to try to find the right remedy.
This week, there’s less prescribing than normal. This isn’t due to a hesitation to diagnose problems when things are going so well, as a team should never get so comfortable that they rest on their laurels and don’t strive to improve. But sometimes it serves to be a listener rather than a fixer. So, today we’ll do more listening to our patient and engaging in a conversation with them, rather than relying as heavily on our prescription pad.
The Caps are now 10 games into the season, which means we can start to put our guard down about sample sizes. But don’t put your guard down regarding the roller coaster of emotions that is an 82-game season. There will be ups and downs so, as the team embarks on this long road, it’s best to try to keep an even keel.
Even with an opening ten games that went really well, there have been ups and downs for the Caps. There was that awful, Ovechkin-less game against the Sharks, but then a marvelous trip out to western Canada. A disappointing loss to the Penguins was followed by a nice win over the Blue Jackets. So again, keep your eyes focused upon the bigger picture as we follow our team down this long, 82-game road.
An even keel and the bigger picture are also important to keep in mind when reading this snapshot or other analysis of this team. A noted grievance here or a concerned tweet there shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of any one player or coach. The fact is — this team is really good. But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically about ways it could be improved.
Let’s take the long road, which we’re on cheering for a very good hockey team that has a very good coach. Keep this context in mind with these snapshots, or anything written here about the team. The purpose here isn’t to merely be a cheerleader for a team that is in great shape at the moment, but also to examine what can be done to help maximize the odds that this long road stretches into June.
Your feedback has been heard. While some prefer raw shot attempt numbers and others prefer relative numbers, having them both is probably the most informative approach. Goals-for numbers are only raw, not relative. I reserve the right to change my mind on that at any point. Zone starts are gone because, while they can provide a caveat, they aren’t as important as you may think.
There was a lot of optimism surrounding the Caps coming into the season. And rightfully so, as GM Brian MacLellan had a great offseason. This is the most well-rounded team the Caps have had in the Ovechkin-era.
The early results are encouraging; the Caps have marched out to a 6-1-0 record. The process has been strong as well, as the team is near the league lead in puck possession. To summon the sentiments of Dennis Green, so far, the Caps are who we thought they were. That is, a very good and possibly elite NHL team.
But it’s important to remember that it has been just seven games. We can’t crown the Caps just yet, because that would be letting them off the hook for the remainder of the season.
Only two teams improved their shot-attempt differential from last season more than the Capitals: The Nashville Predators (boo) and the New York Islanders (hiss). With a 4.5 swing in score-adjusted possession, the trend has finally ended, and the Capitals are good again. Exactly how good– by the reckoning of the playoffs– remains to be seen, but looking back, I’m over the moon about this season.
But, in this week’s snapshot, the last of its kind, we ask, is the cake a lie?
Understanding 5v5 hockey using shot attempts starts with a number: 50 percent. That is even possession– one for the other team, one for your team, repeat. If your team is above 50 percent, you’ve either denied your opponent some attempts or you’ve managed to create a few extra of your own. Being “in the black,” with a possession number above 50 percent is a sign of an above-average team.
The Capitals are above 50 percent. They’re a 52-percent team– or just about. But I’m not so sure they’re truly or significantly above average. And it’s Buffalo’s fault, dammit.
If you ignore the Sabres (using some sloppy, back-of-napkin math), then the league’s average isn’t 50 percent– it’s more like 50.4 percent. And over on Puckon.net, the median teams have around 51.2-percent score-adjusted possession. It’s like grade inflation for hockey– making the Caps look just a bit better than they are because they, just like everyone else, got to beat up on the worst possession team of the modern era (and maybe longer; I’d love to know the 74-75 Caps’ shot-attempt differential.)
That has nothing to do with what’s in this week’s snapshot, but I thought it was curious.
What’s actually in this week’s snapshot: the Caps have really good young players, but are they fast enough for the Islanders?
For me, the snapshot has been about opening up the analytic process on a micro level– adding transparency and immediacy to my journey to understanding of how the Caps play every week. In the interest of furthering that transparency and because I can’t stand being insincere here, lemme say this: my enthusiasm is waning.
Part of that is me not having enough time to do the in-depth research and number-crunching, and part of it is acknowledging that the Capitals merely are what they are: A marginal playoff team with good special teams and one very special player.
However they looked in October and whatever hot streaks we’ve seen this season, the Capitals are not a championship team. (Or, if they are, we haven’t seen evidence of it lately.) They’re not bad like under Adam Oates (and for that I am grateful) but they’re not great. They’re just good. They’re a good team with a good coach.
Unless the bounces go bad or they draw a tough team, these Capitals should make it into the second round of the playoffs. No further.
In this week’s snapshot, which isn’t 36 hours late you’re just imagining it, it is what it is, but at least we’ve got Ovi.
There’s a stat called CHIP, as in salary Cap Hit of Injured Players. It measures the impact of injuries to a team based on how many games the players miss and how much they get paid. Up until recently, The Capitals had fared very, very well on the injury front this season. They had Dmitry Orlov and John Erskine missing from the blue line but were otherwise mostly unscathed. The Caps had one of the lowest CHIPs in the league.
Then March happened. Ovechkin missed a game, both Brookses are banged up, Peters got hurt, Latta is out, are and there’s a stomach bug going around. Just as the Capitals are mounting their final push for the playoffs, they’re all of a sudden a shambling mess.
Add to that the team’s performance since the all-star break (except for the week they roughed up the scrubs), and you’ve got some genuine worry about this team. They’re barely holding on to a playoff spot, and they’re one game away from squandering their longest home stand of the season.
It seems like everything’s broken for the Caps right now.
Okay, maybe you could say that a week of games against Buffalo, Toronto, and Columbus isn’t exactly indicative of the broader NHL’s competition level. But with only 15 games left in the regular season, every shot, goal, and win counts that much more– even if it just means the team is more confident as they face down some much tougher teams next week.
In this week’s snapshot, we look back with curiosity and forward with optimism.
I don’t know if what I’m doing with the snapshot is really “analytics.” Hearing all the buzz at the Sloan Conference and this mostly inane Deadspin piece, there’s a lot of stuff wrapped up in that term that don’t really apply here.
The snapshot isn’t about decision-making (we don’t make any decisions), and it’s definitely not a branding effort (it probably hurts the RMNB brand by being so stodgy). For me, these statistics are just new ways to understand the game.
My educational background is in literary criticism. In that field, people discuss writing using different frameworks (formalism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, queer, etc.). The goal isn’t to decide what writing is good or bad, but to appreciate the writing in new ways and learn more about it and ourselves by looking from different– and deeper– angles.
It’s not that much different for hockey. For some people, the only metric that matters is championships. It’s a simple binary: yes you won, or no you did not. Some go deeper: how far did you make it in the playoffs: zero rounds, one round, two rounds, or more (As a Caps fan, I suspect the “more” is a myth). More nuance, more understanding, but still nothing too deep. And then you can get down to wins. And then goals. And then shots. And then– and for some reason people resist this– shot attempts.
And there are layers of rich and complex data even further below, new angles from which to look. And when we acknowledge how that low-level information can bubble up to high-level results– like championships– we create an intellectual scaffold for richer understanding of the sport. It’s miles from the championship binary.
I see why some critics consider analytics to be a retreat from complexity: because it uses numbers, which are finite, instead of descriptions, which are not. It can seem reductive. But the spirit behind the analysis is quite the opposite: it’s a framework for looking deeper, and more closely– not to blithely draw conclusions.
In this week’s snapshot: No blithe conclusions. I’ll try.