The Capitals are 1-4-1. They’re in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, 7 standings points behind the Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
I’m not panicking.
Despite how desperate the standings look, the Capitals are actually playing darn good hockey right now according to their underlying numbers. Let’s take a look at those together and then have a warm glass of milk.
Let’s start with this old yarn: puck possession is a strong predictor of future success, and the Capitals’ possession numbers are both good and improving. But the team is unlucky.
This table shows running averages of even-strength shot percentage (EV SF/[EV SF + EV SA]) and PDO compared to the averages for each. I’m using percentage of shots on goal rather than true Fenwick data (which includes misses) because timeonice.com isn’t publishing that data yet.
The red line shows the Capitals with above-average possession numbers, but bad puck luck, represented by the blue line. PDO combines a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage and operates as a proxy for luck.
Although the Caps are playing fundamentally strong hockey, the pucks just aren’t bouncing the right way yet. In six games, the Capitals have had just one where their PDO was above 1000, the 3-2 win over Buffalo.
Individually, The Caps have just 5 players above 1000 PDO: Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Mike Ribeiro, John Erskine, and Jay Beagle. For contrast, San Jose has 15 players above 1000. The other Caps players have seen remarkably poor on-ice shooting percentages, below-average goaltending, or– in most cases– both.
(Fast fact: Caps goalies have so far been perfect while Joel Ward is on the ice.)
While it’s not good news for Ward and Erskine, we should see those these numbers normalize eventually. The lower-performing players will start shooting better (while their goalie duffs it less), and the team’s overall numbers will rebound. That alone will factor into a few wins.
Then there’s the Caps’ special-teams performance. The Caps are 4 for 25 on the power play, a 16% conversion rate that ranks them 22nd in the league. Their penalty kill has allowed 9 goals in 30 shorthanded situations, a 70% kill rate that ranks them 25th in the league.
Both of those figures are bad, but I believe that both will improve as coach Adam Oates has time to tune and acclimate his players to the new formulations. That’s a subjective reading, but I think it makes sense.
That said, the team’s 30 penalty-kill situations puts them in a four-way tie for 28th most in the league– a number out of joint with their possession (the team with the puck rarely commits the penalty). If that penalty rate goes down, the team’s crumminess while a man down will matter less.
And then there’s the Great 8, who has been criticized mightily (even by us) in this young season.
Alex Ovechkin has taken 20 shots so far and scored just one goal. But based on his average shooting average (about 12%), he should have scored about two and a half goals. It’s not a huge gap, but two Caps losses so far have been in one-goal games. We can expect Ovechkin’s shooting percentage to improve as the season progresses.
Still, Ovechkin is slightly off his shooting pace from last year– about half a shot per game. That’s no big deal in such a small sample, but it serves as a reminder that he’s taking half as many shots as he did back when he won trophies. Sure, with a little bit of luck (and maybe an NHL-caliber center at his flank), Ovechkin can bounce back to his scoring levels from last year, but he’ll need a dramatic offensive push to counteract aging effects and break through that plateau.
Finally, one thing we should keep an eye on is goalie performance. Robert Vollman at Hockey Abstract concocted a metric called Quality Starts. It’s basically a threshold that evaluates whether a goalie has given his team a good chance to win the game. The Capitals have had just one quality start so far– Michal Neuvirth’s effort vs. Buffalo. The rest of the time, independent of offensive effort, the Caps have had just a 25% chance to win the game.
But I really don’t believe the Capitals goalies are .900 Sv% talent, so those numbers should improve as well. They’ve gotta, as the Caps are going to need much better goaltending (and team defense) if they’re gonna get more wins out of the short season.
And that’s the rub: it is a short season, one in which luck will have a stronger influence than usual. I really do think these Capitals are a playoff team, but it might take more than faith in progression to the mean to make it happen.
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