Photo: Geoff Burke
It’s pretty clear what most needs to be addressed this month: RMNB’s cheerful and optimistic outlook on the Caps, an attitude not yet shared by many of this site’s readers. Peter has written a number of times over the past few weeks that this current Caps team is not only much better than last year’s Adam Oates-led squad, but also, as he wrote in a November 3 post, “is capable of being really, really good.”
Is this team better than last year’s team? I think Peter’s on pretty solid ground there, and I don’t even think you need to cite advanced statistics to argue that point. Unlike last year’s team, this team doesn’t spend most of the game fending off dozens of shots in its own zone, is actually able to breakout of that zone in an orderly and efficient way, sustains offensive pressure in the other team’s zone and regularly scores even-strength goals, so I think it’s pretty clear the team is certainly better than last year’s train wreck (even if it was hard to tell during this weekend’s two debacles.)
But it doesn’t take that much to be better than last year’s team, because last year’s team wasn’t very good—which was true whether you were using the “eye test,” advanced statistics or old-fashioned stats like wins. Is Peter convincing when he argues that this team “is capable of being really, really good”? I hope so, but I am far from convinced, and had some unanswered questions after reading that November 3 post (entitled “Guys, the Capitals Are Sooo Much Better Than Last Year.”) Some of the next few paragraphs are going to probably make me sound like some kind of “Ombudsman of Doom,” but after decades of so much disappointment, I think many Caps fans may have had similar thoughts running through their head as they read the post.
The first question I have is the small sample size issue. It’s something that Peter mentions in the post, noting in one case involving goaltending stats that the sample size of 256 shots is so small it’s “almost meaningless in predicting the future.” And yet the number of shots being used to calculate possession stats isn’t that much bigger (I don’t know what it was after 11 games, when Peter wrote the post, but after 15 games, it’s 466 Fenwick events for, 416 against.) On the other hand, I realize that at this point in the season, these are the only statistics we have, and we’re not going to just ignore them because they could be misleading. To his credit, Peter noted on the Nov. 9 podcast that such stats are a “snapshot” and no guarantee that the team will sustain such stats all year. But in that case, how do we know whether the positive possession stats the Caps are putting up are statistical noise based on a few strong games early in the season or a truly improved possession team? And when will the sample size be big enough that we can say with confidence that the stats are meaningful? (As Peter pointed out in his weekly snapshot on Sunday, the Caps possession number dropped a whole point just this week.)
The other question I have about declaring the Caps a very good team based on possession stats is the New Jersey Devils issue. Every fan should want their team to rate highly in Corsi and Fenwick, because recent Stanley Cup champions have all ranked very highly in those stats. But while a prerequisite of your team being a Cup contender is having good Corsi and Fenwick numbers, having good Corsi and Fenwick numbers doesn’t mean your team will be a Cup contender. Last year, the Devils ranked in the top five in both Corsi and Fenwick 5 on 5, and yet didn’t make the playoffs, and other teams like Ottawa (8th in Corsi) and Vancouver (8th in Fenwick) rated well but also weren’t anywhere close to the postseason. There’s been some talk that the reason that the Devils are a major exception to the rule is because their games have fewer shots total than other, more successful teams. Well, the Caps, while not as low as the Devils were last year, are on the low side in shots generated (17th and 21st in Corsi and Fenwick For per 60 minutes), so that at least raises some doubt in my mind whether we should get excited yet over these numbers.
And then there are the goaltending numbers, which Peter believes will get better. Considering that Holtby has a history of recovering from slow starts the previous two regular seasons, and good career numbers, I think that’s he’s not wrong to believe that. But after Adam Oates’ psychotic plan to totally change Holtby’s style and destroy his confidence at the same time, who knows? A number of goalies have had a good year or two and then never reached those heights again. Anyone remember Jim Carey? He had played about the same number of games that Holtby had played coming into this season and won a Vezina Trophy (and finished third for another). And then, after a really bad playoff series, he was never the same and was pretty much out of the NHL two years later. Yeah, I’m sorry for making that comparison, and I’m happy the Caps have a great goalie coach to work with Holtby, but after last year’s debacle, I’m still a little nervous about Holtby’s future until we see signs he’s back to where he’s been in the past.
All of this doesn’t mean that Peter isn’t correct about the potential of this Caps team. I just would like to see some answers to these questions—or even just acknowledgments that they are question marks—before I believe it.
Other things that caught my eye over the first month of the season:
Everyone likes to make fun of Pierre McGuire, but Ian, a whole post devoted solely to McGuire’s mistaken mispronunciation of “Books” instead of “Brooks” Orpik? Sure, it’s funny to think of “Books Orpik” as some kind of rival of Encylopedia Brown, or wonder whether Orpik prefers Kramerbooks or Politics & Prose, but aren’t there so many better things to make fun of about Pierre than a simple slip of the tongue? Like his bizarre obsession with where a player played in junior hockey, for one? Or, for that matter, how he praised Orpik during the game in question just seconds before the Caps’ defenseman made a terrible giveaway near the net that led to a Red Wings goal?
On the other hand, Ian’s post last week about the sale of Winter Classic toques (And when did everyone stop calling them knit caps?) was great public service journalism, especially coming just as it gets cold and everyone needs a new hat for the winter. And from the picture, Ian, it was obvious you took the advice of your favorite broadcaster — to GO HAVE FUN OUT THERE!
I also wanted to discuss Peter’s request for the Caps to start talking dollars with Mike Green. Are we sure it’s time for that already? I say that less because of Green’s play this year, which has been strong, but because of his injury history the last four years. He did play 70 games last year, but in the three years previous, he suited up for just 49 in 2010-11, 32 the following year and 35 in the lockout-shortened 2013-14 season (less than 75 percent of the 48-game schedule.) Can we at least see another half-season of decent durability before spending what I assume would be at least a slight raise from the $6 million he’s been earning the past three years? In addition, with the recent news that the salary cap may not rise next year, the Caps may have just $19 million to re-sign Green, Holtby (who if he has the elite season everyone is expecting will likely be asking for the going rate of nearly $6 million a year for top goalies these days), Marcus Johansson (and if he keeps up his current goal scoring pace, he’ll bring home a nice chunk of change) Evgeny Kuzentsov and Nate Schmidt. And I haven’t even counted Joel Ward and Eric Fehr. Using one-third of the team’s remaining cap space at this point on Green seems awfully premature to me in early November.
Finally, on last month’s RMNB podcast, Ian said that Fedor was nervous that I might “come after” him. Well, I guess Fedor came up with an ingenious solution to that—just write his posts in Russian so I can’t understand them. Very clever, Fedor.
That’s it for now. If there’s an issue you think I should be looking at, or you just want to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, please leave a comment or tweet me at @ericfingerhut.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.