Halfway. Get it? (Photo: Patrick McDermott)
We are 41 games in to the 2014-15 season, exactly halfway, so now is a good time to take stock.
Let’s start with this: The Capitals are good again. After spending the last year or four wandering into the wilderness, the team is finally improving, a feat owed mostly to the hiring of Barry Trotz and the firing of Adam Oates.
The standings, which don’t necessarily tell us much about a team right now, look good. The Caps are 12th in the league with 52 points. That’s a 104-point pace. The Caps are fourth in the division behind the Rangers (who have been even hotter than the Caps lately), and they own the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. At a glance, it looks like the Caps are a playoff team, which is accurate, but there’s a heckuva lot more going on.
In today’s supersized snapshot special, we do the usual stuff– plus a whole lot more. I’ve got six essential conclusions that should inform what the Caps do in the back half. Get comfortable. This is a long one, and I’ll need you to share your thoughts at bottom.
What follows is my halfway retrospective, a collection of notes and research and observations about how the Caps have performed so far with an eye on the 41 games ahead. I’m going to try to be critical here, not because the Caps are bad, but because they definitely can be better.
As you’ll see below, Alex Ovechkin is doing great at driving possession during 5v5. Going by on-ice, unblocked shot differential, this is Alex Ovechkin’s best season since 2009-10. That happened, almost entirely, by freeing him from the restrictive and inhibitive and frankly incompetent coaching he had seen in the last few seasons.
But that’s not resulting in goals. Right now, Ovechkin is on pace for just 16 5v5 goals, which would tie his worst season in 09-10, but unlike that year Ovi isn’t raking in assists to make up for it. More on that in a second.
Instead of scoring a ton of goals during even strength, Ovechkin is tied with Jay Beagle at 0.78 goals per 60 minutes of ice time. We want him at or above 1.00 goals per 60. That he’s not up there tells us something isn’t clicking on the top line, and you gotta think the revolving cast of right wingers has something to do with it.
Alex Ovechkin is this team’s best offensive weapon, so optimizing and activating him at all stages of the game should be of the highest priority. Getting guys who can make space for Ovechkin during 5v5 and who can produce independently is more important that masking bad possession players lower in the lineup.
In 175 minutes of 5v5 play together over the last four years, Ovechkin and Eric Fehr generated 3.78 goals per 60 minutes. That’s what we want to see on the Capitals’ scoring line. If Fehr can’t be spared from the depth or Trotz isn’t willing to put him up there, Brian MacLellan needs to start working the phones. It’s time to upgrade the offense.
Brooks Orpik’s overall numbers aren’t bad, but there are some suggestions that he’s being sheltered by his deployment with the top line. In the same vein as the point above, playing Orpik with Ovechkin so much (36 percent of Orpik’s time and 42 percent of Ovechkin’s, resulting in a 3.3-point possession penalty to Ovechkin and a 6.2-point benefit to Orpik) is almost certainly affecting Ovechkin’s point output– which should be tops in the league.
The second line has soared at times this season, and you’ve got to wonder how much of that success is owed to the paucity of time they spend with Orpik and Carlson and how much they spend with Mike Green.
The problem with the Orpik’s and the entire defense’s usage, if I had to sum it up in a single word, would be overspecialization. Here’s a Vollman player usage chart from War on Ice.
Among forwards this is often a good pattern, as Neil Greenberg reported about the Chicago Blackhawks last year. For defense, and given the way this particular defense shares time with scoring lines, I think it’s a hinderance.
It’s possible that Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen would fare better than Orpik and Carlson with the toughest assignments, allowing John Carlson’s offensive talents to show up more during 5v5 and testing Mike Green and Nate Schmidt’s mettle with some tougher shifts and larger ice time.
The Capitals defense is transformed from last season. They’re better by miles, but the Caps have not yet reaped that improvement with actual goals. They could be so much better than they already are, and given how much money they’ve spent to upgrade that part of the roster, they need to be better.
The Capitals have scored 119 goals so far, 79 of them during 5v5. By pace, that puts them right on the line between the middle third and the bottom third of the league.
(This is a very sloppy calculation, using the players named above as proxies for their lines. I’m just looking for a sketch here, not precision.)
I don’t know how that distribution compares to the rest of the league, though I’m a little alarmed by the middle six. I think, traditionally you’d want your second line to outscore your third line. Johansson’s trio is actually getting softer minutes and better defensive pairings than the third line, but there’s no big difference in their output.
This, to me, exposes the weaknesses in the Capitals’ forward depth. Last summer’s upgrades from Brian MacLellan were felt entirely on the defensive half of the ice. No replacement was made for Mikhail Grabovski. Instead, the Capitals are gambling. Much of their future success rides on the development of young forwards Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
If all those players pan out, the Capitals might win a Stanley Cup. If none of them pan out, Brian MacLellan is going to be in deep trouble.
Michael Latta does terrifically with defensively minded defenders. With Matt Niskanen, possession (for both) improves about 3 points to reach 54.5 percent. Same deal with Brooks Orpik, with whom Latta sees 53.8 percent of shot attempts belong to the Capitals. It seems like, if you’re playing defensive hockey, Michael Latta is a great choice. He might be a better fit on a third line that gets used more– perhaps in lead-protecting situations.
Nick Backstrom has spent only 68 minutes of 5v5 apart from Alex Ovechkin (most of it in games 9 and 10, when he skated with Johansson and Brouwer), but that was long enough. When Ovi and Backstrom are together, the Caps own 53.5 percent of the 5v5 shot attempts. Apart, Backstrom dropped below 47 percent (warning: smallish sample size). Both of these guys should be all stars, but I think this little nugget underscores how important good teammates are to individual performance.
The following players perform better (in shot-attempt differential) with Jason Chimera than they do apart from him (minimum of 30 minutes together):
That’s it. There’s a similar (but lesser) effect going on with Jay Beagle. Whatever those players do right philosophically, they get creamed with opponent shots.
But the worst pairing, by far, is the one of Jack Hillen and Mike Green. Away from Hillen, Green is a possession monster with 55.5 percent of shot attempts belonging to Capitals. In the 83 minutes Green and Hillen have shared, Caps possession plummets more than 11 points to 43.9 percent. Hillen transforms Green from a league leader into a nobody.
For no particular reason, here’s a picture of Nate Schmidt:
As we get closer to April, our attention will increasingly turn to the playoff picture. Like I said above, the Caps have a good hold on the wild card spot.
Below, I’ve ranked the Metropolitan teams by points percentage and charted their score-adjusted possession and PDO scores. PDO is the sum of a team’s most volatile stats– shooting and saving percentage– to help us understand if their results are sustainable.
I was tempted to leave out everyone to the right of Washington since there’s a huge gap between the Capitals and the Jackets (a 14-percent difference in points percentage), but I decided against it.
I’d wager a shiny nickel that the Islanders hold on to the division lead, shocking everyone with their all-of-a-sudden complete team. The Islanders and Penguins will face off in the penultimate game of the season though, so we might not know the outcome until then.
A little lower in the standings, it seems that the Rangers are feasting on untrustworthy percentages and their strong special teams. The Capitals have a decent chance of catching them, particularly if they rack up points against weaker teams this month.
I’m not too worried about the teams below the Capitals. Columbus’s season has basically already destroyed by injury, Philly and New Jersey might be entering rebuild phases, and Carolina has the distinct misfortune of not being quite bad enough to compete for a lottery pick.
So if the Capitals best the Rangers and take third in the Metropolitan, and the Islanders continue their ascent, we might see a Penguins-Capitals matchup in the first round of the playoffs. Orpik, Niskanen, and Reirden against Pittsburgh. Dear god.
That is all.
Okay, now for the actual snapshot.
Let’s do the numbers. These are current as noon on Sunday, January 11th. The sample is restricted to 5v5 hockey when the score is within one goal. There’s a glossary at bottom with an explanatory video.
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