Photo: Patrick McDermott
With roughly a quarter of the season gone and lots of great hockey already in the books, it’s time to take stock in the Washington Capitals. It’s a yearly tradition we call Twenty Games In because we’re not very creative.
There’s a lot of information in this article, so I’ll put the conclusion up top:
This is The Team.
Let me be precise. I don’t mean that in an obvious The name of the band is the Washington Capitals way; I mean it like this could be the team that does what no other Caps team ever could. We’re just twenty and change games into the season, but I think this is the best team this franchise has ever assembled.
|33||Standings point, 2nd best in the Metro, 4th best in league|
|123||Standings point pace for the Capitals in an 82-game season|
|3.18||Goals per game, 4th best in the league|
|2.23||Goals against per game, 5th best in the league|
That point pace is not sustainable, so we have to acknowledge that the Caps are overperforming a bit. Still, the decrease in opponent goals is a significant accomplishment, and what’s driving it we’ll investigate below.
The kids call it corsi. Roughly it means how much your team has the puck, measured by shot attempts and weighted by scoreboard so blowouts and comebacks don’t distort the picture. In result, shot-attempt percentage projects future goals better than anything else we’ve got right now.
And after twenty games, the Caps look fantastic.
Last year I made quite a bit of noise about the Caps starting their season with impeccable possession, but by twenty games in they had fallen to 51.9 percent. That’s not bad at all, but the difference between last year and this year is significant to a degree we can’t truly appreciate until spring.
And so here’s where I say what we’re all thinking: Yes, this is probably the best Caps team ever. Twenty games into the 2009-2010 season, that Caps team, whom I previously had considered the best, had “just” a 53.2 adjusted possession score. We’re still early in the season, but these guy really could be the guys. So, um, yeah. #thankful
To the surprise of no one, the Caps still have one of the best offenses in the league, but they’re not quite where they were last year.
That number was slightly higher last season but ranked lower after 82 games (56.6 shot attempts, 8th).
Presuming now that the Capitals have three crucial elements of playoff success (1. a great, healthy top-line center in Nick Backstrom; 2. a great top-pair defenseman in either John Carlson or Matt Niskanen; 3. an elite goaltender in Braden Holtby), the remaining difference maker for the Capitals may be how well they activate their talented young offensive depth: Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Galiev, and even Wilson could be the guys to push this number even higher.
Here’s where the Capitals are really doing the work.
All of a sudden, the Caps are the third best defensive team in the league, so take a moment and let that soak in. And now let’s appreciate it over time:
This tells us a few things. The first, which you should never have expected me to let slide, is that the Caps’ weren’t bad at all at defense under Bruce Boudreau and only got worse when the team moved towards purportedly more defensive systems. The second is that the Caps are even better now than they were at their best under Boudreau. And all of the shots that do make it on net, of which there are far fewer than there used to be, have to get past the topic of our next section.
Braden Holtby is an elite goaltender.
Holtby is saving 92.98 during 5v5 this season, 14th highest among regular goaltenders, and there’s reason to believe he could be playing even better. Barring unexpected problems, Holtby will be backstopping the vast majority of games this regular season and beyond. The Caps no longer depend on a hot Holtby to get deeper into the playoffs (like they did in 2012), but they might just get him anyway.
The Capitals are shooting hot, and that may or may not be a good thing.
A bunch of high-scoring games (they have the 4th highest 5v5 goal rate in the league) has made the Capitals look even scarier than they are. 8.7 percent isn’t necessarily unsustainable, but it’s not a stat a team should rely on to win games. We saw that exemplified in the team’s 1-0 shutout win over Edmonton this week.
Some analysts hypothesize that high shooting percentages may suppress future shot-attempt rates, which would be a bad thing when the team’s shooting inevitably cools down. Let’s hope that the Caps can keep their fundamentals — getting the puck and generating chances– whether or not they’re getting 6 or 7 goals a night.
For now, let’s acknowledge that the Caps’ 100.9 PDO is a bit high, but nothing to freak out about so long as the goalies’ superb save percentage is the component doing most of the work.
Rob Vollman of ESPN invented this visualization to understand deployment and performance relative to deployment. In simplistic terms, players at the right side get deployed in the offensive zone more often and players at the top see better opponents. Blue means good shot-attempt differential and red means bad; bigger circles mean more ice time and that’s all you need to know. Here we go.
Reminder: the colors are relative to when that player is on the bench, so if a good possession player like Marcus Johansson is white, that’s only because possession god-emperor Nick Backstrom is throwing off the grade curve.
This is what a good team looks like, mostly. The team’s top line is at the very top (i.e. tougher opponents) and deep in the blue, which is very encouraging. Depth forwards like Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera are in the red with a lot of defensive deployments and not a lot of ice time (but probably still too much).
Line shakeups have made this look a bit less clustered, and that’s why Justin Williams is a lonely island of puck possession awesome.
The defense tells a similar story.
Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen have a mondo workload at 5v5 and are handling it superbly well. Brooks Orpik is apparently overworked, whereas Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov look a bit sheltered and ready for a bigger challenge. But you’ve heard this story before.
It might be a good exercise to compare these visualizations with my forward x defense visualization from earlier this week.
The Caps have had the league’s best power play for years, but it might be over.
The Capitals power play, mostly, is just Alex Ovechkin. The Caps usually score by his hand or because the other team is paying so much attention to his hand that someone else can score from the slot. So far this season, Ovechkin hasn’t hit the back of the net as expected, and the jury is still out on if something important has changed.
Here’s Ovechkin’s shot rates (on goal, all unblocked, all attempted) during the man advantage over the last three seasons.
Ovi is still getting the same volume of shots on or near the net, but his total attempts are down. That might signal nothing at all, but it might also hint that the Caps are not quite as good as activating him this year. Blame for that could fall on PPQB and set-up man John Carlson, or it could be systemic and driven by a worse breakout and zone entry scheme. Time will tell, but it’s not as if the Caps could ever bank on power-play goals in the postseason anyway.
With an 83.9 percent kill rate, the Caps appear to have a top-10 penalty kill, but don’t believe the hype.
If you measure by shot supression during while shorthanded, the Caps are middle of the pack. That’s not bad. They’ve never been a very good shorthanded team, and they Capitals are actually improving– a bit of a surprise given the offseason turnover. With the exits of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, the team lost a lot of reliable PK minutes. Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle have stepped up for most of those minutes, but TJ Oshie and Tom Wilson have also become important killers. Of that crew Wilson and Beagle have had the most success in shutting down opponent power plays so far (77.9 and 87.3 opponent shot attempts per 60, respectively), which is very encouraging given their less impressive 5v5 play.
We’ll need more time to let the penalty kill shake out, but for now it’s not quite where we want it.
There are qualifications we could and should make. The Capitals have had a remarkably easy schedule so far, and injuries have not been much of a factor. Bad bounces, one-goal games, scoring slumps, and goalie funks are all in the future. But this team is good. They no longer look good merely on paper. We’ve got two months of actual hockey that testify that this team is very special. Here at the end of November, with 60 games to go, that’s enough for now.
Note: Big numbers are accurate as of the afternoon of November 27.
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