The Washington Capitals have made significant improvements since October. Matt Niskanen is back to playing 22 minutes a night, Alex Ovechkin is scoring like a twentysomething, and Jakub Vrana has truly arrived as an NHLer.
But most importantly, the team is in a virtual tie for first place in the Metro Division entering Saturday’s games.
That’s all very good news, but it’s also very dangerous. Washington’s success in the standings doesn’t match up with their underlying process. If they don’t work on their latent problems, they risk disaster in the season’s back half.
I wanna start with the details and then zoom out to the team as a whole. First, I want to expand on something I touched on in the last snapshot.
Since the return of Niskanen to health and the reunion of Backstrom and Ovechkin, the Caps have enjoyed great success in their top six during 5-on-5 play. Before November 22, the top six had outscored opponents 26 to 20, but since (11 games) then they’ve outscored opponents 21 to 8. That’s 72.4 percent of goals belonging to the Caps when their stars are on the ice. That’s a tremendous number, but it might not last.
The top six is outshooting their opponents 304 to 297 during that period, just a smidge above even possession. While we can and should expect scoring to outpace shot attempts when you’ve got players like Nick Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby on the ice, getting 72.4 percent of goals on just 50.6 percent of shots is not sustainable – even if quality is high, which it is.
And then there’s the bottom six. They struggled to start the season and they got worse from there. Since November 22, the Caps have been outshot 252 to 181 and outscored 11 to 6 when the bottom six is on the ice. With just 41.8 percent of the shot attempts and allowing 16.8 high-danger shots per hour in the last month, Washington’s depth is among the worst in the entire league – and they’re by far the biggest drag on the team.
Taken as a whole the Capitals seem like a mediocre team that is drastically overperforming in the standings. If you are zoomed out, you don’t notice a solid top six getting great bounces and a truly terrible bottom six getting crushed every shift, you just see a team that should be in the bottom third of the league somehow ruling their division. And that wouldn’t be an unfair description from some perspectives.
During 5-on-5 play, the Caps get 47.7 percent of shots (23rd in the league), 47.1 percent of scoring chances (28th), 46.0 percent of high danger chances (30th), but somehow they’re scoring 52.8 percent of the goals (10th). Add to that a very good power play (7th) and a sub-par penalty kill (21st), and now the Caps have racked up 62.1 percent of the standings points available to them (9th). That doesn’t add up.
Hey, here’s a photo of Braden Holtby.
Credit: Cara Bahniuk
To better understand what this gap means, I looked at all NHL teams just before Christmas over the last five years. Other teams whose standings points have outpaced bad 5-on-5 performance similar to the 2017 Capitals include the 2014 Maple Leafs, the 2015 Panthers, the 2013 Avalanche, and the 2016 Senators. This is not good company to be in. These teams’ successes depended on great goaltending or high shooting percentages that could not and did not last long. These teams at various times had been described as “paper tigers” or “a mirage” or “oh my god it’s the 2014 Maple Leafs.”
But there’s one important difference: the 2017 Capitals top six really is good. Even if they don’t keep scoring three out of every four goals, they’re still real darn good. That should be both a comfort to fans and a challenge to management. It’s much easier to fix forward depth than it is to find a second line center or top-pairing defenseman – two struggles this organization has known well. The Caps are strangled by the salary cap right now, but they won’t need lots of money here.
The problem is obvious, specific, and not expensive to fix. If the Caps can stabilize their depth, they can turn a paper tiger into a real one, making the playoffs a lock and making some noise once they get there. But if they let the standings lull them into a false sense of security, the new year will not be fun for fans.
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk