Braden Holtby got lit up on Saturday night. Allowing six goals on 33 shots, Holtby had one of the worst nights of his season. At first, I assumed it was the worst night of his season, but then I checked. I quickly realized how bad it’s been in Washington lately.
This is a story not so much about Holtby, but rather what Holtby’s been subjected to by his teammates, his coach, and his general manager.
So, no, Saturday’s loss to Chicago wasn’t the worst game of Holtby’s season. That honor actually belongs to December 11, when the Caps lost 3-1 to the Islanders and Holtby allowed three goals on 12 shots before getting pulled in the second period. Here’s what I wrote in that recap:
[Holtby] gave up three goals on 12 shots faced, but his team was placid and flaccid in front of him, so I’m not gonna give him a hard time.
What did not occur to me at the time was exactly how bad Washington’s skaters were that night. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Caps allowed 20 high-danger chances during 5-on-5 play. Without context it’s hard to understand how bad that number is, so another way of thinking about it is this: that was the second worst defensive performance in the NHL this season.
Maybe you’re thinking that this is my cheeky way of hinting that Saturday’s disaster in Chicago was actually the single worst defensive performance in the NHL this season. No, the Caps allowed 17 high-danger chances to the Blackhawks, making it just the 20th worst performance of the season. The title of Absolutely Worst Game of the Season by Any Team happened way back on October 11, and it was the Boston Bruins – just kidding, it’s still the Caps. During 5-on-5 play on that penalty-riddled night (just 33 minutes were at 5-on-5), the Caps allowed the Penguins a higher rate of high-danger chances than any team in the league has had on any night.
So the first, second, and 20th worst performances of the season all belong to Washington, and Braden Holtby was in net for all three. At this point, it’s worth revisiting two conclusions:
During 5-on-5 play on Saturday’, Holtby surrendered four goals on what are considered high-danger chances – ostensibly, close-up shots that often come from tremendous offensive creativity, defensive breakdowns, or both. (Toews’ goal, a tricky one from along the boards, was considered low-danger.) I point this out because Holtby’s recent save percentage woes seem to be driven mostly by those high-danger plays.
In the graph above, this season began right around game 200. Holtby is doing just fine, thank you very much, against medium- and low-danger shots (the Toews goal was the first low-danger one he’s allowed since December). But Holtby’s saving against high-danger shots over the last twenty games is 84.7 percent, virtually the lowest of his career – and those high-danger shots are representing more and more of what he’s facing. That’s where the systemic trouble is at play.
As a stat, “expected goals” is a function of how many shots a team takes and allows from various locations, according to those locations’ danger, or likelihood of becoming a goal. Having dropped from 51.1 percent of expected goals last season to 45.1 this season, according to Corsica, the Caps are presiding over one of the top-10 biggest year-to-year drop-offs of the last decade.
|Team||xGF%||Δ from previous year|
That drop-off is mostly the result of the fiasco that is the Washington defense. In the last decade, no team has had a bigger increase in expected opponent goals than the 2018 Capitals. Only three teams have had a higher expected opponent goal rate overall: the 2011 Islanders, the 2013 Hurricanes, and this season’s fire-sale Rangers. The root of this problem starts with opponent shot volume, which is up seven attempts per hour from last year – itself the fourth worst decline in suppression – but it is magnified by shot quality. Here’s how opponent rates (events per hour) have changed since last season.
Those opponent shot rates put the 2018 Capitals in the 10th, third, and first percentile, respectively, among all NHL teams in the last decade. It’s hard to do any worse than this. And yet the Capitals have outscored their opponents 121 to 110 during 5-on-5 play (due in part to a league-high shooting percentage) and are in the precise middle of the league when it comes to opponent goal rate.
To put that another way: the Capitals defense is a shadow of its former self. Braden Holtby is doing his darnedest to keep the Caps competitive, but literally no goalie in the league is being challenged as much as he is right now. Any talk of the Caps’ superior shot quality on either end of the puck is pure fiction, and the team is in need of significant changes or else they will eventually be exposed as a team who for whom mediocre is just an aspiration.
Have a nice Sunday.
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