Though the Washington Capitals last season earned 105 standings points and won the Stanley Cup, they have yet to win a single preseason game, and although no one cares even a little about that, there is some consternation about the team’s fortune in 2018-19. Lots of Caps fans still get the autonomous sensory meridian response whenever they think about the Caps winning the Cup, but the afterglow is fading, and it’s time for us to look to the future. Now is the time of year when analysts make their projections, and not all of those projections are rosy for Washington.
Among them is one from the esteemed Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, who projects the Caps to earn 94.4 standings points this season. That ostensibly would put the defending champions on the playoff bubble – a setback, but there are lots of reasons why the team may outperform those expectations.
Personally, I think the Caps will again be a 100-point team. Lemme tell you why.
I want to state up front that this is not a criticism of the prediction models or their authors, who I think represent the most rigorous thought in hockey analysis today. Instead, this is a discussion of subtle factors that I think should help the Caps win and may have depressed their ratings so far. Another point to consider: it’s hard to intuit how uncertainty works both in predictive models and in hockey itself (which Dom wrote about on The Athletic), and that extreme outliers (like Buffalo and Nashville) tend to get pulled towards the middle in predictions. That said, here are the projected standings points for Washington from two very bright analysts:
(Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz will release his predictions next week.)
The particulars of these models are proprietary, but it’s understandable why they’d be cool on the Caps. For most of last season, Washington was drastically outplayed in their underlying 5-on-5 numbers. Their forward and defensive depth was among the league’s worst, and they lost a very special player in backup goalie Philipp Grubauer this summer. In less substantial matters, they also lost their head coach and had a short offseason that began with a comical amount of partying.
Still: put me down for 100 points. Here’s why.
Franchise goalie Braden Holtby had a rough 2017-18 campaign, putting up the worst save percentage of his career. But those numbers were partially driven by a difficult workload, which should be lightened for reasons I’ll address below. The result will be a return to form for Holtby: the most consistently good goalie in the NHL.
Up until last season, he had hardly ever budged from 93 percent during 5-on-5 play:
He was eerily stable until 2017-18, which was also the first season in which he underperformed compared to his expected save percentage, calculated based on the quality of shots a goalie faces. The shot quality he faced spiked up last season as Caps opponents saw the rate of their scoring and high-danger chances go up 20 percent from the previous season.
If the team can do better defensively in front of Holtby, and I think they will, it’s a safe bet he’ll deliver for them again.
Last season I wrote a ton about how the Caps struggled to both create dangerous shots and limit them from opponents — despite characterizations to the contrary. I think that writing stands up, but there’s another point we should always consider: the Caps have some pretty darn good shooters. As a team, they’ve never shot below eight percent during 5-on-5 play in any of the last four seasons, with two of those seasons coming in above nine percent. That’s helped the Caps outpace their expected goals by more than 70 over four years, with the team recently getting about 15 percent more goals than expected based on the quality of their shots (but necessarily the quality of the shooters).
One explanation for the Caps’ being so boss at scoring beyond expectation is their cross-slot passing, which Corey Sznajder’s data shows is among the best in the league. And, of course, there’s always Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s jokesness, which can’t hurt.
While it’s possible the Caps’ scoring-reality distortion field will wear off this season, I doubt it.
Here are 5-on-5 statistics for two lines – one terrible, one great:
Except that’s actually just one line: Burakovsky, Eller, and Connolly. A is them in 2017-18, when they were very bad. B is them in 2016-17, when they were one of the best lines in the entire NHL.
What changed? Well, for one, Andre Burakovsky was really crummy last season as he fought through injuries. Those struggles impaired his line, which also suffered from some unfortunate defensive-pair deployments. Both of those factors should be removed in 2018-19, along with any nonsense accusing Burakovsky of mental weakness, an ugly notion that should be disregarded and mocked.
I don’t think the Eller line will return to their 2016-17 peak (in which they outscored opponents by one goal per hour), but I think they’ll be closer to those heights than to last year’s valleys.
Washington’s blue line had a lot of problems last season, but those problems all seemed to get better when you changed just one variable.
|Player||With Orpik||Without Orpik||Δ|
Those are the shot-attempt percentages for Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and John Carlson when they were playing with 37-year-old Brooks Orpik and when they were playing apart from him. All three saw massive improvements in the latter, enough that one might be driven to reconsider if John Carlson’s struggles in his own end were a problem with the player himself or with his situation.
Orpik is back this season, under curious circumstances, but his role will likely be reduced. His million-dollar price tag is much more scratch-able than last year’s $5.5 million, and the incentives built into his deal suggest that his durability is at least an open question within the front office. Less Orpik on the ice may yet reveal new value in young players like Djoos and Bowey, and it will make life noticeably easier for Braden Holtby too.
My fantasy for 2018-19 is Orpik transitioning from on-ice to off-ice leadership, allowing him to do more of what he does best while abandoning the facade of mentorship for young players that has so far failed them.
Overall, I’m really enthusiastic about the Caps – Cup hangover be damned. I don’t know what changes Todd Reirden will make, but I’m cautiously optimistic for them. I think the team still has a lot of hidden value that can be exploited in their depth, and no one anywhere doubts how powerful their top-end talent can be.
Put me down for 100 points.
(I reserve the right to change this prediction at any time up until the Monday after Thanksgiving.)
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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