The Washington Capitals’ loss in Montreal on Thursday felt like a failed attempt to defray the Canadiens’ comeback attempt, but that wasn’t it. The Canadiens controlled play for most of the hour and successfully exploited the Capitals’ defensive problems throughout. The Habs had already earned the win with their effort; they just had to wait for Braden Holtby’s goaltending to falter. And falter it did in the final minute of regulation, ending the Caps’ fruitless effort to win two games in a row and reigniting concern about Washington’s spotty defense in the 2018-19 season.
From our comments, you might think that Caps’ defensive problems are new and caused by the coaching change:
I’m not impressed with [new coach Todd] Reirden now and wasn’t excited about him taking over. He has the exact same defense corps as last season and it looks/feels worse.
I will support the team win or lose but we are looking way too bad considering our personnel for me to not consider the coaching to be an issue.
Without [former coach Barry] Trotz they look like the team they were before Trotz. I thought letting one of the better coaches in the NHL leave, after he won you a Cup, no less, was stupid at the time – looking even worse now.
This is wrong. If anything, the Caps’ team defense is probably a bit better than it was last season, but considering how last season ended it’s very easy to forget that fact.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Trotz-coached 2017-18 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals allowed their opponents 13 high-danger chances per hour. In the last decade, only last year’s Islanders and a couple of Arizona teams have given their goalies more “oh crap” moments. The Capitals were not a good defensive team, though they improved a good deal after Michal Kempny replaced Madison Bowey in late February:
I mentioned this in my article last month, but the Kempny addition
(like @Japersrink and @RFCapsMoustache noted today) had a huge impact. WSH rank among 31 teams during regular season before/after Kempny's first game on Feb 22. pic.twitter.com/pHTeEE028t
— Good Tweet Pete 🌮 (@peterhassett) June 2, 2018
But if we look at how the Caps have fared at limiting opponent offense over the last few years, the trend might surprise you.
While the Caps had impressive suppression through the end of 2016-17, opponents started getting a lot more volume in the final year of Trotz’s administration. Now, overall attempts and unblocked shots are actually slightly down from last season (by less than two percent), but shots on goal are slightly up (2.6 percent).
The same thing happens when we account for shot quality, as best we can measure it using available data.
The Caps are allowing fewer scoring chances (down 1.5 percent) than last season, but high-danger chances (which are rarer and therefore subject to more fluctuation in small samples) have spiked up ten percent.
You can see a similar effect in these heatmaps from hockeyviz.
The 2018-19 Capitals are a lot like the 2017-18 Capitals in that they are not very good at playing without the puck. On the team level, there’s really not much difference in how the Caps defended in 2017-18 versus now. But on the individual level, well, this might jump out at you. The following numbers, from Corsica, are expected opponent goals per hour for each Caps player in each season, plus the percentage of change between the two. Lower is better, and increases are highlighted.
The Caps’ most important players are doing a miserable job at denying scoring opportunities to their opponents. Evgeny Kuznetsov has never been a defensive stud, but this year has been execrably bad: only one forward (Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek) has a higher rate. Meanwhile, Washington’s shutdown defensive pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have noticeably slipped from last season, same with Michal Kempny, who is recovering from a preseason concussion.
It seems like the players most depended on to carry the team during 5-on-5 play are struggling in their own end. This is a bit of a difference from last season, where depth players among forwards and defense dragged down the whole.
On the other hand, Christian Djoos (scratched in Calgary) and Nathan Walker (three games played) have recorded improvements, and we must note that Brooks Orpik has notched upwards as well.
And there’s one more player we should look at.
Facing a workload nearly equal in its difficulty to last season (a very high difficulty), Braden Holtby‘s saving has faltered to 90.4 percent. This is the actual primary driver in the Caps’ opponent goal rate jumping up by a third this season, and it’s also one of the best reasons not to worry. Holtby can and will return to form. Take it to the bank.
If the Capitals can pair better goaltending with an improved team defense (i.e. a defense that performs better than last season’s defense, which was a very bad defense), then Washington will start chaining together wins like it’s June 2018 all over again.
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