With their overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Washington Capitals have completed their 20th game of the season. Twenty isn’t a magic number after which all the sample sizes are suddenly big enough and all statistics are suddenly meaningful, but I like to use this moment to take stock and start to make conclusions about how they look, which, for the record, is eerily familiar.
This is the first entry in a series of analysis stories. We’ll start with the big picture and even-strength play.
Here are the only stats that really matter: the standings. Via NHL.com, here’s the Metropolitan division.
The Caps sit in third place in a very, very strange Metro. The team we thought was heading for a sell-off, the Columbus Blue Jackets, lead the bracket while the team we thought would dominate, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are DFL. The Islanders are doing surprisingly well so far, and the Hurricanes are surprisingly unchanged from last year. The Metro overall is lagging (but not nearly as bad as the Pacific Division), and the Caps sit within a reasonable distance of first place.
This stack ranking is a helpful reminder that early-season returns are bonkers. Wins and losses don’t give us the same resolution as goals or shots, so the standings show distortions that make it seem, for example, as if both New York teams are good. They’re not, and eventually the standings will reflect it.
But for now, we need to look beyond the standings. Using just the events that happen on the ice during 5-on-5 play, adjusted for score and home vs. road, this next visualization shows us the percentage of events that belongs to each team. Above 50 percent is good (green) and under is bad (red). At far right are columns for shooting and saving percentages.
This table is ordered by standings points per game (as of November 19), so “better” teams are at top and “worse” teams are at bottom. That distinction doesn’t really matter since the Washington Capitals are firmly in the middle, which is a theme you might notice throughout this series.
The Capitals own 48.1 percent of shot attempts and 48.8 percent of scoring chances during 5-on-5 play. Both figures are under fifty, which is not ideal, and the worry compounds when you look at the next two columns: high-danger chances (i.e. the “home-plate” area in front of the net) and expected goals, a combination of shot volume and shot quality measurements. Not only are the Caps getting out-shot; they’re also getting notably poorer quality shots than their opponents.
You can see this disparity illustrated in these heatmaps from hockeyviz. At left is the Caps offense, with red meaning they take more shots from that location compared to league average. At right is opponents playing the Caps, who have a giant red blob in front of Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley.
Everyone who has watched the Caps this season will not be surprised to hear that the team has defensive problems. The only value I can add is in quantifying those problems:
And it’s not all on the defensive side of the ice. The Caps are not generating the amount of attempts and chances we want. This next graph shows how far from average the Caps and their opponents are in various event rates.
Again, we see the Caps allow their opponents way too much offense (the blue bars, especially in high-danger and expected goals), while not generating much of their own (the red bars). At far right we see that — despite their trouble possessing the puck and controlling play — the Caps are still outscoring their opponents in actual goals. Washington’s 52.9 percent of goals during 5-on-5 play is ninth best in the league.
This early in the season, goal numbers are strongly driven by shooting and saving percentages. The Caps are shooting 9.2 percent (eighth best) and saving 92.4 percent (14th best). While that’s not the dizzying heights that the Islanders are seeing (top-five in both), the Caps’ finishing percentages are still a bit high. They might drop, but the team has shown a remarkable, durable ability to score more goals and prevent more goals than we would expect given their other metrics.
Despite becoming a middling-to-poor team in volume and quality (as best we can measure it) after 2016-17, the Caps have remained firmly in the black (above 50 percent) in goals. We discussed this phenomenon endlessly last season, which reminds me of a question I asked a few weeks ago: are we mis-remembering the Capitals of last regular season?
To that point, here is a comparison of the 2018-19 Caps to the 2017-18 Caps, twenty games into the Championship season.
|Shot Attempts / 60||52.2||55.4|
|Opponent Shot Attempts / 60||58.1||59.7|
|Shot Attempt %||47.3%||48.1%|
|Scoring Chances / 60||25.6||27.2|
|Opponent Scoring Chances / 60||28.1||28.5|
|High-Danger Chances / 60||8.8||9.9|
|Opponent High-Danger Chances / 60||12.5||13.6|
|Goals / 60||2.4||2.7|
|Opponent Goals / 60||2.4||2.4|
There is hardly daylight between them. The numbers are very close, which might comfort folks who think the Caps are experiencing a championship hangover or have gone off the rails since Barry Trotz left. I actually think there are important structural differences in how the Caps reach these figures, and I’ll detail those in future installments of this series. But, for now, I hope it’s enough to state that the team is not where they should be, especially on defense, but also that there exists a path from where they are now to the Stanley Cup. This team blazed that exact path last year.
Next up: special teams
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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