There’s a simple method you can use to evaluate special teams at a glance. If you add a team’s power-play conversion percentage to their penalty-kill percentage, you get a number called a special-teams index. If that number is above 100, things can’t be too bad.
The Washington Capitals are a 103, so obviously everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about here.
Except maybe there is. Washington kills 73.3 percent of its penalties, third lowest in the league. Compounding the problem, the Caps go a man down more than any team in the league except Colorado. Lots of PKs and not K-ing a lot of those Ps is one of Washington’s biggest problems, and it has cost them a league-high 20 goals.
Here are PP and PK numbers for the whole league, ordered by special teams index.
This also illustrates how the Caps penalty kill, though it converts an excellent 29 percent of its opportunities, isn’t driving the team’s win-loss record as much as it should. Getting 3.2 power plays per game puts them in the bottom third of the league, which means not enough demonstrations of a truly special power-play unit.
But how that unit becomes so special may surprise you. JK. No, it won’t, it’s the Ovi Spot.
Here, from hockeyviz, are heatmaps for the Caps main power-play unit (Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Ovechkin, and Carlson) from last season and this season. The purple spot just above the left circle is the legendary Ovi Spot (TM, patent pending, all rights reserved). Alex Ovechkin got most of his 17 power-play goals from that location last season, and he’s on track for even more this time around (he has seven so far).
As a tactic, the Ovi Spot is heavily scouted, with straightforward counter play (i.e. putting a shadow on Ovechkin, which Pittsburgh and Tampa in particular have tried) and a painfully obvious telegraph. But it still works, which I think speaks to the unique and frankly ineffable talent of Ovechkin, who should be doubly flattered by other teams (especially Winnipeg) imitating the formula with impressive yet unequal results.
Maybe just as important as the Ovi Spot but far more overlooked, there’s the net-front presence from Kuznetsov and Oshie, who punish teams for paying too much attention to Ovi. You can see them in orange and red in the charts above. Compounding the danger, when teams actually do pay rightful attention to Oshie and Kuznetsov, we get the Ovechkin Island effect.
I’m tickled by seeing such a small presence from Nicklas Backstrom, who provides one tenth of the shot volume and a far greater but harder-to-enumerate value to the unit. It’s Backstrom’s strong play along the right halfwall that activates scoring plays — either from Ovechkin via Carlson on the point, or with a sharp pass to the slot for Oshie or Kuznetsov.
(With Oshie and Kuznetsov both sidelined with concussions, we’ll need to keep an eye on how the Caps adjust. They’ve had stable personnel on the PP for so long; I’m excited to see how Wilson and others perform up there.)
One last note on the power play: it’s hard to see in the underlying numbers. The team’s shot volume while a man up isn’t noteworthy (99.4 attempts per hour, 12th highest) and their expected goals (5.7 per hour, 29th in the league) is very low. Those numbers haven’t budged much from last season, and I don’t think they are reason for concern. We’ve gone over (probably too many times) how the Caps’ scoring talent can outpace their raw offense events during 5-on-5; I think the effect is even stronger on the power play.
The Ovi Spot, for the record, is not considered a high-danger chance based on available data. While anyone with eyeballs can see that setup and that release and say “uh oh”, it’s harder to make that evaluation without comprehensive, reliable puck-tracking data.
I hope after several glowing paragraphs about the power play, we can return to the topic of the penalty kill with some sobriety. It’s bad now, but I think it may improve soon. For starters, the biggest driver in PK goals so far has been crummy goaltending, namely a 30th-place saving percentage of 77.8. Braden Holtby‘s been the troublemaker there (73.5 percent), but Copley’s not been much better (82.9 percent). I expect both to improve as the sample grows, since the profile of shots that they’re facing isn’t so bad.
Washington keeps opponents to 81.3 attempts per hour (second best in the league) and 6.9 expected goals, which is #nice at 16th best in the league. Once Caps goalies settle down, we’ll see the goal rates bounce back as well, but that’s not the real solution — because Washington does not have a penalty kill problem.
Washington has a penalty problem.
And it’s getting worse. The Caps take too many penalties and draw too few. Owning the puck less at 5-on-5 has a painful externality here, as the Caps are less often in the situations that force opponents to commit penalties. Fixing even-strength play will also help special teams.
A final note, without Jay Beagle and lacking Tom Wilson for 16 games, Todd Reirden has been forced to use new personnel on the penalty kill. The following table shows the percentage of available PK ice-time each forward has been on the ice in recent seasons.
In his final two years with the club, Beagle became the heart of the Caps PK. With him gone, his apparent replacement Nic Dowd has taken a lot of PK shifts (37 percent of ice time). Chandler Stephenson, Nicklas Backstrom, and TJ Oshie have all seen their usages increase as well, and even Evgeny Kuznetsov had a short trial run on the unit, which is thankfully over. This is a decent platoon approach to the PK, and I think it’ll pay dividends especially as the most dependable defensive forwards (Dowd and Wilson) get comfortable in their roles.
So, yes, Washington has had a pretty miserable penalty kill so far, but improvement is inevitable. (Going three-for-three against Chicago on Wednesday was a good start.) Add that to an unstoppable power-play machine, and you’ve got a real good team. If they can just stay out of the dang box.
Next time: Lineups
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.