They should not despair. These kinds of slumps happen.
In a league as tight as the NHL, no team loses five games in a row without having really crummy luck. That’s definitely happening here. During even-strength play, the Caps have recently been outscored 18 to 6, which sounds even worse after you consider they scored five goals on Sunday in Chicago. A negative goal differential and five losses might make a team look terrible, but the Caps are not a terrible team. They’re not playing particularly well right now either, but they’re not this bad. It’s mostly the percentages talking.
Since the slump began, Washington has had the second worst shooting (5.0 percent, only behind Dallas) and second worst goaltending (85.4 percent, behind only Minnesota) in the league. Put those together and in the last 10 days you get the the league’s second worst PDO, a meaningless acronym that can describe unsustainable luck.
That’s a significant change from a Caps team that had previously been number one in PDO. Now they’ve got a scoring drought, which came just as Caps goalies forgot how to stop pucks.
Blue (opponent shooting percentages) have spiked upward just as red (Caps shooting percentages) have nosedived. It’s a terrible confluence, but it’s not for a lack of trying. The Caps’ underlying numbers aren’t horrible during the slump. The team has been marginally outshot, but they’ve been like that all this season and last. They’re significantly out-chanced in high-danger areas, but that’s also been true for a while. The big difference now is PDO. A low PDO makes all the systemic problems that we’ve seen for a year and a half all of a sudden intolerable.
That’s not an excuse. Actually, it’s the opposite. Now the Caps have to address the underlying problems that plague their play, or just hope the problem will fix itself. So let’s try to understand the problem better.
Below are hockeyviz shot locations for the last five games. The Caps are at left; their opponents at right. You don’t need to scrutinize every point here. You can just sorta blur your eyes a bit to see the pattern of where offense is happening at both ends of the ice.
Personally, I think the New York game (row 4) was particularly pathetic in offense (left column). The Columbus game (first row) was way too much of the perimeter style that Reirden recently bemoaned, but overall the five-on-five shooting hasn’t been out of ordinary for the Caps. The lack of scoring certainly is though, and that should only be alarming insofar as any cold streak is.
On the defensive side of the puck (right column), there’s a lot more concern. The St Louis, Nashville, and New York games were all feeding frenzies in front the net — and an indication that the Caps are either getting outworked in their own zone or beaten in neutral. I suspect both are happening, but TJ Oshie called out the latter when discussing the players-only meeting that followed the Chicago game:
Right now, we’re kind of playing the old I got my guy kind of thing, saying if this D-man doesn’t beat me up ice, I’m good. But really, we have to come back and help our D and apply pressure to the other team’s forwards and really get back to our game.
I think that’s absolutely true, though I’m not convinced that odd-man rushes have increased during this five-game slide. I’m more interested to see if there are recent, pattern-level changes. I’m going to pick six skaters to represent different parts of the lineup, and we’ll see what we see.
Below, using Natural Stat Trick data, are on-ice percentages of various events when each player is on the ice. Above 50 percent means the Caps are driving play (attempts), getting more quality (high-danger chances), or actually outscoring the opponent (goals). Blue is before, and red is just the last five games.
Nicklas Backstrom has been Washington’s most reliable forward this season, and that hasn’t changed recently. He was dominant before, outscoring opponents 29 to 16, but the recent slide sees him just barely underwater: two Caps goals to three opponent goals.
There’s no smoking gun here.
Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov have traded off top-line duties this season, and Kuznetsov’s erratic play is a big reason why he hasn’t stuck at 1C. I’ve made a lot of noise about Kuznetsov’s defensive problems, but he seems to have made a bit of progress lately: shot attempt and high-danger percentages have both improved lately.
But they’re both still under 50 percent, and, woof, the Caps have been outscored 7 to 1 during Kuznetsov’s 5-on-5 shifts in the last five games. That’s somewhat Kuznetsov’s fault, but he’s notoriously snakebit individually during even strength (one goal on 66 shots), and now goalies are saving just 75 percent of shots behind him. That’s just rotten luck.
Among the top-nine centers, Lars Eller‘s play in the last week is the most surprising. While overall shot attempts are close to even, any numbers that account for shot location or shot quality are more damning. We can’t blame it on deployments either; he’s getting roughly half of his starts in the offensive zone.
I don’t know what’s happening here, but I want to take a closer look soon.
Basically the team’s number-one defenseman, Matt Niskanen is my single biggest concern right now. Kevin Klein at Japers Rink posited that injury has limited Niskanen’s play, and I buy that. Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov are getting caved in — goals were 33-16 in the opponent’s favor prior to the Chicago game — and that’s not too far out of line with underlying numbers. All of his percentages are down in the last five games, which distresses me as I thought he had been improving just a few weeks ago.
Niskanen’s setback isn’t the principle cause of the slump, but it’s a big one, and the one most likely to linger after PDO gets back to normal.
John Carlson is an all-star and a scoring maniac — even in a slump. He’s improved his shot-attempt percentage lately at the expense of some quality, though I’m not convinced either is driving the huge drop-off in his on-ice goal percentage. Opponents have scored 8 goals against him during the slump, with the Caps offering just two in reply. (Both of those goals came off Carlson’s stick, and both came against Chicago, when he and new partner Dmitry Orlov dominated play.)
Two-time Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik turned a few heads when he debuted this season. His age-38 on-ice stats began way better than I’d expected in early returns, but it didn’t last. With Christian Djoos on injured reserve, Orpik’s been confined to sub-50 percent figures next to partners Jonas Siegenthaler and Madison Bowey. Those numbers have nosedived during the slump, but Orpik’s one of the few Caps players who has not been super unlucky lately. His on-ice goal percentage is mostly in line with his underlying stats, so it’s a lot tougher to blame it on the goalies here. The Caps need him better, or they need him less.
If I had to estimate, I’d say the losing streak is three parts luck and two parts process. In the space of a week, the Caps instantly dropped from a high-scoring fireworks to low-scoring drudgery, and they all-of-a-sudden started giving up a goal on every seventh shot they faced.
That’s a brutal reckoning, but it won’t last forever. And even if it did, the low-scoring/low-saving Caps will become a lot more successful once they sort out a small constellation of problems leading to a system-wide deficit in shot quality. With two more games and then a long break looming, I’m confident they’ll right the ship.
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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