If you think the Capitals are worse than they were a year ago, you’re sorta right, but only just barely. By the numbers, there actually isn’t much difference between the team that lined up in February of 2018 and the one we see now.
I hope general manager Brian MacLellan takes that as both encouragement and motivation. Last year he spun some magic to turn the Caps from a so-so team into a team of destiny. He’s going to have to do it again, and here’s how.
But first: a quick comparison of how the Capitals performed at five-on-five through the first 52 games of the last two seasons.
|Shot attempt %||48.2||48.1|
|Scoring chance %||48.0||49.1|
|High-danger chance %||43.3||45.3|
Recency bias and that miserable slump have made us pessimistic about the 2018-19 Caps, but really they’re virtually the same as last season. At actual goals, they’re eerily identical — 53.3 percent in both seasons (106 to 93 then, 122 to 107 now). Special teams is a different story, but five-on-five hasn’t budged much.
This is probably a good point to note that these numbers are not good enough to win a championship. Not now, and not last year. The Caps as they looked in early February 2018 probably would have gotten trounced by Columbus rather than narrowly squeaking out a win. But by the 2018 deadline, the Caps had replaced Madison Bowey with Michal Kempny and modified their defensive-zone coverage. The results were dramatic, priming the team for a successful Cup run.
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
The Caps simply have to improve if they wish to actually compete for a back-to-back championship. So let’s work on how they can do that. Let’s begin with a super-busy, color-coded, overwhelming table of five-on-five stats for every skater.
Now, some ideas.
Opponents get 3.2 expected goals per hour when Evgeny Kuznetsov is on the ice, one of the worst rates among all NHL forwards. Something is deeply wrong with Kuznetsov’s play without the puck (which you can also see in his distressing penalty rate). While ultimately it’s up to Kuznetsov to solve his own problems, it would be wise for the team to give him as much defensive help as possible. Pairing him with TJ Oshie (whose play has been excellent lately) is a good start, but here’s another idea:
Marcus Johansson has scored 34 points in 69 games for the New Jersey. The Devils are deadline sellers, and Johansson’s $4.6 million deal expires this summer. They want to deal, and the Caps could use him. Back in 2016-17, Kuznetsov dominated play with Johansson. While Johansson might have lost his scoring touch and has been frequently injured, he could certainly help with Kuznetsov’s struggles — and maybe the next item as well…
Washington’s goal rate during five-on-four has dropped 17 percent from last season, including a pretty brutal cold streak in December and January. This drop-off, however, is restricted to the four players on the power play not called Alex Ovechkin. While Ovi is shooting and scoring goals right on pace, the points aren’t coming from the rest of the formulation.
Hockeyviz has shot location heatmaps from the last two seasons that tell the story:
A big factor is — again — Kuznetsov, who appears to be taking more shots (37 percent more) but from weaker locations. If the Caps acquire Johansson, they could slot him in as the low man while also exploiting his excellent neutral-zone play to execute better zone entries and get into formation faster.
One sad but unavoidable truth about this season is that Matt Niskanen has experienced a setback.
Todd Reirden seems to have noticed this when he split up the Orlov-Niskanen pairing temporarily recently. And while Niskanen continued to struggle when with Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov did pretty well in his other assignments, suggesting that he’s not the one who is dragging the duo.
There aren’t a ton of great options here, especially if the issue is health-related, but lowering Niskanen’s workload would be a good start. Ideally, I’d like to see Niskanen play under 20 minutes a night with fewer assignments against the opponent’s best lines. But that’s a big ask until the Caps address their next issue…
Last year Brian MacLellan made a massive impact with one small tweak to the blue line: subbing in Michal Kempny for Madison Bowey. A year later, the Caps sorta need that again. Bowey just doesn’t seem viable at the NHL level; he’s putting up Niskanenesque numbers — except with the cushiest workload on Washington’s defense. If not for a 93.9 save percentage during five-on-five play, Bowey would be costing the team points rather than just forcing Todd Reirden to overwork his top four.
The return of Christian Djoos to active play could help here, though it’s more likely that Djoos will push promising youngster Jonas Siegenthaler out of the lineup instead. That would be a shame. Bill Comeau’s SKATR tool helps us visualize the difference in player traits between Bowey (left), Djoos (middle), and Siegenthaler (right).
Select to embiggen the image
The Caps should try to acquire a reliable third-pair defensemen before the deadline, but if they can’t, playing Djoos and Siegenthaler over Bowey (and perhaps Orpik, who should be rested more) would be a big help.
Todd Reirden has tried a lot of different variations on his fourth line this season without success. Here are just some of the combos:
79 26 25
23 26 25
23 26 65
13 72 25
65 72 25
65 26 72
18 72 25
18 26 23
23 26 72
18 26 72
18 26 25
With so many variations it’s been hard to isolate what’s not working, but here are a couple possibilities. Devante Smith-Pelly lacks speed, Chandler Stephenson lacks offense, and Travis Boyd seems to lack an NHL-caliber skillset altogether.
Meanwhile, Dmitrij Jaskin brings size, offense, and dependability on the rare occasions when he gets a sweater.
This isn’t a situation in which a trade will necessarily improve things. The Caps seem to have a problem evaluating their forward depth. They’re getting suckered by Boyd’s absurdly high shooting/on-ice saving percentages, Smith-Pelly’s legendary 2018 playoff run, and I have no idea what they see in Chandler Stephenson.
It won’t happen, but I think a fourth line of Dowd, Jaskin, and Nathan Walker would be less out-of-step with today’s NHL. They’d be fast and productive — for like nine minutes a night, at least.
Those are my takes. There are more — I’d like to see the team platoon their penalty kill unit and stop telegraphing their slingshot passes — but that’s enough for now. Share your own ideas below.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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