The Washington Capitals have looked much better since the trade deadline. Once again, Caps general manager Brian MacLellan identified some problems, made a plan, and executed it. The Caps we see now aren’t just contenders again–they might be the most improved team in the NHL.
Below is a line graph that shows what percentage of shot-attempts Eastern Conference teams controlled before and after the trade deadline on February 25. Being above fifty means your team is generally attacking more than defending. Washington is the red line.
Going from controlling 48.4 percent of five-on-five shot attempts to 55.9 percent is by far the biggest improvement among any NHL team, east or west.
A short aside about the west: Calgary is the league’s second most improved team in this metric (53.0 to 58.7 percent). Watch out for them in the postseason, especially considering that Nashville and Winnipeg are the league’s two biggest droppers; they’re both below 50 percent since the deadline.
Back to the Caps. The secret ingredient in the back-to-back stew they’re cooking is improved defense. When facing the Capitals, opponent shot-attempt rates have dropped by 19 percent, scoring chances by 17 percent, high-danger chances by 14 percent, and goals by 29 percent. Paired with subtle increases in offense, the Capitals’ shot suppression has made them a far more fearsome team during five-on-five play.
The table below shows the percentage change in offensive and defensive rates since the deadline. Green is better, red is worse.
What’s stunning to me is how sudden the change has been. The additions of Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen to the lineup were the start of a dramatic improvement in the Caps’ five-on-five possession. Below are ten-game averages showing the percentage of total shot attempts taken by the team this season.
Speaking of Kempny, you’ll see in the first line graph above that the Caps’ shot-attempt percentage peaked exactly when he got injured against Tampa on March 20. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not. It’s possible that losing Kempny will be a major setback for the team, but it’s also possible that team stopped improving just because they have been playing against very difficult opponents the team recently.
That same strength-of-schedule is another reason why we can be enthusiastic about the Caps. We know going into the season how difficult the month of March would be. The teams they faced averaged 98 points last season and are on pace for 108 points paces this season. Only Carolina had a tougher month (with opponents averaging 109-point paces this season). And yet, Washington took 76.7 percent of available points, going a league-best record of 11-3-1, locking down a playoff spot, and inching closer to winning the Metro outright.
Once upon a time, the Caps were a mediocre team with defensive problems but a winning record. Then they made some trades, and — despite having one of the toughest schedules in the entire league — they won more hockey games than anyone else, having transformed the process by which they do so.
The playoffs start next week. Let’s go.
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