We’re only two weeks into the 2019-20 season, but we’ve already learned so much. We’ve learned that maybe opponents should cover Ovechkin on the power play. We’ve learned that the third period is a silly place best avoided entirely. We’ve learned that more young Russian players are always more better.
Here now are all the good and not-so-good stuff I’ve seen through six games.
Through six games and 280 minutes, the Caps have controlled 57.0 percent of shot attempts 56.8 percent of expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick. After a couple seasons at or slightly below the break-even line of 50 percent, the 2019-20 Caps look like they’ll be able to control play during five-on-five a lot better.
But that domination hasn’t showed up on the scoreboard, at least not yet. The Caps have been outscored 12 to 11 during five-on-five, which is a cruel reversal from previous seasons, but not all that unlikely considering how volatile shooting and saving percentages can be in a small sample. I’d be astonished if Alex Ovechkin’s on-ice goal percentage remains under 40 percent while he’s taking 55 percent of on-ice shot attempts. It all comes down to below-average finishing and some spotty goaltending.
On that topic…
The rookie goalie has been nearly perfect in two appearances, allowing two goals in 119 minutes (all strengths). Natural Stat Trick’s model would have expected 3.5 goals against Samsonov thus far, so he’s certainly been a difference-maker.
Holtby’s also been a difference-maker, but in the other way. He’s allowed 15 goals against 8.1 expected goals, which would be concerning if it weren’t so very very early in the season. Holtby’s hurt the team a bit early on, but he tends to improve as the season grows anyway. I’m not worried.
Brendan Leipsic, Garnet Hathaway, Nic Dowd, and various other fill-ins have been a delight for Washington’s forward depth. Despite getting relatively tough assignments, the bottom line has decisively driven play (around 60 percent). I’m a big Dowd fan, but all three of these players seem like standouts in different ways. Hathaway in particular appears to have playmaking skills uncommon for a grinder. I think he’s going to grow on folks in a big way.
Whether it’s Siegenthaler, Gudas, Fehervary, or even Tyler Lewington, there’s nothing but bright spots among the new defenders. None of them has an on-ice shot-attempt percentage under 55 percent, and only Lewington (who has the smallest sample size) has an on-ice expected goals percentage under 50 percent.
(Meanwhile, Nick Jensen has a crummy goal differential so far, but his underlying play has been just fine.)
The Caps have been outscored in the third period 9 to 4, leading to a series of blown leads, lost games, and grumpy fans. Those late-game collapses cannot be chalked up to Braden Holtby alone, as the Caps skaters have also had a tendency to lose control of even-strength play. We’ll need more time to look at this, but I suspect the team is making some tactical adjustments late in games that may seem more cautious than they actually are. Keep an eye on this.
This might be controversial, but I like how Todd Reirden has handled the lineup. When Kuznetsov was suspended and for one game after, he slotted Eller into the second line for excellent results. Chandler Stephenson got starts over Nic Dowd, but he did splendidly in his opportunities, earning a shorthanded assist in one game. Among the defenders, there are so many good options that there are no bad lineup choices to make, only difficult ones.
But moreover, in an 82-game season, making an unexpected or even suboptimal choice for depth players in a handful of games just isn’t a big deal. Getting a part-time player more ice time may have a more positive externality than whatever marginal difference in on-ice results may be seen in a player’s limited ice time.
Washington’s opponents so far averaged 98 point last season, making for a difficult start to 2019-20. The Blues, Canes, Stars, and Preds are all darn good hockey teams, which perhaps we should factor in when considering how disappointing the Caps’ 3-1-2 record is — but also how impressive their underlying stats have been.
The next couple games will be tough; Colorado and Toronto are both fast and prolific offensive teams. But after that, Washington’s opponents will have averaged around just 88 points last season. There will be a lot of road games, but the Hawks, Rangers, Oilers will be some of the softer targets the Caps will see this season. Time to start racking up standings points.
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