Despite a tough schedule, the Washington Capitals have taken points from seven of their first nine games and now sit second place in the Metropolitan Division. New depth players have slotted in well, and veteran defender John Carlson leads the league in points.
Overall, things are good for the Washington Capitals. But how they’re good is unfamiliar territory for the team.
Here’s how the division standings look like before the games of Sunday, October 20:
Despite some spotty goaltending, blown third period leads, and an iffy power play, the Caps are positioned just fine. But one layer below that, some pretty interesting stuff is happening.
I want to qualify everything I say next with a big caveat: Nine games is nothing. I try not to draw any conclusions until we’re around twenty games into a season. We’ve only seen narrow angles of these players and teams so far; the full picture has yet to reveal itself.
But what we have seen is fascinating. Here, using Natural Stat Trick’s adjusted data for five-on-five play, is how each NHL team controls various events. Fifty percent is even, and the numbers are color-coded in the usual way.
The Caps control a larger percentage of shot attempts and expected goals than all but one team (the Flyers, who are 2-3-1 with three games in hand). Those numbers are still inchoate and will almost certainly not remain so high, but they do tell us that the team is controlling the flow of the game much better than in the last two seasons. It means fewer shots (and fewer quality shots) against Caps goaltenders and more time on attack. That’s very good.
But then there’s actual goals. The Caps rank just 19th place in goal percentage (15 Washington goals, 18 opponent goals). Part of that is the natural distortion of small sample sizes (there are way fewer goals than shot attempts). That distortion partially takes form in the team’s shooting and saving percentages, which are bananas in a bad way.
Shooting 7.2 percent (12th best) isn’t totally terrible, but it is a strange departure from the team’s recent glory as elite finishers. Meanwhile, Caps goaltenders are saving 90.3 percent of the shots they faced during five-on-five play, sixth worst in the league.
Calling them “Caps goaltenders” seems like obfuscation though. The underperformance has really been in Braden Holtby individually. Holtby gave one of the worst starts in NHL history last week, creating a goalie controversy in the 30-year-old goalie’s contract year.
The sum of shooting and saving percentages is sometimes called PDO (the acronym means nothing). In that stat, the Caps rank 26th.
So for the first time in a long time, the Caps are getting good zone time, limiting opponent chances, and getting chances of their own. But the puck is going into the wrong net too often. This is new territory — a world in which the Caps can’t be decried as a fundamentally weak team coasting along on unreliable percentages. Instead, they are underperforming their shot volume and quality in a manner that is kind of shocking.
Over the next few weeks, the Caps will play weaker teams than they did in their first nine games. Braden Holtby will get more chances to pull his numbers up, and the team’s sample size will grow to the point where we can start to get an idea of who this team really is. Maybe they won’t dominate the flow of the game as strongly. Maybe they’ll start shooting hot again. Maybe Braden Holtby’s recent downturn isn’t just a blip. The list of possible outcomes spans the gap from playoff bubble team to bona fide Cup contender.
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