The Capitals probably had their toughest stretch of the whole season in December. They played a bunch of very good opponents, they did the California road trip, and they had no-rest games against Tampa and Carolina. And yet, the team will escape the month with a very winning record: 8-4-0 with one game left to play. The Caps have played some of their best hockey recently as well, controlling play in spite of recent injuries and illnesses.
So things are good in Capsland right now, but not perfect. There’s reason for concern, as long as they’re concerned about the right thing.
The line graph below shows the rates of opponent offense against Washington compared to league average. December began with game 29, which was followed by a sharp improvement in the Capitals’ defense.
Lower is better here:
The Caps haven’t been merely lucky lately; they’ve been good. The Caps are currently on track to win the President’s Trophy, and you could argue that some projections may be underrating them.
Point projections over the past fortnight. pic.twitter.com/Qe6lNJxOLA
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) December 28, 2019
And yet, that success might feel a bit shaky to fans and close followers. Even after the team gets over the bug now going around, there are some concerns for this team — starting with its starting goaltender.
Through 28 games of five-on-five play, Braden Holtby has saved 9.5 goals below expectation. The team’s backup goalie, Ilya Samsonov, is saving just about equal to expectation (0.2 below) in half the ice time.
Holtby’s performance is not good and should be of concern particularly to his agent, but there are a few reasons to be hopeful for the future. First, Holtby is seeing tougher workloads than his backup (2.4 expected goals per hour versus 2.0) though they’ve had similar goal support.
Second, Holtby’s troubles seem to have come in isolated incidents. Between October 8 and 14, he gave up 11 goals — 7.5 more than expected — in three games against Colorado, Nashville, and Dallas. A longer stretch in December has been less severe but still troubling, as Holtby surrendered 6.7 goals below expectation, including two acute stinkers against Columbus, then bad outings against Boston and Carolina bookending the holiday.
Those are two terrible runs for Holtby, but if they’re isolated incidents then perhaps the Holtby we saw in the back half of October and all of November (4 goals saved above average) can reassert himself. That would make him an excellent goaltender for Washington in a playoff run, and it would be a good sales pitch for Holtby’s pending free agency next summer.
I don’t have the same confidence about Evgeny Kuznetsov.
In the past I’ve expressed my worry about Kuznetsov by looking at the underlying pattern of play — how the Caps get less offense and opponents get more when Kuznetsov is on the ice. I don’t need to do that right now. Goals alone tell the story.
After a nice percentage-driven run of success in November, Kuznetsov has been underwater. The goal numbers are relatively kind to Kuznetsov. Over the last ten games, opponents have taken nearly two shot attempts for every one taken by Washington.
I remain convinced that shot-attempt and expected-goal statistics systemically underrate the danger of Kuznetsov’s offense — he’s an elite passer through high-danger areas — but it’s an unavoidable conclusion that he’s just not playing much offense lately.
I don’t know what to make of this. We know Kuznetsov can be successful when supported properly by defensively minded wingers who are good in the neutral zone, and we know Kuznetsov can be successful even if the Caps get outshot by a bit, but we’re seeing neither right now.
So the Caps have fought through a brutal schedule in December filled with injury, illness, and bad goaltending, but I can’t help but worry that their most dire troubles may be ahead.
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