My goal today isn’t to say why the Caps are slumping or how to fix it. I just want to provide a collection of the facts.
I want to start with the least relevant part. Washington’s five-on-five offense has been pretty consistent, though they’ve dipped slightly in the last week. The line graph below shows shot-attempt rate (CF60, in dashes) and expected-goal rate (xGF60, in a solid line) for the Caps over five-game samples.
Aside from a minor lull since game 52, there’s not much here, but it is useful to compare against our next graph: the same stats, but for Washington’s opponents.
Opponents have been shooting more (the dashed line) and getting more quality (the solid line) since around Christmas. Since the beginning of February (four games ago), the Caps have controlled just 39 percent of the on-ice expected goals. Only Florida and Detroit have been worse over that stretch.
The relationship between the Caps’ opponents’ shot volume and shot quality seems important. Using Natural Stat Trick’s reckoning for expected goals, we can calculate the average quality of opponent shots, i.e. the chance of it becoming a goal. Red is the Caps, blue is their opponents.
Washington’s quality-per-shot is dipping a little, but their opponents are getting more quality than ever, which speaks to those defensive breakdowns we’ve been seeing so much.
Another way to notice this is the rate of high-danger chances that opponents are getting. That’s what the line graph below illustrates. You can see something happened in mid-January. What happened exactly? I don’t know.
The dashed line here shows the rate of high-danger chances that opponents got against the Caps in 2017-18, when their team defense was mostly very bad. For the last five games, the Caps have been worse than that.
You can see this same effect using Micah McCurdy’s fantastic visualization of opponent shots over time. The red blobs here mean that opponents are getting more shots from that location than league average, blue means fewer. Ideally, you don’t want a horrific red blob in front of your own net — but since January that’s exactly what you get.
(Thank you, Micah, for generating this. And my apologies for soundtracking it.)
Things get pretty hairy around 30 seconds in– or around mid-January.
I’ve tried to identify something discrete that happened then, near Washington’s homestand starting with game 46, that could explain the troubles. Considering how much ire Nick Jensen has received lately, I thought maybe isolating defender numbers could help. Here are expected-goal percentages in five-game averages for the top six, color-coded for your convenience.
Jensen sure has been terrible since around that time, but Orlov, Gudas, and Siegenthaler have seen major dips as well. And the pairings don’t point to any obvious weak points either. The numbers where the defenders meet is the Caps’ expected-goals percentage when they’re on ice together. (We did a similar exercise last week.)
The only terrible pairing has been Radko Gudas and Michal Kempny (43 percent of expected goals in 101 minutes), but they haven’t been regular partners since January 3.
The only thing clear to me — beyond “hey, the Caps sure aren’t playing well” — is that there’s no easy scapegoat here. Both goalies have been victimized, there’s no clear weak link on defense, and even special teams have been poor. This all suggests a systemic problem without an easy fix through a trade or the waiver wire. The good news is that the Caps are far better equipped to specifically diagnose and address this problem than I am. They’ve got analysts and trainers and coaches who I suspect are very motivated to get on the case, and they’ve got enough padding in the standings to suffer some pain while they investigate.
But if this is still going on in March, yikes.
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