The Washington Capitals have yet to lose a game in regulation. Winning some unlikely games and snagging a ton of loser points in overtime have put them in a cushy position in the league-wide standings: first.
That will not last. Even though this is the Weird Year, and even though the Caps have been terrifically fun so far, they’re probably not the best team in the NHL. It’s too early to draw strong conclusions, but that’s one thing we can know with some confidence.
And there are more — trends or patterns or glitches that are worth nothing, even if we’re duty-bound to put a super big caveat on everything.
A Super Big Caveat On Everything: Nine games is nothing! Major parts of the team’s top six has been missing from half of those games. The games they played have been against just a few teams. Don’t get cocky, kid.
Okay, let’s begin.
Yeaaaah, the Caps are not going to earn the pro-rated equivalent of 136 standings points this season. That would be like as good as the ’77 Habs.
The Caps are riding an amazing point streak, and they’ve banked a ton of points by surviving into overtime a lot. That augurs well for their playoff chances, especially in a shortened season. But they’re not worldbreakers, and we all know that.
But let’s get more specific. I really really want to talk about scoring.
HockeyViz has a great visualization for a team’s offense, using a heatmap of shots by location. So at top of these little pictures is the opponent’s net. A red blob means the Caps take more attempts from that location than league average, and a blue blob means fewer. Here from left to right are the last four seasons, with 2021 at right sporting a big asterisk for its sample size being one-tenth of the others.
The Caps are not going to the hole, so to speak. The big blue blob in front of the net in the right-most plot indicates that the Capitals are taking far fewer shots from the most dangerous locations compared to league average.
They are also taking far fewer shots compared to past versions of themselves. Here’s the Caps offense expressed as rates (per hour), broken down by types of events: shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, and expected goals. This data is from Natural Stat Trick.
Whatever Laviolette’s target is for offense, the team is miles below it. They’ve lost 16 percent of their offense measured in raw volume, and 28 percent when adjusted for shot quality. The team is currently in the bottom third of the league by most categories — and the bottom three by expected goals per hour. (They might be even lower if the Dallas Stars ever get over their COVID troubles.)
The obvious snag here is the injuries to and unavailabilities of the team’s most productive forwards. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson have all missed a ton of time. There’s also been a large percentage of game time that the team has spent protecting a lead, which further suppresses these figures. But I suspect the Caps will keep some depressed levels of offense even after the team gets healthy and the sample matures.
For the record, here are the on-ice expected goals per hour for selected skaters across four seasons — just to illustrate the drop-off.
It’s universal! I actually find that bewilderingly comforting. There isn’t necessarily a problem spot on the roster; it’s more that the games have been so weird so far. So weird. Eraserhead weird.
Still, we know Peter Laviolette does not have a generally positive impact on offense. We know the Caps are hella old, and we know that the division is really tough. This will all get better (I think), but it won’t get good.
Now onto the good news.
Hockeyviz again, except this time it’s a plot of opponent shots, so the net is at the bottom of each diagram.
Look at these stingy boys. After three years of big red blobs in front of (usually) Braden Holtby, they’re now sporting a big blue blob in front of their rookie goalie, whose name I will spell right on the first try in just a moment.
Here are those opponents rates over time and by type:
This appears to be a substantial and sustained improvement in Washington’s ability to suppress quality shots. I am being seduced to believe this is a genuine pattern and not just a function of the same stuff depressing offense discussed above. I don’t know yet, but it’s a good sign early on. I’m especially curious to see what happens in higher-pace games.
One thing’s for sure: the shots that rookie goalie Vitek Vanechek (nailed it) has faced have been far easier (if not entirely less numerous) than his predecessors. I also cannot stop myself from pointing out that the Caps team defense had been trending in the right direction since their Cup year (which came after a very weak regular season, defensively speaking).
Here’s the breakdown of opponent expected goals per hour for some individual skaters.
Everyone is looking good, with maybe the exception of Nicklas Backstrom, who is looking just okay. The levels of stinginess among the Dowd-Hathaway line has been important in particular, and I look forward to them being used more in shutdown-type roles against good (if not elite) opponent lines.
One of the things we’ve been told to look out for under Peter Laviolette is a bigger share of offense coming from defenders.
Nope. Not yet at least. The Caps have actually seen noticeably less participation from their blue liners.
Again, the outsized amount of time the Caps have played with a lead might distort this. Defenders are far less likely to go on attack when a team is protecting a lead — or rather, when they think they’re protecting a lead but actually they’re just ceding puck possession to their opponent. Maybe this will change. Maybe not. After player usage, actual on-ice tactics are the biggest thing coaches can control, and yet I still suspect Laviolette is at the mercy of his roster here. Then again, I’d still love to see an offensive explosion from Dmitry Orlov.
Briefly, I want to call out some players who have seen their roles changes this season.
With the top-six mostly out of commission, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway have seen a lot more usage. Tons of penalty kills (more on that in a moment) have contributed as well. That’s good, as they were one of the better fourth lines in hockey last year, and I love how their style of play can rub off on the other lines. They are my favorite non-Ovi shifts, and we’ve been seeing more of them.
Meanwhile, Jakub Vrana has not seen the breakout in usage I predicted. And I think I can see why:
Again, this is a daintily tiny sample, but Vrana’s offensive production has massively dropped off in these few early games. Part of that is certainly due to the game state situations we discussed above, but I’m now wondering if there is something else going on as well. Laviolette seems to agree, dropping Vrana to the fourth line on Monday. Let’s all keep an eye on this.
And now the brutal part.
The Capitals have had 18 power-play opportunities. They’ve been shorthanded 33 times. That minus-15 differential is the worst in the NHL (the St Louis Blues are close behind). What on earth.
Here’s a comprehensive list of all skaters who have drawn more penalties during five-on-five play than they’ve taken:
Then there’s a handful of players who have an even penalty differential, and then there’s these folks in the red:
Dowd, Panik, and Chara have both been busted for two more penalties than they’ve drawn. That wouldn’t be a big deal in a full season, but we’re just 16 percent into this one.
There is no way this trend can continue or be allowed to continue. What’s even more disconcerting to me is how many of these penalties are occurring in the offensive zone, where there’s less incentive to make a restraining penalty. Obviously, the Caps are not carrying the puck as much as we’d like (48 percent, bottom ten in the league), but that should not lead to such a ridiculous negative differential.
Some degree of coach-led discipline is needed here, but also, the Caps just need to catch a freaking break. I don’t think they can bank on scoring on 44 percent of their power plays from here on out.
I cannot stress hard enough that we are working with a tiny portion of data that is unreliable. The data we see here is true insofar as it describes what has happened, and it’s fun to use it to inform a suspicion, but not as evidence for a real conclusion. So while the Caps are banking a lot of points, they’re not the greatest regular-season team of all time. And while Vrana’s offense has been down, that doesn’t mean he’s half the player he used to be.
But at least now we have some more stuff to watch for.
Headline illustration: Pete (screenshot courtesy of NBC Sports Washington)
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