If you go the NHL’s stat site, go to teams, and then sort by goals against per game, you see the Capitals right near the top: 3.77 per game, second highest in the league, behind only Ottawa.
That’s atrocious. It paints a picture of the Capitals — now nursing a four-game losing streak — as a disaster. But I don’t think that picture is accurate.
I want to begin by saying I don’t trust the data this year. At least not yet. This is the Weird Year, and the weird year likes lying to us. It tells us the Capitals have played 13 games, but that’s not true. The captain has played just nine. The impish Russian center has played just five, and the supposed first-string goalie just two. The schedule has been a mess with one week lost to COVID-related postponements, with added distortions from playing the same opponents over and over again.
So whether it’s out of skepticism or patience, I’m withholding drawing any strong conclusions until a bit later. Still, The Discourse sort of demands we address the conventional wisdom about the Capitals, which is that the Caps are a real bad team (see: four-game losing streak) because of a bad team defense (see: a bunch of recent blown leads). Considering these Pittsburgh goals from Valentine’s Day, I can understand why folks think so, but let’s put this idea through the ringer.
I pulled from Natural Stat Trick the five-on-five stats for all teams in the league. I grouped some stats together, I color-coded them all (green is good, red is bad, you know this by now), and I hid everyone except the Eastern Motors Division or whatever we’re calling it. These are the stats I’m interested in today:
If you add up the events by the Capitals and their opponents, these numbers represent the percentage of the total generated by the Caps. Above 50 is good.
Pretty much across the board, the Caps are a 47- or 48-percent team, placing them around 25th in the league. That’s bad. That’s a major step back from the Caps under Todd Reirden, who were at 50 to 52 percent. So is Peter Laviolette an inferior coach to Todd Reirden, or does he have an inferior roster, or do coaches just not matter that much? I have my suspicion, but I don’t think there’s any strong evidence to back any of those ideas up — at least not yet.
Per game, here’s a breakdown of shot-attempt percentage and expected-goals percentage — plus my annotations.
A huge chunk of this already weird season were played with Ovechkin and Orlov and Kuznetsov and Samsonov. The team won some fun games while the Russian four were out despite putting up pretty miserable efforts during five-on-five play. And the games for which the full lineup or something like it were available have been pretty solid actually — even if the wins and losses don’t reflect it yet.
Which is all just to say: it’s a weird year. Let’s go to offense.
These numbers show the rate for each event. For example, the Capitals score 3.1 goals per hour of five-on-five play.
These are scary low numbers for Washington, and almost certainly not where Peter Laviolette wants them to be. But they’re scoring 3.1 per hour thanks to a shooting percentage above 11, which is bananas. Normally I would say a shooting percentage that high cannot last, but this is a shortened season and — well, you know — a weird year. Maybe it will last.
We’ll come back to finishing percentages in a moment, but the real hot topic is up next.
These numbers are the opposite of offense. They show the opponent’s rate for each event vs the team. For example, opponents score 2.9 goals against the Capitals per hour of five-on-five play.
Washington allows a lot of volume — measured both in attempts (Att) and shots on goal (SOG). That has made busy work for their goalies, especially rookie Vitek Vanecek.
But as we get into higher quality events like scoring chances (SC) and high-danger chances (HD), the Caps get increasingly stingy — and increasingly green in the chart above. Their 2.2 opponent expected goals per hour is still high, but that reflects more on volume than the danger of the average shot. To that point:
Washington is doing in practice what a ton of coaches lie to themselves about: keep opponent shots to the perimeter. Granted, they don’t do it as well as Minnesota, but Washington’s defense is actually pretty good on a macro level. Here’s a heatmap of opponent shots from HockeyViz:
The blue blobs just in front of the net mean opponents are taking fewer attempts from those locations when compared to league average. I know we’ve seen some disheartening rush goals and unfortunate rebounds, but the broader pattern shows the Caps defense keeping opponents out of high-danger areas fairly well.
It just doesn’t feel like that because of our last topic…
The Capitals are slaying on offense with that 11.2 percent shooting, but they’re suffering at the other end of the rink. While Vanecek stole some games while the Russians were out, he’s still an unproven rookie goalie (355 shots faced) saving noticeably below league average right now. His rehabbing replacement isn’t any more reliable either. Ilya Samsonov has faced just 742 shots in his career, most of them before an ATV accident and COVID.
For contrast, I waited until Holtby hit 3,000 shots faced before I really got excited about him. By that same token, 39-year-old Craig Anderson is proven, but maybe not in a good way.
What we’re seeing lately is bad goaltending spoiling otherwise pretty good games. Before that, a major chunk of the Caps roster was out of action because of coronavirus. And before that, it was last year. So I am not entirely convinced we’ve seen the 2020-21 Washington Capitals really show up yet. Maybe when they do they’ll be a glass cannon that’s weak to counterattack, but I haven’t seen enough to convince me yet.
So here’s where I’m at:
Screenshot via NBC Sports Washington
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