The Washington Capitals have gone 8-12-2 since the new year, earning just 41 percent of the standings points available to them. That places the team 26th out of the league’s 32 teams in the calendar year of 2022. That’s a dramatic drop from the first three months of the season, when the Caps were third best at collecting standings points (71 percent, behind only Carolina and Tampa). Now the only teams worse are Buffalo, Arizona, Montreal, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Those are, to be precise, ass-tier hockey teams, and Washington is among them.
So let’s have some fun. Let’s play the blame game!
A note on me cutting of some stats based on the calendar year: it’s arbitrary, bro. Years are made up. I can’t point to a single change that made the Caps get bad when the year turned; I just want to make a larger point of the team’s decline, which I admit has been gradual, not immediate.
I will now identify several dimensions of the Washington Capitals that are not working, discuss how important that problem is, and then who is to blame for it. To measure each problem’s severity, I will be using the global standard Five Millie Manthas scale.
The Capitals have been the third most banged-up team in the NHL this season, behind Montreal and Vegas. Those injuries have come almost exclusively to forwards, particularly Anthony Mantha, TJ Oshie, and Nicklas Backstrom. The NHL Injury Viz blog has a great visualization of how much cap hit has come from each different position on a team.
There have been times in the season when half of the top-six forwards have been unavailable due to injury.
Severity: Two out of five Millies.
Because even the most impactful forward plays like one-third of a game.
Blame: No one. Bad luck. Lesser blame: The ravages of age, but also Brian MacLellan, who is responsible for managing this team’s aging roster.
Washington’s goalies had an easy job before the new year. During five-on-five play, the Caps allowed 2.17 expected goals per hour, seventh lowest in the NHL. In 2022 they’ve dropped eleven spots to 18th (2.50 expected opponent goals per hour). That drop is the 26th biggest in the NHL, smaller than only Buffalo, Nashville, Montreal, Columbus, Arizona, and San Jose.
In short that means the job of being a goalie in Washington has gotten much harder, though I find that point to be secondary. What’s more important is that these goalies are manifestly just okay, in addition to being maddeningly inconsistent.
Severity: Four out of five Millies.
The goaltending is costing the team games on a regular basis, though the team in front of them bears more and more responsibility for it.
Blame: Brian MacLellan, who knows by now what he has in his goalie tandem but has not made a change. Lesser blame: Vanecek and Samsonov themselves, who simply are who they are.
The Capitals were a very strong team during five-on-five play in the first few months of the season, taking 53.1 percent of the total shot attempts. That ranked them seventh in the league, just ahead of Toronto and just behind Colorado and Pittsburgh.
Since the new year they’ve dropped four and a half percentage points, the single biggest drop in the NHL. The team is now regularly outshot with just 48.7 percent of the shot attempts, or 18th place. Their closest neighbors now are the Ottawa Senators and Dallas Stars.
On the Japers Rink Radio podcast this week, Corey Sznajder and Adam Stringham discussed one possible culprit: the team’s path through the neutral zone depends way too much on defenders. I very much recommend listening to Corey’s analysis.
This is what I was referring to in the podcast. WSH defers to their blue line to enter the zone more than almost any other team with some pretty mediocre results. pic.twitter.com/FyfejrhM6e
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) March 2, 2022
Severity: Four out of five Millies.
Poor even-strength play is hurting all four lines (though Dowd’s line noticeably less). I’ll add that the team’s incompetence to drive play is distinctly unpleasant for watching games lately.
Blame: Peter Laviolette and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who choose to run the transition game through defenders and distrust the team’s other options. Lesser blame: Eller and Backstrom, two centers who haven’t been able to break the game open through their typical extraordinary skill.
Since the new year, the Capitals have scored six goals during Alex Ovechkin’s five-on-five shifts. Opponents have scored 16. Weak goaltending (89.5 percent) and very weak finishing (3.9 percent) have cost the Caps on the scoreboard. This is not for lack of trying: the Caps have generated 12.8 expected goals during this time, meaning bad luck (approximately) has cut their productivity in half.
Severity: Two out of five Millies
Ovechkin is having a relative cold streak at an inopportune time. He could singlehandedly rescue bad games, but right now his shifts are hurting the team instead.
Blame: No one. Lesser blame: Alex Ovechkin, but very mildly. This is bad luck. Even lesser blame than that, like a tiny amount of blame: [gestures vaguely at a map of eastern Europe]
Converting 16.4 percent of their opportunities, the Caps rank 27th in the league. Adding the seven shorthanded goals scored by opponents during the power play, the Caps sit alongside the Seattle Kraken, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers in terms of how bad their PP is.
Severity: Three out of five Millies.
There have been a lot of close games that would have been winnable if only the Caps had a functional power play.
Blame: Peter Laviolette and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe, who control the personnel and tactics for the man advantage.
The Capitals are the third worst team in the NHL at winning faceoffs with 47 percent. This does not matter.
Severity: Zero out of five Millies.
This is not a real problem. Maybe it’s like one third of one Millie, but I’m not making a whole new Millie PNG just for that.
Blame: I dunno. Let’s say Kuznetsov, I guess. If we have to. He’s actually been delightful this season, so why not take ’em down a peg for no good reason.
Todays’ date is March 3. The trade deadline is about two weeks away. The Caps have both roster problems (injuries, age, goalies) and systemic problems (zone-entry tactics and the entirety of the power play). This team’s fortunes for the near future are not set. This thing could go either way.
Actually, strike that. Brian MacLellan says the Caps won’t be “as aggressive as [they] normally are” at the deadline. If the Caps don’t shake things up on both the personnel and systems levels, we all sorta know where this thing is headed, right?
Headline photo: @GarnetHathaway/Twitter
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