The Washington Capitals thoroughly outplayed the Metropolitan Division-leading New Jersey Devils on Saturday night when considering every major offensive statistic. The Capitals dominated the Devils in 5v5 shot attempts (60-33) and scoring chances (34-19). The Capitals generated 4.2 expected goals to the Devils’ 2.2 per HockeyViz.com. And at all strengths, the Capitals had 81 attempts to the Devils’ 38, putting 38 shots on goal to the Devils’ 29.
The Capitals got blown out where it matters though — the scoreboard — 5-1. There are some explanations that are obvious. Vitek Vanecek had a revenge game and went into god mode, posting one of his best outings of the season. The Devils’ blocked 26 of the Capitals’ shot attempts, clogging up the center of the ice. And New Jersey capitalized on what chances they did have, shooting 17.3 shooting percent during the game.
Those are all things that made the game frustrating to watch as a Capitals fan. You want to excuse the game as unlucky and say to yourself — if the Capitals played every game like this, they’d be one of the top teams in the league.
But I’d caution you to do so. While there are legitimate excuses for some of the Capitals’ scuffling early this season (injuries to Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, and Dmitry Orlov to name a few), I’ve also noticed strategy and deployment decisions that are hampering the team. I thought Saturday’s game against the Devils was a case study for some of those issues.
So let’s talk it out.
Peter Laviolette’s system
The Washington Capitals had the second oldest roster in the NHL heading into Opening Night with a combined age of 30. No team over the last 14 seasons has won the Stanley Cup with an average age over 28.3. This would suggest the Capitals are already too top heavy with veterans to realistically win a championship (the stated goal) and does not have a good enough mix of young players who contribute regularly.
The Capitals have subsequently had durability issues. The Caps and the Flyers have lost the most man-games to injury so far this season.
But the part where the average age concerns me most is the team’s skating ability and how it affects their play in its system. The Capitals struggle playing against teams that are fast and feature a lot of elite skaters. They were no match for the Colorado Avalanche recently and Saturday’s game against the New Jersey Devils showed that if things open up, they will struggle.
Peter Laviolette’s system demands its defensemen to always activate in the offensive zone and seamlessly jump into plays. You’ve likely seen it this season where Martin Fehervary or Nick Jensen will skate the puck into the zone or join the rush on an odd-man break. Capitals defensemen will frequently be below the goal line. Erik Gustafsson was recently leading the rush on a pretty five-on-five TJ Oshie goal.
The thing that’s concerning this season is that Capitals’ defensemen are struggling to contribute to the team’s offense at 5v5. The Capitals have gotten the 11th fewest points (25) at five-on-five play this year from its defensemen and the fourth fewest 5v5 goals (4) despite having a system that is tailored to them contributing or continuing offense. Nick Jensen leads all Capitals defensemen in 5v5 points with nine (1 goal).
Teams’ 5v5 Points from defensemen
Through 11/26/2022 games.
Here’s an anecdote that I think explains how Laviolette’s system ends up having the opposite effect it’s intending sometimes. During the second period, I noticed one play where the Capitals’ first line was forechecking. Jensen, as Laviolette’s system instructs him to do, activated to grab the puck off the boards. But the result of Jensen moving up was pushing Alex Ovechkin back to the point as he tried to create offense. The result was a turnover.
Jensen is an efficient puck-moving defenseman, but his offensive ability is not better than a forward’s. This system requires defensemen other than John Carlson to play out of their comfort zone offensively. It also necessitates good team defense (especially from its forwards), skating, and reads the other way when turnovers happen, which is not a strength of this team even when it’s not having injury issues.
Teams like New Jersey eat up mistakes and are hard to stop in open ice. You have to ask yourself, does Laviolette’s system work with this Capitals team?
Jonas Siegenthaler and Vitek Vanecek
The Washington Capitals spent over a decade combined developing Jonas Siegenthaler and Vitek Vanecek. Then, both players were traded to the up-and-coming Devils during the Peter Laviolette era.
Siegenthaler has grown into a legitimate first-pairing rearguard and one of the best defensive defensemen in the league while Vanecek is 10-2 and has a five-on-five save percentage of .935 as the Devils’ starter early this season.
Siegenthaler left the Capitals after asking for a trade from general manager Brian MacLellan. The reason was simple. Siegenthaler lost his regular spot in the lineup after Laviolette wooed Zdeno Chara to the Capitals for a season. While being a regular healthy scratch was not fun, Siegenthaler also suffered the indignity of sitting on the bench for nearly an entire game as the team’s seventh defenseman, which seemed to be the final straw.
The team acquiesced to his trade demand and the rest is history.
Minus Martin Fehervary, the Capitals have not made much room on the roster for young skaters to grow. And now, for the next few years, the Capitals will get a first hand look at what they missed out on.
There is an opportunity cost to the strategy of almost always going with a veteran player over a developing prospect, especially when they’re ripening.
The Capitals’ signing of Dylan Strome over the offseason came out of nowhere. And it’s turned out to be the best move they made. Strome has produced (17 points in 22 games) and become an invaluable member on the power play, but his presence has also created a logjam at center that was not addressed — even before Nicklas Backstrom comes back.
The Capitals have Strome, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, and Nic Dowd all getting sweaters every night. Depth is good, sure. But there are also two or three young players who are waiting in the wings and could be experimented in one of those spots at the NHL level, too.
Connor McMichael is the most famous (and, for most of you, tired) example. After showing encouraging play at the position late last season, the Capitals put him back on the wing due to their offseason signings. McMichael barely played and seemed to try and turn himself into an energy player. The results were not kind — McMichael generated 0.12 expected goals in six games — and was eventually sent down to Hershey (where he’s already scoring again).
But McMichael isn’t the only guy who could center a bottom-six line. Aliaksei Protas is showing encouraging underlying play in his first 23 games this season on the wing (The Caps controlled 57.9 percent of shot attempts during his five-on-five shifts) and Hendrix Lapierre seems to be finding his game quickly in Hershey.
The player — contract-wise — that would make the most sense of moving is Lars Eller. He’s 33, in the last year of his deal, and not quite the same player he was before when the Capitals first brought him in (see Eller’s turnover that led to Hughes’ first goal). It’s a painful move to consider — especially considering he scored the team’s Cup-winning championship goal — but if the Capitals are going to make the playoffs or grow into next season, it may be time to do something aggressive.
I’ll start this discussion point with a question. Should the Capitals be playing wide open against a team like the Devils, especially on a back-to-back? That’s been something I’ve been thinking about ever since Saturday night.
Alan May brought this point up during NBC Sports Washington’s postgame show and I think he hit the nail on the head. The Capitals’ realities are they are without a bunch of its key players, not a strong five-on-five team, and do not have young legs. Then you have the division-leading Devils who have scored the most 5v5 goals in the league (59).
This was a game to muck it up, play safe, get ugly in the corners, and try to win a special teams’ battle. Instead, the Capitals came out aggressive at 5v5.
Sometimes it seems like the Capitals don’t want to accept their own realities and shortcomings. During the month of November, the team has struggled playing a full 60. The Capitals are in 12th in the Eastern Conference standings. Sometimes they play with a lack of desperation too that can sometimes be confusing, considering how much of an uphill battle they face the rest of this season to make the playoffs.
Erik Gustafsson’s defense
One of the team’s signings over the offseason was Erik Gustafsson — a slick-skating, push-the-pace offensive defenseman who is never afraid to jump into the rush. Gustafsson creates offense as a Laviolette defenseman should, but there’s one tiny problem. He is not strong at defending.
For a baseball metaphor, Gustafsson is like a closer who can throw over 100 MPH but can’t hit the plate most of the time. Those strikes in the zone are impressive, but most of the time you’re just worrying if he’s going to walk a run home.
Of players that have dressed in five games or more, Gustafsson has the second-highest five-on-five on-ice shot-attempts percentage (54.6) on the Capitals. But when he’s on the ice, the Capitals have been outscored an astounding 18-8. Gustafsson’s minus-10 five-on-five goal differential is the worst on the team. The next closest player is John Carlson (minus-six).
Instead of sheltering Gustafsson, Laviolette has given him more opportunity and had him skate with Carlson on the first pairing with Dmitry Orlov out. At times, it has not been pretty.
In the Devils’ game, the Capitals controlled 61.8 percent of the expected goals when Gustafsson was on the ice. The Capitals did not score though, and they surrendered a hat trick to Jack Hughes. The first and third goals Gustafsson was directly involved in too. On the third goal, Gustafsson miscorrectly played a two-on-one giving Hughes a breakaway, leaving Charlie Lindgren high and dry.
There are less sexy options the Capitals could go with that might yield better results. While Lucas Johansen is with the Hershey Bears and out hurt, he seems like he’d be a safer choice in the lineup when healthy. Alex Alexeyev might also be deserving of another look too. Hershey also has intriguing prospects like Vincent Iorio and Bobby Nardella.
There are other issues too. A quick list.
Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom could both be back in the next month or two. But a possible playoff berth could be out of the Capitals’ reach before the team gets fully healthy, especially if this long road trip goes poorly. If the team wants to start digging out of this early season hole they’ve dug, some uncomfortable and hard decisions should probably be made soon.
Headline photo: Adam Marcus
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