It’s February, and the Washington Capitals sit fifth place in the Metropolitan Division. (That’s if you go by points percentage, like an adult would, instead of by raw points, like children do.) The Caps have a good penalty kill, a bad power play, and middle-of-the-pack possession during even strength. They were really good in December but were pretty miserable heading into the All-Star Break.
In short, there’s a lot going on with this team, and while it might feel like a tumultuous mess, I think there’s a handful of clear lessons to be gained from the season so far.
This one’s easy. I anguished over Washington’s playoff chances for two months, and then in December they went on a tear, going 11-2-2. In the whole league only Carolina had a better end to 2022.
Then January hit.
But Washington’s January was almost as bad as their November. They saw their power play dry up (more on that in a moment), got outscored during five-on-five, saw their even-strength possession stats drop, and ultimately went 6-7-1, the tenth worst record in the league.
I don’t want to belabor the reasons why – some are obvious and some are too depressing. The critical conclusion is that the Capitals must improve down the stretch or else they will risk missing the playoffs. And more importantly to me, it’d be way less fun to watch the games.
Here’s one major factor in the struggles above. Overall, the Capitals power play has converted 20.5 percent of its chances, ranking them 19th in the league. They weren’t always bad though; they’ve just been plummeting for about the last twenty games.
A lot of that lull has come while defender John Carlson has been out with an injury. Whatever you make of the player, his presence on the power play is impossible to deny. See these two heatmaps from HockeyViz; at left is the PP when Carlson is on the ice, at right when he’s not on the ice.
Without Carlson, the Caps go from a well-above-average power play to a very poor one that holds just one threat: the Ovi Spot.
I don’t know the timetable for Carlson’s return but it would behoove the Caps – and PP maestro Blaine Forsythe – to improvise in the meantime. Some of his options, specifically Erik Gustafsson in Carlson’s spot, have not panned out. I wonder if they should follow Florida’s lead and try a five-forward formulation. Whatever they do, they need to do it soon, as the PP status quo is costing the team standings points right now.
Washington’s blue line has been quietly pretty darn good this season, even despite significant injuries to Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. When those two players are healthy, the top-two pairings are fearsome. Numbers from Moneypuck:
In particular, Erik Gustafsson has been a revelation. His value exceeding expectations has to be near tops in the entire league. Nick Jensen is the team’s most defensively reliable defender (though not the team’s best overall defensive player, whose tires we’ll pump momentarily). That’s a lot of strength.
The trouble is on the third pairing. Trevor van Riemsdyk is unimpeachable, but I’m less convinced about Martin Fehervary, 23, who is considered a drag on offense by both HockeyViz (left) and Evolving Hockey (right).
I think 35-year-old Matt Irwin might be the better defender at this point. That’s reason enough for Washington’s front office to investigate options through trade, which might be what they’re doing with expiring free-agent Lars Eller.
I’m not cynical enough to believe that the Capitals organization cares more about getting Alex Ovechkin to the goal-scoring milestone than competing for a Stanley Cup. Or, if I were that cynical, I wouldn’t say so here. In either case, getting the big guy his goals can only help the team. I think we’ve got some insights on how to do so.
Ten of Ovechkin’s 32 goals have come during five-on-five shifts with Conor Sheary. Those two have played together a lot though, and Ovechkin actually scored at a higher rate in his sixty minutes with Anthony Mantha – though I guess that’s a foregone conclusion at this point. Either way, the Sheary/Ovechkin synergy is obvious.
I’m hard-pressed to figure out who the better center for Ovechkin is: Strome or Kuznetsov. They shoot more often and allow fewer dangerous chances with Strome, and while Kuznetsov comes with defensive liability, he also sees a much higher on-ice shooting percentage. Either way, you simply can’t beat big-guy/little-guy energy.
Washington’s best defensive forward is the giant Aliaksei Protas. He’s played in 42 games but has seen the lowest average ice time of any regular player: 10:55. That’s a shame, as the Caps dominate play when he’s on the ice. They allow the lowest rate of opponent shot attempts, the lowest rate of high-danger chances, the lowest rate of expected opponent goals, and the third lowest rate of actual opponent goals.
Here, from HockeyViz, is a heatmap of opponent events in Washington’s zone. Blue means opponents shoot less from that location, so these huge blue blobs are all good news.
I don’t want to speculate on the degree of the specialness of this player, but I will say that I think his specialness exceeds his current role and usage. Head coach Peter Laviolette should use this player every night in bigger minutes than he’s getting now. (He’s been in Hershey since the start of the All-Star Break.) If the team does anything with Anthony Mantha or Lars Eller before the trade deadline, I hope we’ll see a lot more of Aliaksei, whose name I now can spell on the first try.
The Capitals have been historically banged up this season, leading the league in cap hit of injured players (CHIP) according to NHL Injury Viz. We’ve seen substantial injuries to Backstrom, Wilson, Brown (remember him?), Hagelin, Oshie, Carlson, Orlov, Kuemper, and Dowd. It’s pretty apparent that Oshie is still playing through injury, meanwhile Ovechkin’s been coy about his health, and I haven’t liked the way Orlov has skated for the past few games.
The Caps are also the oldest team in the league – actually the oldest team of the last decade. As antithetical as it may be to hockey orthodoxy, it would probably be best if Washington exercised some load management in the season’s stretch run.
I’ve seen too many years where a big-minute player like John Carlson plays hobbled in the playoffs as a consequence of all those big minutes. I’d rather see Oshie rest sit out for a couple weeks than get shelled every night. I’d rather see Tom Wilson ease back into play instead of getting outscored eight to one since rushing back.
Not Ovechkin though. That guy should play every night.
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Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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