With just one win to their name – and even it coming from the shootout – the Washington Capitals have had an underwhelming start to their season. Their 1-2-1 record places them 27th in the league. They haven’t converted a single of their 11 power-play opportunities, which matches the Blues for worst in the league. And the Washington Capitals are the only remaining team who have yet to lead a game at any point.
But it’s not as bleak as it looks, I swear.
During five-on-five play, Washington has scored four goals on 76 shots. That’s a shooting percentage of 5.3, worse than all but three teams: Seattle (1-4-1), Jersey (2-1-1), and Arizona (3-2-0). Low shooting percentage is the single biggest factor dragging down the Caps so far.
If you take every shot the Capitals have attempted during five-on-five play and add up each’s chance to become a goal, the Capitals “should” have scored 7.6 goals so far – or 3.6 more than they actually have. That 3.6 goal gap is bigger than every team in the league’s except the ones named above, plus Nashville (3-3-0) and Edmonton (1-3-1). For the record, at the other end of the spectrum is the Ottawa Senators, who have scored 4.7 goals above expected. I recall that they scored 5 five-on-five goals against Washington last week.
This isn’t to say Washington has been good during even strength. Their goal rate is 28th percent, but their expected-goal rate is still 23rd – so we cannot account everything to luck. The team simply does not have the puck enough; the only teams to fare worse than Washington’s 44.2 shot-attempt percentage are miserable company: St Louis, San Jose, Chicago, and Vancouver – I’d expect the eventual draft-lottery winner will be in that bunch.
Meanwhile, Washington’s been even unluckier on the power play. They’ve had 23.5 minutes of man-advantage time and come up nary a single goal on 15 shots – or 4.7 expected goals. For comparison, the Coyotes generated slightly more xG (4.9) on a lot more time (35.6), and they’ve scored seven goals. The random number generator that is NHL goaltending is being extra capricious towards the Caps in the early season, and it will not last much longer. Even if you think as I do that Washington’s new PP formulation looks a lot like it’s old PP formulation, they still seem to be getting chances. HockeyViz says they’ve been about eight percentage points better than league average.
But in my mind Washington’s power play isn’t good unless Alex Ovechkin is scoring, and boy is he ain’t. Ovechkin has attempted 12 shots while the Caps are a man up: four missed, six were blocked, two were saved. The expected-goal value of that offense is 0.93, though I’d insist that xG models as a rule undervalue Ovechkin’s one timer from the faceoff dot, and I’m sure the modelers would agree.
So I’m not worried about Ovi getting his on the PP, but I’m very worried about him during five-on-five. He had never gone this far into a season without a goal before, and he’s never had such a low volume of shots either. Ovechkin has generated only 0.22 expected goals, so it’s a stretch to say he’s been unlucky; it’s more that he’s just not getting the looks. And it’s not that his line isn’t in the offensive zone enough – his shifts been on attack more than anyone else’s – but it’s his linemates getting the action. Ovechkin individually accounts for 21 percent of the shot attempts, 21 percent of the shots on goal, and just 10 percent of the expected goals. Those aren’t just career lows; they’re like off by a full third from last season.
One of my biggest worries going into this season was about how the front office and new coach would support Alex Ovechkin’s chase. He needs a complementary player, a guy-behind-the-guy who can set him up for his one-timers, deflections, and rebounds. Not only has he not had that, he’s become the setup guy for far less talented finishers. That’s backwards.
A lot of Washington’s pains so far can be chalked up to bad luck, but they better not just hope the goals will start automatically coming – especially when Ovi’s on the ice.
Headline photo: Katie Adler/RMNB
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