The start of a season is a weird time. Everyone’s looking at their teams with scrunched noses and furrowed brows, trying to figure out exactly what they’ve got. Meanwhile, the games are pulling an SBF-tier fraud, lying to us at every opportunity about who’s actually good or not.
Lucky bounces and bad nights for goalies make it so that, over a short run, you get a situation where the Vancouver Canucks are on a 126-point pace, outscoring opponents 29 to 11 during five-on-five despite owning just 44.1 percent of the expected goals. Or, at the other end of the pool, the Pittsburgh Penguins look like a lottery team despite placing in the top five at controlling xG. In both cases, their early-season records are trying to trick us.
The same thing is going on with the Washington Capitals, who are getting the worst puck luck of any team in the league outside the Sharks. Inside the sharks are probably fish.
I wrote earlier in the week about TJ Oshie, who remains the most due player in the league (zero goals on 4.3 expected goals at all situations) after this goal against the Islanders was disallowed.
— Capitals Replays (@capsreplays) November 3, 2023
The inability to finish isn’t just plaguing Oshie; it’s happening to every Caps forward, save two. Five Caps forwards (plus Backstrom – no, I’m still not ready to talk about it) have yet to score during five-on-five play: Oshie, Ovechkin, Malenstyn, Kuznetsov, and Protas. But those same players have attempted shots that would normally yield – against a perfectly average goalie – 8.2 goals.
Putting Caps forwards in context with the rest of the league, and it’s clear: the Caps are cursed.
Every blue dot is an NHL forward with at least an hour of five-on-five played. The players above the pink diagonal line have generated more expected goals (according to Natural Stat Trick) than they’ve actually scored.
The only two Caps players who have more goals during five-on-five play than expected are Dylan Strome (three goals on 2.0 xG) and Sonny Milano (two goals on 0.9 xG).
In saying someone is “due” or “unlucky”, we invite the criticism that maybe the player is just not a good finisher. Finishing is a repeatable skill in hockey, although one that fluctuates a lot – but in aggregate it’s really unlikely that the Caps are this bad. If they played the rest of the season scoring on 5.3 percent of their five-on-five shots, they’d be the worst shooting team of the last 15 years. Here’s the bottom five:
Those were four absolutely terrible teams – plus one surprise Stanley Cup winner. While it’s still likely that Washington’s finishing skill is declining, I’m encouraged that the players struggling most are not young players with unproven talent, but historically strong scorers like Oshie and Ovechkin, who I expect to progress towards the mean. (Kuznetsov’s lack of finishing might be another matter.) I don’t think we’re seeing numbers down because the latent talent of Washington players is poor; it’s just going unrealized – both by bad luck and inchoate chemistry under a new system. If Washington were to have a league-median shooting percentage this season, they’d have scored seven extra goals already. (For the record, Washington’s five-on-five shooting percentage last season was the median.)
Over on special teams, Chris offered a criticism of Washington’s man advantage. “The power play,” Chris says, “is still a complete mess. To me, it feels like they’ve just reverted to the same old, same old and that is so unbelievably frustrating to watch.” I agree, though some of our shared frustration is because the team hasn’t finished on their good chances. Washington’s nine main power-play contributors have scored just three goals off 10.6 expected goals – a metric that systematically undervalues the Ovi Spot. The team has failed to consistently set up Ovechkin for his one-timer from the faceoff dot, and yet he’s still generating a lot of expected goals: a team-high 2.7 (according to Natural Stat Trick), from which he’s scored one actual goal.
Those shots, from HockeyViz:
On the power play they’ve scored seven goals below expected (dead last). At five on five play, the Capitals as a whole have scored ten goals below their expected-goal total (second worst in the league, behind San Jose). Seventeen extra goals spread out over ten games would have given them a couple extra wins.
What you take from this is up to you. I don’t think this means the Capitals are purely unlucky, or that they’re secretly a Cup contender, or that every expected goal is one that the Capitals should of had, or that the power play doesn’t need a retool. For me, knowing that a team is underperforming gives me a kind of perverse hope. They’re struggling now, but they won’t stay this unlucky (a deliberately loaded term) forever, so future games should be better than the ones we’ve seen so far. And those results so far aren’t all that bad – on pace to miss the playoffs by just a couple games. I think they’re better than that, which means, ultimately and most gravely, I’m probably going to have to do the Vince McMahon mustache.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.