Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
There it is. There’s no mistaking it. Stats nerds have been keeping one eye peeled on it at all times this season – the proverbial “elephant in the room”, if you will. The Capitals are at the bottom of the league in shots-taken per game. So what gives? Is this a bubble about to pop, or just a statistical aberration with negligible importance to the overall points race for the playoffs?
The average number of shots taken in an NHL game by a team has been a relatively consistent stat throughout the years, and thus, a cornerstone in first-generation NHL statistical analysis. The value of the stat, as it correlates to a team’s success for a season, is another issue entirely.
Like all stats, “Shots For” isn’t the be-all-to-end-all piece of data necessary to effectively evaluate a team, player or situation. It’s a common mistake we see every day. “This player has this one stat” so we need to trade him, or “this line doesn’t work because of this one stat”, so the line needs to be changed. It’s myopic, nearsighted analaysis and lacks sound evaluation integrity. Yet we are all guilty of doing it from time to time. It’s human nature.
Having said that, let’s try to paint as much of the picture as we can. The Capitals are currently generating just 29.16 shots per game and ranked 30th in the league. (For context, the Pittsburgh Penguins are currently shooting 35.22 shots per game.) The Capitals are currently allowing the 14th most shots per game at 32.06 shots per game.
For context, the Capitals finished the 2016-2017 regular season 13th in the league in shots at 30.54 shots per game average.
Before breaking down the Capitals issue with “Shots For”, I wanted to get an idea of the qualitative value for the “Shots For” metric, from a “big-picture” sense. What is the value of the stat?
In order to shed a little light on value, I looked at past seasonal stats and related outcomes to begin to paint the picture. To start, I looked at the two teams that made the Stanley Cup finals for the past eight seasons. (Data sets and data quality related to this analysis fall-off for seasons before the 2009-2010 season). Here’s what I found.
For starters, over the past eight seasons, teams making the finals had an average ranking of seventh in the league in “shots for” and had an average ranking of 20th with regards to shots allowed during the regular season.
Additionally, finishing the regular season with high shooting percentage was (predictably) less important, as the two teams making the NHL finals had an average ranking of 15th in the league for the regular season, and rankings were wide-ranging, from first to 30th.
CAUSE AND JUSTIFICATION
So, what has taken place since last spring, and so far in the 2017-2018 season? Why are the Caps suffering so much in the “shots for” department? Here are a few items to consider, most of them correctable.
All teams deal with injuries, so this isn’t a crutch, but more of just one of the potential factors in the overall shot production of the Capitals. The Capitals’ loss of Matt Niskanen and Andre Burakovsky early on was difficult at best, and likely a significant contributor to the shooting deficit. However, since their return (so far), we have not seen improvement in the stat.
Note: The Capitals total for man games lost topped last season’s for the entire season (49 games) on November 14.
A rag-tag blueline to start season
The Capitals started the season with the “double whammy” on defense. Young, inexperienced talent mixed with key injuries on the blueline made for a recipe for disaster. Defensive struggles can loosely translate to reduced offensive zone time, and thus, a reduction in shots.
In some aspects it’s amazing the Capitals are where they are, considering the rag-tag blue line fielded in the first 15 games. The youth has a little age under the brow now, Niskanen is back and things are currently looking up on the blueline.
Capitals Head coach Barry Trotz and team management made it known that the first bunch of games would be used as a player assessment phase, and that’s certainly been the case, not only on the blueline, but with forward line combinations as well.
All of the testing and multitude of line pair combinations has left a somewhat set of disjointed lines on some nights. Not necessarily conducive to generating sustained forechecks and high shot counts. This will likely improve.
To go along with “laboratory lines” are the new faces on the ice for the Capitals, some with very little to no NHL experience. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey were as green as they get in October. To their credit (and Caps coaching and veteran blueliners) they’ve weathered the opening phase of their careers, and frankly done pretty well. This Wil also most likely improve.
Recent blowouts haven’t helped
A minor item, particularly for games of late, the Capitals have been grabbing early leads. It’s common to see shot production drop for teams with early leads as well as see an increase in shot production by teams trailing in a game. Not a huge factor, but it’s a factor nonetheless.
SO HOW ARE THE CAPITALS WINNING GAMES?
So how are the Capitals scoring goals, but more importantly, how are they winning games with the league’s worst shot production?
One potential reason is their relatively high shooting percentage, now the fourth-highest in the NHL at 9.37 percent (behind the Islanders, Maple Leafs and Lightning). Years and years of data have shown that an average shooting percentage for a season is around 8.5%.
Another reason could be the team’s terrible start through the first 12 games of the season, and the upward trend since. In other words, we may be catching this stat and conducting analysis for a stat that is now in transiton. The Caps were 5-7 in the first 12 games of the season, and 13-5 since then. If this continues, we will most certainly see the “shots for” climb.
The aforementioned variables and the ability for the Capitals to improve in each category leave me less concerned at this point in the season. The Capitals will likely improve shot production and offensive zone times as the season progresses (see recent homestand).
“Shots For” will most likely improve, more of resultant value of other improvements with the team as a whole, rather than a goal on the whiteboard before a game.
The team is getting healthy, the roster is relatively set and lines are settling in. The next 10 games will say a lot about this team, and the issue regarding generating shots.
We will check back on this in January and give you an update.
By Jon Sorensen