If the Capitals are to win their second Stanley Cup in three seasons, there’s a number of things that the team will need to accomplish, address, and adjust to climb the proverbial mountain again. The Caps surely have a strong roster on paper, but the team will need to continue to elevate their play to make another deep run into the playoffs and truly challenge for the Stanley Cup. In this post, we will review 7 keys to the Caps hoisting Lord Stanley again this season.
Key 1: Improve goals against metrics by targeting shot suppression and reducing high danger scoring chances against.
The Capitals’ and general manager Brian MacLellan certainly appear to have seen this as a key need this off-season. New acquisitions like Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic, and Radko Gudas all bring strong shot suppression metrics to the table. The metric’s importance is simple: reduce the amount of high danger scoring chances and overall shots, and you’re more likely to win games. Reducing shots against is always good, but it’s also imperative that the Caps reduce the amount of high danger scoring chances they face. High danger scoring chances can be defined as either shots that are in the low slot area right in front of the goal, scoring chances off the rush in the slot area, or scoring chances as a result of a rebound in the slot area.
The Caps had the second highest amount of high danger scoring chances against last season with 848. The next lowest playoff team was Carolina with 744, who finished 22nd in high danger scoring chances against. To put this into perspective, Caps goaltenders had an 82.94% save percentage in high danger situations (14th overall in the NHL). 102 of the Caps 161 goals against last season were a result of a high danger scoring chance against. While it’s imperative to reduce the amount of high danger scoring chances, they cannot be eliminated completely. The team with the fewest amount of high danger scoring chances against was the Minnesota Wild with 603. For more context into why these metrics are important to improve upon, check out this visualization by hockeyviz.com:
The Caps were much worse than the league average relating to shots in the prime scoring area directly in front of the goal. The Capitals have to be better in this area, and force more shots from areas outside of the slot area (between the circles), and prevent more rebound opportunities.
Key 2: The Penalty Kill must improve
The Caps’ penalty kill group struggled mightily last season, finishing the 2018-19 campaign ranked 24th in the NHL at a 78.9% success rate. They finished the 2017-18 campaign 15th in the NHL at a 80.3% success rate. While that’s not a huge difference percentage-wise, if the Caps finished with the same percentage last season as the 2017-18 season, they would have slotted in at 16th in the NHL rather than 24th.
It was clear that MacLellan saw this as an area for improvement during last season, and acquired Carl Hagelin from the Kings at the trade deadline. While there were definite improvements after Hagelin arrived, the team still struggled to kill penalties. This also wasn’t aided by the fact the Caps were short-handed the fifth most times in the NHL last season. There’s two ways the Caps can be better this season: one is to get better overall at killing penalties, the other is to take less penalties. The optimal choice is a combination of both taking less penalties and performing better while short-handed. Let’s take a look at hockeyviz.com’s visualization again for the Caps’ PK unit:
The Caps actually did fairly well at preventing shots immediately in front of the goal in the low slot on the PK. The issue you see here is where the Caps were taken advantage of, which is on each of the circles and at the point. There were times where the Caps were victimized by cross-ice passes through the seams in the PK unit to set up one-timers. We know by seeing our power play unit that these are usually lethal combinations. On top of that, the Caps were routinely victimized by point shots navigating through bodies in front of the goal. The acquisitions of bona-fide penalty killers like Panik and Hathaway, as well as re-signing Hagelin, should help the PK improve this season.
Key 3: Evgeny Kuznetsov must elevate his play
In what is most likely the most important year in Kuznetsov’s career, all eyes will be fixed on the Russian pivot. After the video of Kuznetsov in a hotel room with what appeared to be cocaine was released to the public, he claimed that he had never done drugs and would never do drugs. Fast forwarding a few months later, the IIHF suspended Kuznetsov from international play for four years after a positive drug test for cocaine. Kuznetsov then issued a public statement where he apologized for his actions, and enrolled himself in the league sponsored education and therapy program for drug abuse. Kuznetsov then met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who doled out a three game suspension for Kuznetsov.
As a result of the above chain of events, Kuznetsov has a lot to prove to the league, to the Caps, his teammates, and his fans. The level of expectations for Kuznetsov rose considerably after his Conn Smythe worthy performance in the Caps’ 2018 Stanley Cup championship. After the Cup run, he totaled 72 points in 76 games, which was a slightly lower pace than his previous regular season production of 83 points in 79 games. He struggled on the face-off dot, posting a career low 38.7% face-off win rate, 5.5% lower than the 2017-18 campaign. His possession metrics were also 1.5% fewer than the team’s average when he was off the ice, even with nearly 60% of his zone starts beginning in the offensive zone.
Kuznetsov has proven to be one of the most important players on the Capitals, and his postseason performance in last year’s playoff series against the Hurricanes was not indicative of the level of play the Caps have come to expect from him. Although he nearly scored at a point per game pace (6 points in 7 games), it was considerably lower than his pace of 32 points in 24 games in the 2018 playoffs.
The Caps need Kuznetsov to be at his best in the regular season and the playoffs. Kuznetsov will have to bring his best day in and day out. To note, he was quoted at the beginning of last season that he “wasn’t ready” to contend for a Hart Trophy as league MVP because it would mean working hard all year. The Caps expect him to be a top player in the league. Kuznetsov needs to play at that level all year and in the playoffs for the Caps to be a serious contender for the Cup.
Key 4: The coaching staff needs to make regular in-season adjustments
The Caps largely kept a lot of the same systems in place that were fruitful under Barry Trotz’s tutelage. One certainly couldn’t blame Reirden and company for keeping the system in place that was paramount in helping the Caps win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The issue that we saw over the season was that the Caps weren’t playing well enough defensively and that the long dominant power play was becoming stale.
The biggest concept that the Caps will have to address are the zone entries on the power play. Caps fans were critical of the drop pass in the defensive zone while progressing up the ice. Many came to call this the “slingshot”, but the coaching staff and Blaine Forsythe have been quick to respond that the drop pass play to set up zone entries wasn’t an actual slingshot play.
— JJ Regan (@JJReganNBCS) September 27, 2019
That being said, that method was largely ineffective. The Caps’ power play in the regular season clocked in at 12th in the NHL at 20.8%, down from 22.5% the season prior. The Caps raised the bar a bit in the playoffs, scoring on 25% of their extra man opportunities, but struggled on the road. They were 33.3% effective at home with the extra man on 15 opportunities, but were 1 of 9 on the road in Carolina in three games. The Caps were 0-3 on the road, including a Game 4 2-1 loss where the Caps went 0-4 on the power play. A win in that game would have put the Caps in a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to Washington to clinch the series.
On top of the power play issues last season and in the playoffs, the Capitals were also dead last in the playoffs in Corsi For percentage, meaning that a majority of the time, Carolina was dominating play. The Caps were also out-performed in terms of high danger chances, only creating 53 high danger chances for while giving up 70 chances against. This resulted in a -6 goal differential in high danger chance situations with Carolina. This is indicative of a systems issue, as well as a personnel issue.
Key 5: Holtby’s performance
While Braden Holtby had an improved 2018-19 regular season over his 2017-18 campaign, he still had his struggles. Posting a .911 save percentage and a 2.82 goals against average, he was ranked 21st of 37 goaltenders in both save percentage and goals against average among his peers playing more than 2,000 minutes last season.
A large contributor to this are the issues that have been referenced above. The Caps routinely gave up high danger chances against, which puts goaltenders in tough situations. In fact, the only goaltender that faced more high danger shots against was Anaheim’s John Gibson. Holtby faced 545 high danger chances, but only was able to save 449 of them, resulting in a .824 save percentage in those scenarios. It’s hard to put a lot of blame on Holtby there, as high danger chances are the best chances a team can get to score.
In the playoff series against Carolina, Holtby saw 54 high danger shots against, and made 40 saves in those situations (.741 save percentage). 14 of his 20 goals against were considered high danger shot opportunities. In the 2018 cup run, Holtby faced 173 high danger shots against, and made 144 saves on those chances (.832 save percentage). That’s a huge difference in save percentage, and likely meant that Holtby was stronger in his positioning, as well as making some amazing, improbable saves like the one we warmly refer to as “The Save” against Vegas in the Cup Final.
Ultimately, a better defensive structure, system, and personnel should help insulate Holtby a bit more. Holtby has all the talent in the world, as we saw in his 2018 playoff performance where he posted a .922 save percentage and a 2.16 goals against in 23 games.
We also saw improved play from Holtby in the 2018 playoffs after getting plenty of rest after Philipp Grubauer supplanted him as the starter for the rest of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs. The Caps’ backup netminder will need to take a significant portion of starts in order for the best to come out of Holtby come springtime. The question will be, who is going to be the backup? It’ll be interesting to see if Reirden will have trust in a rookie netminder like Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov. It’s also a question if Pheonix Copley has the capability to start around 40 games in the regular season and perform at a high level.
Key 6: Depth scoring
While MacLellan certainly addressed defensive concerns in the bottom six forward group and the defensive corps this off-season, there seems to be a trade-off where there may be a drop in depth scoring based off of past performances. With the Caps seeing Brett Connolly, the maligned Andre Burakovsky, Matt Niskanen, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Dmitrij Jaskin depart from the roster, the Caps lost 48 goals for out of 274 total goals for last season (17.5%). In adding Hathaway (11 goals), Panik (14 goals), Leipsic (7 goals), and Gudas (4 goals), the Caps replaced 36 goals for.
The Caps seem to be strategically focusing the bottom two forward lines on defensive responsibility. That doesn’t necessarily rule out players like Panik to have an uptick in scoring. Panik will be able to contribute in nearly all phases of the game, adding a bit of value to what Brett Connolly was delivering in terms of deployment.
The main reason why depth scoring will be important is that the Caps likely cannot bank on Ovechkin scoring 45+ goals every season for much longer. There’s no indication that Ovechkin is slowing down at this point, but he’s entering his 15th season as an NHLer. On top of the bottom two lines needing to be able to pot some goals this year, the Caps will likely be leaning on top six wingers Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana to continue their offensive growth. Wilson ended up scoring 22 goals in 63 games, which is about a 28 goal pace if you project it out for 82 games. Vrana scored a career high 24 goals last season, and will likely be leaned on to have more of an impact on the power play. Impressively enough, 23 of Vrana’s 24 goals came at even strength. To note, Vrana did shoot about 5% over his career average for shooting percentage prior to last season, so there may be some regression to the mean for him shooting wise. He’ll need to shoot the puck more to make up for the difference if that’s the case. To note, in 2017-18’s regular season, Vrana averaged 1.82 shots per game, and last season he averaged 1.96 shots per game.
Adding to the depth scoring front, the Capitals will need Dmitry Orlov to chip in more offensively. In what many would consider a down year for Orlov, he only scored 3 goals and dished out 26 helpers in 82 games last season. His possession rates also dropped from the 2017-18 regular season, going from a 49.6 Corsi For percentage and a 49.2 Fenwick For percentage to a 48.3 and 48.4, respectively. Indicative of these drop-offs, Orlov was also in the negative for Fenwick For percentage and Corsi For percentage relative to the Caps’ performance with Orlov off of the ice. Additionally, Orlov’s expected goals for and expected goals against were the worst in his career last season. Let’s look at his career expected goals for and goals against via hockey-reference.com:
It’ll be interesting to see if this downturn in possession quality was due to the Caps’ struggles with high danger chances against, as well as the majority of his deployments being paired with Matt Niskanen, who struggled last season as well. Keep an eye on Orlov’s performance, since the Caps will need to rely on Orlov to provide high levels of performance on the second defensive pairing.
Key 7: Stability and performance in the defensive corps
Overall, there were only a few constants last season when it came to the defensive corps: John Carlson was on the right side in the top pairing, and Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen were stably on the second pairing. The Caps certainly had a mixed group when it came to the third pairing, especially after Kempny was injured. This resulted in the Caps shifting players to roles they weren’t accustomed to, like Nick Jensen playing on the left side with Carlson in the playoffs and late in the regular season. You can see how the deployments looked all last season, courtesy of hockeyviz.com:
The Caps had 10 different defensemen suiting up for NHL action last season: John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen, Michal Kempny, Brooks Orpik, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Jonas Siegenthaler, Nick Jensen, and Tyler Lewington. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on Carlson, Orlov, Kempny, Djoos, Siegenthaler, Jensen and Gudas. The Caps should be hoping for some more stability on the back-end this season once Kempny returns to game action.
One of the biggest gaps for the Caps’ defensive group is that the only defenseman that had a scoring chances for percentage above 50% at even strength was Jonas Siegenthaler, and he only played in 26 games. Siegenthaler had a team high of a 56.33% scoring chances for percentage at even strength. Carlson and Kempny were the next best with 49.57% and 49.56% respectively. In retrospect, this just proves yet again that the Caps had real issues in shot and scoring chance suppression last season. Additionally, Siegenthaler was the only defenseman with a high danger scoring chance for percentage above 50% at 60.66% at even strength. Kempny and Carlson were the next best (if you remove Orpik) at 45.47% and 44.51% respectively. Niskanen was the worst on the team in this regard, accounting for a 40.79% high danger scoring chance for percentage at even strength. I’m sure this is one of the contributing factors to Orlov having a down year as well.
Luckily for the Caps’ defensive group going forward, everyone who received significant ice time last season had a goals for percentage above 50%, led by Siegenthaler (yet again) at 63.64% at even strength. One could argue against Siegenthaler’s metrics due to sample size (26 games played, 340:07 TOI at even strength), but he played more than Jensen, and Jensen had worse numbers than him.
The key for the Capitals really lies on Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas. Whoever is chosen out of those two to skate on the second pairing with Orlov will need to play at a high level of performance. Jensen looked tremendous in Detroit, with a scoring chance for percentage of 51.91% at even strength on a rebuilding team. His goals for percentage at even strength was also strong for the caliber of team Detroit was last season, at 49.45%. Gudas was the top performer with significant ice time in Philadelphia when it came to goals for percentage at even strength with 52%. This is pretty impressive considering that Philadelphia did not qualify for the playoffs, as well as having a carousel in net all season long. He was only on the ice for 67 high danger chances against at even strength, which is amazing compared to his potential partner on the second pairing Orlov being on the ice for 343 high danger chances against at even strength.
Orlov will need a steady defensive partner so that he can bring his offensive talents to the forefront again. The Caps need more offensive contributions from defensemen this season. We’ve seen more low to high plays in the offensive zone this pre-season, so Orlov should get his chances.
Above we outlined seven key factors for the Capitals to reach the pinnacle of the sport for the second time in three seasons. Ultimately, there are going to be a lot of other factors to account for during the season and the playoffs that weren’t covered in this piece. The Capitals will certainly be a contender in the Eastern Conference, and we shouldn’t see a drop-off in performance from last season. With all certainty, you can expect that MacLellan and his brain trust are expecting that the team on the ice will perform better than last season.
This is going to be an important year for Todd Reirden. He needs to prove to the NHL that he can lead a Stanley Cup level roster to the top of the sport. He certainly has the tools and knowledge to be an NHL coach, but we’ll need to see if he has the talent to motivate a team like Barry Trotz could in the Caps’ Stanley Cup run.