One of the keys to return to Stanley Cup glory for the Caps this season is the stability and performance of the defensive corps. Through the first three games of the season, the Caps have been relatively stout defensively and have shown improvement in key areas like high danger chance suppression and overall shot suppression. Although the Caps have been without a key piece on the top pairing in Michal Kempny, the Capitals’ defensive group has been solid. In this post, we’ll take a dive into the analytics behind the Caps’ defensive corps’ performance so far this season, and what we can expect to see going forward. This analysis will also establish a baseline for further analysis this season.
High Danger Scoring Chance Suppression:
Let’s look at a breakdown of some of the high danger scoring and high danger goals metrics from this season compared to the first three games of last season:
Through the first three games of this season, the Caps have allowed 16 high danger chances against at 5 vs 5. This mark is good for 15th in the league as it stands right now, but most of the teams in front of them have only played one or two games so far. The only team that has played three games and has been more stout in high danger scoring chance suppression so far is Buffalo, who has given up 10 high danger chances. Through the first three games last season, the Capitals gave up 36 high danger chances against during 5 on 5 play. This is a remarkable improvement year over year.
The interesting piece here is that the Caps actually scored more goals in high danger scenarios with relatively similar amounts of chances. This probably has more to do with the fact that the Caps scored 18 goals in their first three games last season, whereas this season, the Caps are more focused defensively, and have scored eight goals this season, so far. The main difference between the metrics from last season to this season is that the pace the Caps are on right now is much more sustainable for success.
The Caps will likely be successful this season if they’re able to continue at this trajectory. With Kempny nearing his return to the lineup, we can hope that these numbers may even improve.
Here’s how the defensemen have performed so far this season individually:
Orlov and Jensen lead the way on the defensive corps in terms of their high danger chance percentage, meaning that they’re on the ice for more high danger chances for than against. They’re also the only two defensemen that were on the ice for high danger goals for, so far this season.
Carlson’s numbers are a bit more interesting at 5 on 5. His numbers are far from poor, but the more intriguing piece is that he hasn’t been on the ice for a high danger scoring opportunity at 5 on 5 so far this season. There also shouldn’t be much concern about Fehervary’s numbers, since he’s a rookie playing in his first three games. He’ll get more development in Hershey the rest of this season, barring other injuries occurring.
Shot Suppression and Possession Metrics
Overall, the Caps’ defensive group has had a strong start to the season as it relates to possession metrics. These are important figures for shot suppression, because the higher your possession metrics, the more your team controls the puck and reduces the amount of chances the opposing team has to score. Let’s take a look at the Caps’ defensemen and their possession metrics so far this season:
Long story short: the Caps defensive corps has elite puck possession metrics so far this season. When your lowest Corsi For percentage or Fenwick For percentage is at or above 50% at 5 on 5 play, you’re doing very well. It should also be pointed out that Dmitry Orlov has really come to play this season. He is playing tremendously, and his underlying analytics are proving it. Orlov’s return to his level of play during the 2017-18 season and playoffs is exactly what this team needed from him.
Additionally, you can’t overlook how well Radko Gudas has performed so far. Many had low expectations from him based off the eye test, but Gudas had elite high danger shot suppression metrics last season on a mediocre Philadelphia team, and he’s proving those numbers weren’t a fluke. If the Caps can continue to get that level of play from their third pairing defenseman, they’re going to be in very good shape going forward.
What can we expect going forward?
The Caps have set a solid foundation for the rest of the season through the first three games of the season. The adjustment in both the defensive system and the roster makeup in both the forward and defensive groups has paid off in terms of suppressing shots and high danger chances against. This path is a lot more sustainable for success than last season, which seemed to be a bit more freewheeling and offensive focused. The Caps certainly took chances last season trying to force scoring chances, and that resulted in a substantial amount of high danger chances against.
We’ll likely need to revisit these metrics again when Kempny makes his way back into the lineup, but we can expect Kempny’s contribution to be net-positive. He’s been the Caps’ backbone defensively since he was acquired during the 2017-18 season, and he was sorely missed in last year’s playoff series against Carolina. If the Caps can continue this pace of defensive responsibility, while getting a boost in scoring with Evgeny Kuznetsov entering the fold after his three game suspension, the Caps should have a successful season.
By Justin Trudel