Prior to the start of the 2019-20 NHL regular season, we outlined seven keys to the Capitals returning and winning a second Stanley Cup in three seasons (here). We’ll take a look at how the Caps faired in achieving the changes needed to climb back to the championship level we’ve come to expect for this team.
Key 1: Improve goals against metrics by targeting shot suppression and reducing high danger scoring chances against.
Through 15 games this season, the Capitals have given up 127 high danger chances against. This puts the Caps at 29th in the NHL in high danger chances against. The current pace the Caps are on would give them 694.26 high danger chances against. This would be a considerable improvement over last seasons’ 848 high danger chances against, but that would be a direct proportional per game rate, rather than the actual truth.
Through the first 15 games last season, the Caps gave up 177 high danger chances against, which was 30th in the NHL. There is an improvement here, but it seems high danger chances against in general are down across the NHL this season.
The good news here is that the Caps are generating more scoring chances for than they are giving up, and have subsequently scored more goals in scoring chances than they’ve allowed.
Let’s take a look at some of the key stats from this season, compared to the first 15 games of last season:
In all, we’ve seen across the board improvement year over year in these four categories. We’ve seen the dividends in the standings as well, as the Caps are currently first overall in the NHL (with two games in hand over Boston, who is a point behind the Caps).
Compared to last season, the Caps were 18th in the NHL with 17 points, or six points behind their current pace. Another factor in the Caps’ improvement is their possession stats, and their improvement year over year.
Let’s take a look at the comparisons between this season, and the first 15 games last season:
As you can see, the Caps have improved in every possession metric, as well as shot generation/suppression, and overall goal differential at even strength. The Caps currently have 35 goals for at 5 on 5 play this season, which is above the expected goals for of 26.73.
There may be some regression to the mean, as the Caps out-performed their expected goals for through the first 15 games of last season as well.
Below, we’ll see a graphic of how the Caps pan out with their shot share rates through the first 15 games of the season, thanks to Charting Hockey:
Also, we can see how the Caps are faring in regards to their actual play compared to expectations statistically, also thanks to Charting Hockey:
Overall, the Caps are in the “good” quadrant, meaning that they’re high on the expected goals axis, as well as being positive on goal differential over 60 minutes of play. This is a good omen for the Caps if they can continue their level of play so far this season.
Key 2: The Penalty Kill must improve
It was an understatement to point out the penalty kill as a real target area for considerable improvement this season. After rounding out the 2018-19 campaign at 78.9% and 24th in the NHL overall, General Manager Brian MacLellan and the front office made it a priority to target players to bring in to bolster the penalty kill.
Let’s see if that effort paid off, comparing the Caps through the first 15 games of last season to this season:
Well, the Caps certainly improved in the penalty kill percentage, which is likely bolstered by the considerable improvement in save percentage while short handed. The improvement in save percentage was strong enough to lift the Caps from 30th overall in save percentage in the league to 13th.
Additionally, the Caps have improved considerably on the attack while shorthanded, already potting three shorthanded goals, good for tying in third place in the NHL. The Caps did not tally a shorthanded goal at all through the first 15 games last season.
The Caps have also improved considerably at giving up high danger chances against while shorthanded, going from 32 high danger chances against (18th in the NHL) to 22 high danger chances against (13th in the NHL).
All in all, the Caps have improved substantially on the penalty kill, but it would serve the Capitals well to stay out of the penalty box.
Now, let’s take a look at where the penalty kill has given up the most unblocked shots per hour and compare it to last season’s graphic. Both of these are thanks to hockeyviz.com:
The biggest thing here is that the Caps are doing a much better job defending against shots below the circles and directly in front of the crease than they did last season. They’re also doing a strong job of limiting shots from the right circle when facing the goal.
The areas of improvement would be to limit the amount of shots against in the slot between the two face-off dots and at the top of the left circle. Overall, though, there’s a lot of purple on the graphic for this season, which is inherently a good sign.
Key 3: Evgeny Kuznetsov must elevate his play
We called out Evgeny Kuznetsov as a key player that must elevate his play from last season to this season. Kuznetsov had a bit of a slow start this season following his three game suspension for his positive drug test for cocaine.
Let’s take a look at his production through 15 team games this year and last year:
Kuznetsov’s scoring is down across the board. He was operating at a 1.33 points per game pace through the team’s first 15 games last season, and now he’s down to .75 points per game. The main difference here is his performance on the power play. In the first 15 games of last season, he had 11 points on the power play, including 6 goals. This season, he has 3 points on the power play, with 1 goal.
With Carlson, Backstrom, and Ovechkin carrying the first power play unit so far this season, that can be somewhat expected. The good news is Kuznetsov has 4 of his 5 goals at even strength. Last season, all of Kuznetsov’s goals through the first 15 games were during power plays.
Realistically, Kuznetsov has to improve his possession rates marginally to help his overall shot percentage and point production. His combined Corsi For percentage since the 2016-17 season is 49.72%. The closer Kuznetsov gets back to that recent average at even strength, the better he’ll perform. To put this in context, Kuznetsov’s Corsi For percentage during the 2017-18 playoffs was 52.57%. He needs to be generating offense in the offensive zone, rather than giving up shots and shot attempts in the defensive zone.
This key will be something to keep an eye on going forward. The Caps need Kuznetsov to be at his best in the quest to bring back another Stanley Cup to DC. Having an effective to elite 1-2 punch of Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov gives the Caps more scoring depth and effectiveness offensively in general.
Key 4: The coaching staff needs to make regular in-season adjustments
In the first piece we ran outlining the keys to win a second Stanley Cup in 3 seasons, the biggest piece of coaching adjustments we mentioned was the ineffectiveness on the power play, and the seeming stubbornness to adjust the formations and zone entries on the power play. Overall this season, the Caps are operating at 25% on the power play, good for fifth in the NHL. Last season, through the first 15 games, the Caps were operating at a 32.7% effectiveness, good for second in the NHL.
The problem, although with the initial success on the power play last season, the Caps went from that 32.7% effectiveness to 20.8% effectiveness by the end of the season. Teams seemingly adjusted to the Caps’ zone entry strategy and overall 1-3-1 set up on the power play. The Caps also scored 17 of their 52 total goals for through 15 games that season on the power play. This season, the Caps have scored 13 of their 59 total goals. There was an overall reliance on the power play to score goals for the Capitals last season, whereas this season, they have a much more well rounded attack.
The Caps have also scaled back on the amount of times that they’re running the “slingshot” on the man-advantage, according to an eye-test, but they still rely on that on the breakout. There are definite periods of time where the Caps struggle to enter the zone with the man advantage. There seems to be a reluctance to carry the puck in and settle the puck on the half-wall, or chip a soft dump-in into the corner for retrieval. The coaching staff did mention that they’d continue using the “slingshot”, which shows a lack of adjustment from season to season.
The power play is what you expect it to be: funneling one time opportunities to Ovechkin on the left circle. It’s still effective, but there’s also effectiveness on the man advantage when Ovechkin rotates to the point, and Carlson moves to the so-called “Ovi Spot”. Teams that manage the Caps power play seem to shade Ovechkin on the left circle, blocking most of his opportunities to score. If you stop Ovechkin, the odds of the Caps scoring on the power play are greatly diminished. The counter to this is either the rotation play that was mentioned previously, or rotating Kuznetsov up to the half-wall and letting him draw a defender for the pass down to Backstrom at the goal line for the quick bumper set up play.
Key 5: Holtby’s performance
Last month, we chronicled Holtby’s early season struggles. While his pace through his first five games of this season was his worst since 2015-16, he has always been a slow starter. That being said, the Caps need him to return to form to be a true contender. So far this season, Holtby has played in 11 games and has a .895 save percentage and a 3.30 goals against average. If he keeps this pace, it’ll be his worst year so far in his 10 year NHL career. The good news is, he’s improved considerably after his first five games this season. Let’s compare his first five games to his last six games:
|Game #s||Record||Save %||GAA||GA||xGA||HD Shots||HDSV%|
Holtby has improved considerably in his last six games. His performances have paid dividends in the standings, with the Caps going 5-0-1 in his last six starts. You can’t ask much more from your starting goalie than what Holtby has provided in his last six starts. The impressive difference here is his high danger save percentage. The Caps allowed 60 high danger shots against in all strengths in Holtby’s last six appearances, and Holtby has saved 53 of them. That’s remarkable.
Ultimately, the Caps need to see a lot more of the Holtby in his last six games the rest of the season. They’ll be hard to beat with a goalie that performs at that level, especially in high danger shot scenarios.
Key 6: Depth scoring
In order for the Caps to be successful, they’ll need scoring from forwards that aren’t named Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Wilson or Kuznetsov. Let’s take a look at some of the scoring stats for who we’d consider to be “depth scorers”:
|Player||Goals||Expected Goals||Total Assists||Total Points|
Overall, there’s some strong showings here, and some need for improvement as well. Vrana is operating off of a .73 points per game pace, which is up from his .573 points per game pace last season. That improvement is great, and he may start to catch fire after his two goal performance against the Buffalo Sabres on November 1st.
Eller is also performing at a high level, scoring at a .66 points per game pace. That’s also an improvement on his .44 points per game pace last season. Hagelin’s .33 point per game pace is below his career average of .43 points per game. The Caps will need him to increase his scoring a bit, but you can likely temper expectations a bit since his role is effectively defensively focused.
Richard Panik has been somewhat of a let-down so far this season. Through eight appearances so far this season, Panik has not registered a point. Obviously, he’s been out injured for the past 7 games, and still needs to sit out three more games to be eligible to return from the long term injured reserve list. When he’s back, there’ll likely be a transition period for him getting back into the lineup, and he’ll have to work through some rust. It’s hard to project where Panik will end up points-wise, but we’re sure that this offensive output through eight games wasn’t exactly what MacLellan was expecting for Brett Connolly’s replacement. For those of you who are curious, Connolly has 10 points (five goals and five assists) through 14 games with the Panthers.
Vrana, Dowd, and Stephenson are the only players from the list above that have exceeded their expected goals prediction. Eller, Hathaway, and Leipsic are close to their expected goals rate and have actually scored a goal. The Caps could surely use a bit more production from their depth forwards, but when your top offensive players in Carlson and Ovechkin are carrying the weight, the Caps will be fine. These numbers will likely equalize as time on ice and deployments stabilize, especially with the carousel of line combinations on the fourth line after Panik’s injury.
On the defensive corps front, the Caps are getting a fair bit of offensive output from the blue line. Let’s take a look at the offensive production the blue line has contributed so far this season:
|Player||Goals||Ind Point %||Assists||Points|
So far this season, John Carlson has cemented himself as a Norris Trophy favorite. He’s leading the team in points and is third on the team in goals scored. The biggest surprise so far is Michal Kempny, who is currently operating at above a point per game pace. His scoring will likely tail off a bit, since he’s not exactly a scoring defenseman historically. In fact, his career high in goals is 6, his career high in assists is 19, and points at 25, all of which he set career marks for last season.
Orlov was one of the players that was keyed in on in the initial post for keys to winning a second Stanley Cup. He’s currently at a .4 points per game pace, which is slightly higher than his career points per game average of .34. While he’s improved on his scoring pace so far this season, the Caps would definitely like to see him shooting the puck a bit more. He currently averages 1.26 shots on goal per game, and his career average is about 1.23. He’s basically playing right around his career marks so far in his 8 year career, but the Caps surely want to see improvement, not baseline averages. His shot attempts are also right around career averages.
Gudas has been a bit of a pleasant surprise offensively. He’s operating at a .33 points per game pace, where his career average is .25. His level of play, paired with Jensen’s apparent regression from his time in Detroit, has earned him a spot on the second pairing with Orlov. The better deployments that the second pairing sees in terms of forwards they’ll be on the ice with can mean more offensive production for him.
One interesting thing to point out from the table above is the Individual Point Percentage metric. This measures the percentage of goals in which the player’s team scores while that player is on the ice. The table above shows the stats at all strengths, so the players with heavy defensive zone and penalty kill deployments will have lower Individual Point Percentages. We’ll normalize that for 5 on 5 play below:
|Player||Goals||Ind Point %||Assists||Shots|
Again, with the normalization, you can see how top-heavy the Caps defensive corps is offensively. Carlson and Kempny have scored the only goals at even strength. Kempny’s current shooting percentage of 37.5% is also not sustainable, but as long as he’s being deployed on Carlson’s pairing, his individual point percentage will likely stay on the right side of 50%.
Jensen is disappointing here as well. For a puck-moving defenseman, he’s not generating assists, nor is he taking shots at even strength. He’s averaging less than a shot a game at even strength, and if that’s the case, he’s not going to be scoring many goals at all this year. The Caps are surely expecting more from Jensen, who had 2 goals and 13 assists in 60 games for a rebuilding Detroit team that isn’t generating a ton of offense. So far as a Capital, Jensen has yet to score a goal, and has only registered 7 assists in 35 regular season games. Was Jensen worth the second round pick and Madison Bowey, as well as the four year extension at a $2.5M AAV? Not sure yet.
Key 7: Stability and performance in the defensive corps
Overall, with Kempny missing the first eight games of the season, there hasn’t been much stability on the defensive pairings. We’ve seen eight players lace up the skates and appear in games so far this season. Gudas and Jensen have been flip flopping on the second pairing throughout the season, although we may see Gudas there consistently with the Caps’ defensive corps back to full health.
We can see the pairing combinations, and how inconsistent they’ve been so far this season, thanks to the defender deployment graphic from hockeyviz.com:
As long as Kempny stays healthy, he’ll be on the top pairing with Carlson. They’ve played very well together since the Caps acquired Kempny at the trade deadline in 2018, leading up to the Stanley Cup run. The biggest question is on the second and third pairings, mainly focusing around Orlov’s overall performance, and whether or not Jensen is really a long term answer on the right side of the Caps’ defensive group.
The greatest improvement for the Caps so far this season is that individually, the defensive group has made strides in the scoring chances for percentage department. Last season, as mentioned in the original seven keys post, the only defenseman that had a scoring chance for percentage above 50% in the 2018-19 season was Jonas Siegenthaler, who played in 26 games. So far this season, the only two defensemen that aren’t above 50% in that category is John Carlson and Michal Kempny. There’s a lot that can account for Carlson and Kempny to be below 50%, such as better competition and zone deployments.
Overall, in the seven keys we outlined at the start of the season, the Caps have made great strides in most areas. Let’s give a key-by-key pass-or-fail and see how the Caps have fared so far:
Key 1: Shot Suppression and Reducing High Danger Scoring Chances Against: PASS
While it’s not exactly where it needs to be regarding high danger scoring chances against, the Caps have made improvements in every category year over year when compared to the first 15 games of last season.
Key 2: The Penalty Kill must improve: PASS
The Caps’ penalty kill has been a remarkable improvement. Part of that is much stronger play from the goaltenders, but as the adage goes, your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer.
Key 3: Evgeny Kuznetsov must elevate his play: INCONCLUSIVE
Kuznetsov isn’t exactly at the Conn Smythe worthy level of performance at this juncture of the season, but it’s hard to say that he’s been disappointing. He can definitely score more, but he’ll need to find his scoring touch soon for the Caps to be successful in the playoffs. His two points (two goals) in the last five games aren’t exactly stellar, hopefully getting Vrana back on his left wing will help jumpstart his offensive production.
Key 4: The coaching staff needs to make regular in-season adjustments: INCONCLUSIVE
This is hard to account for, realistically. The Caps haven’t really made a ton of adjustments in regards to the power play, but the penalty kill has been very strong, and there needed to be key adjustments made to the Caps’ play in their comeback win in the shootout against the Vancouver Canucks after being down 5-1.
Key 5: Holtby’s performance: INCONCLUSIVE
This is being rated as inconclusive. It’d surely be a fail if we only looked at Holtby’s first five starts, and it’d surely be a pass if we only looked at Holtby’s last six games. When you combine the two, you get a below average performance, but the body of work over Holtby’s last six has been excellent.
Key 6: Depth scoring: INCONCLUSIVE
Injuries have really spread the bottom six thin. There’s players coming in and out of the lineup on a game by game basis, so it’s hard to really lean on the bottom six forward group for consistent scoring. Once there’s some regularity in who laces up their skates in a given game, there’ll be a bit more consistency. The Caps also need to see a lot more from Panik after he’s healthy.
Key 7: Stability and performance in the defensive corps: PASS
The defensive group has been strong, and has made considerable improvements from last season. It’s hard to vote against a defensive corps that boasts the team’s leading scorer in John Carlson, and Michal Kempny’s return to the lineup has really paid dividends. The third pairing of Siegenthaler and Jensen will need some extra attention though. A veteran third pairing defenseman may need to be an option for an acquisition at the trade deadline if that pairing doesn’t elevate their play.
By Justin Trudel