Prior to the start of the condensed 2021 NHL regular season, NoVa Caps previewed each division, including the East Division, using Goals Above Replacement (GAR) at the team level to determine how division standings could pan out.
In this piece we’ll take a look at the next level down to assess how the Capitals forwards and defensemen have fared so far this season with regards to GAR and Expected GAR (xGAR). [GAR is a one size fits all number that encapsulates how valuable an individual player is in terms of on-ice play, relative to a ‘replacement level’ player].
This will be a solid checkpoint for determining the top contributors on the team, as well as identifying the players that the Capitals need more from to have a successful season.
First up, let’s take a look at the GAR figures for each skater seeing ice time so far this season:
So far this season, defenseman Justin Schultz leads the way in GAR. Prior to sustaining an injury after taking a shot up high in a game against the Islanders, Schultz had three straight multi-point games, racking up two goals and four assists. With his prolific scoring output in those three games, two of which coming against the defensively stingy Islanders team, Schultz’s Offensive GAR rose to 4.0. Impressively enough, his even strength offensive GAR takes up 3.8 of the 4.0 offensive GAR, and he only has 150 minutes of time on ice so far this season. This is a vast improvement over his -1.9 GAR last season with the Penguins, when he spent most of his ice time with Jack Johnson.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that four of the top six skaters in GAR on the Capitals are defensemen. According to Natural Stat Trick, Capitals defensemen have racked up 29 points so far, including John Carlson’s current point per game pace (11 points in 11 games).
The top forward in GAR is Tom Wilson, which also shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Wilson is currently third on the team in overall points with eight, while only playing in 9 of the first 11 games this season. If we extrapolated 8 points over 9 games to a normal 82 game pace, it would be 72.8 over 82 games. That would be by far his career high in points (currently standing at 44 points in 68 games last season).
The big question marks for the team come when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from the COVID-19 inactive list. In four games played this season, Kuznetsov had already reached .8 GAR. He also was on the positive side of the spectrum for even strength defensive GAR at .2, which is an improvement in his game. Prior to his addition to the COVID-19 inactive list, he had scored 3 points in 4 games. The Capitals surely want to see offensive production out of Kuznetsov, whose elite scoring touch in the 2018 Stanley Cup run was key.
Now, let’s take a look at each skaters’ expected GAR and see how that shakes things up:
The good news is that Vrana is ranking highly, even after a recent benching for taking a high-sticking minor, and a short-lived demotion to the fourth line. Vrana had a short scoring drought of three games before posting a two-assist performance against the Bruins on February 1st. Vrana has 8 points in 11 games so far, and has been snakebitten on the goals front, especially after ringing the crossbar on a semi-breakaway against the Rangers on Thursday night.
The biggest concern here is Richard Panik. His GAR is currently outperforming his xGAR, but even with top six minutes, his offensive production at even strength is concerning. He is currently at -1.3 in even strength offensive GAR, which pulls down his rating considerably. His GAR figures look more like a defensive shutdown forward, which is fine in the right circumstances. When you’re missing some depth scoring, a player like Panik who is getting looks on the power play and in the top six, should be scoring at a higher rate than typical fourth liners Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd. That is not currently the case.
Ultimately, the good news is that the players who should be major contributors on the team are performing at a good level in GAR. There’s rarely a case where a team doesn’t have players falling below replacement level in GAR, but it’s ideal if a teams’ best players don’t fall into the negative.
By Justin Trudel