With the pandemic-shortened 2021 NHL regular season now in the books, and with a few days of well-earned rest scheduled for the players before the postseason begins, now is a good time to reflect on the performance of each of the Capitals’ position groups during the 2020-21 regular season. The first post in this series will focus on the production and performance of the Capitals’ forward corps.
The methodology for this series will include the utilization of advanced analytics, for each player in the associated position group that is currently with the team (i.e. no Jakub Vrana or Richard Panik) and has skated in more than 60 minutes of game action with the Caps this season.
Now, this is a team that boasts one of, if not the, greatest goal scorers in the history of the NHL in Alex Ovechkin, and additional star players that bolster the forward group in Nick Backstrom and TJ Oshie.
The Capitals have no lack of scoring talent up and down the forward group, but let’s take a look at what the forwards’ production looked like like this season. (click to enlarge):
Nicklas Backstrom led the way in point production for the Caps, the first time he’s lead the team in point scoring since the 2016-17 season. He rewarded the Caps with an extremely solid offensive season after inking a five year, $46 million extension last January.
Another solid performer this season was Daniel Sprong, a player that was not expected to play a major role in Washington this season. Sprong scored 13 goals in limited action (42 games played, 11:40 average time 0n ice), and has proven himself to be a viable offensive option for the Capitals moving forward.
T.J. Oshie had another solid season in DC, posting a team-best 13 power play goals, which slotted him tied for second in the NHL for power play goals with Joe Pavelski of the Dallas Stars. Oshie should be given a lot of credit for keeping the Caps’ power play rolling with Ovechkin out of the lineup for the last couple weeks of the regular season.
Unfortunately with Ovechkin missing the last few weeks and only playing in 45 games this season, he will fail to score 30 goals in a season for the first time in his career. He’ll start next regular season one goal back of Marcel Dionne for fifth place in all time goal scoring, and 164 away from tying Gretzky’s record.
Now, let’s take a look at how the forward group looked in terms of generating shots on goal (click to enlarge):
It should be no surprise that Ovechkin led the way substantially in shots on goal. Ovechkin finished tied for 7th in the NHL for shots on goal with Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, who played nine more games than Ovechkin.
One interesting note here is that Anthony Mantha put 38 shots on goal in Washington in 14 games played, which means he’s putting the puck on the net with more volume than most of the other skaters on the team. He showed flashes of his offensive ability in his first four games with the Caps where he netted four goals, a franchise first.
And now let’s look at shooting percentages (click to enlarge):
The Capitals’ forward group has some extremely high shooting percentages. The Caps have six forwards (and significant contributors) that are shooting above 15% on the season. Typically, the average shooting percentage around the NHL hovers between 8-9%, so it appears that the Caps’ forwards are finding their way to high quality chances and are converting. The Capitals as a team finished second in the league in shooting percentage at 9.9%
Now, let’s look at the flip side, and see how the Caps measure up with shot attempt suppression versus shot attempt generation. (click to enlarge):
Michael Raffl hasn’t played a long time in Washington, but he sure has made an impression with his shot suppression. His Corsi Against per 60 minutes is the best on the team, and he has generated the highest rate of Corsi For attempts per 60 minutes as well.
To note, a large part of this is due to sample size, but overall, he has shown that he likely belongs as a regular in the lineup as a result. Raffl and Lars Eller have the metrics here that show they’d be a formidable shut-down line, and they’d be an intriguing line to match up against the “Perfection” Line in Boston.
Next up, let’s take a look at how the Caps’ forwards’ goal scoring matches up to expectations (click to enlarge):
The main thing to point out here is that the Capitals as a whole routinely outpace their expected goals for with actual goals for. This is mainly due to the expected goals for/against metric being generally imperfect, but valuable directionally. Players that are out-pacing their expected goals figure aren’t necessarily “lucky”. They may have above average shooting talent (i.e. Ovechkin).
If a player is not scoring up to expectations, typically this means that the player is getting the opportunities on unblocked shot attempts, but not converting. Michael Raffl and Nic Dowd certainly fit this mold. Raffl is mainly due to being relatively new to the Caps’ roster, and Nic Dowd creates a lot of chances but doesn’t get a lot of shots on net relative to those chances.
Let’s take a look at the defensive side of the coin (click to enlarge):
Similar to expected goals for, expected goals against are likely to trail behind the actual goals against. There are three Capitals that have a lower goals against than expected: Mantha, Raffl, and Kuznetsov.
Now, two of these three are pretty surprising to see. No, Kuznetsov didn’t turn into a Selke-caliber defensive forward overnight. A lot of this is due to deployments. Mantha was deployed in the offensive zone 72.9% of the time and Kuznetsov had a 72.5% offensive zone deployment rate. Compare that to Raffl, who has a 43.2% offensive zone deployment rate. One of the intricacies of the numbers with Laviolette behind the bench is he’s very pointed about who he trusts to take defensive zone starts, and who he doesn’t.
Overall, this was a solid showing from the Capitals’ forward group in what was a very unordinary season wrought with injuries, disciplinary issues, and COVID protocols. With top players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Wilson, and Kuznetsov missing time this season, the fact that the Capitals lost out on first place in the division by a tiebreaker is phenomenal. The main question for the success of the team in the playoffs is staying healthy. If the Caps struggle with injuries, it’s going to be tough to match up against a deep and experienced Bruins roster.
By Justin Trudel