The next and final post in the regular season review for each of the Capitals’ position groups will focus on the performance of the Capitals’ defensemen and goaltending positions. Our review for the forwards group can be found here.
The Goaltending review will center on Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, and for defensemen, we’ll focus on the seven defensemen that played a bulk of the minutes for the Capitals this season.
One of these position groups is extremely steady and can be considered a strength of the team. The other, goaltending, is considered by many across the league as the potential Achilles Heel of the Capitals in the playoffs. Let’s take a look at some of the key performance metrics for the Capitals’ defensemen, first:
Shot and Chance Generation (click to enlarge)
There are a lot of good things to unpack here for the Capitals defensemen. For one, the fact that most of the percentages are above or close to the 50% mark is solid, meaning that none of the Caps’ defensemen are consistently being dominated in their own zone.
On top of that, a grand achievement for the defense is that each defensemen noted above finished above 50% for high danger chances for percentage (HDCF%), which was a serious weakness of this team last season.
Also, a shout-out to Trevor van Riemsdyk for his performance this season. To effectively adjust from being a healthy scratch to performing at a high level down the stretch, due to injuries to John Carlson and Justin Schultz, is tremendous. He posted very strong possession and shot generation and suppression numbers in his short stint on the ice. You can’t have enough defensive depth in the playoffs, and having TvR will be a luxury.
Goals For and Goals Against
The good news here: every regular defenseman for the Caps is in the positive regarding being on the ice for more goals for per 60 minutes of play than against. That’s really solid. The only player with lower goals for than goals against per sixty minutes of play is TvR, who has a smaller sample size and has generally played more when the Caps’ lineup was decimated by injury.
You can see in the above graphic that it wasn’t a lack of quality in TvR’s play that caused him to post slightly more goals against per 60 than goals for. His expected goals for per 60 minutes are the highest among his position group. His expected goals against per 60 minutes ranks third best on the team, behind Nick Jensen and Zdeno Chara.
This graphic also supports the fact that the Capitals’ defensemen have been playing well as an entire unit, and haven’t been the benefactors of good or gracious luck.
The expected goals for model is still valuing the Caps’ defensemen’s expected goals higher than their expected goals against, which is good news. You can see more of that below:
Overall, it was a solid offensive year by the Capitals blue line. Once again John Carlson led the way in defensive scoring for the Capitals, and finished fifth overall in the NHL for defensemen with 55 total points.
Nick Jensen’s first two goals as a Washington Capital illuminated his best season for the team so far. Additionally, Dmitry Orlov was on pace to have his best offensive season in his career. In 51 games played, he had 8 goals, 14 assists, for 22 points. His career high for goals was 10, set back in 2017-18, and that was over an 82 game season. He likely would have surpassed that mark if the 2020-21 season was not shortened due to the pandemic.
Now, let’s get into goaltending. Entering the season, the Capitals were not likely expecting Vitek Vanecek to get the lion’s share of the starts in net after signing veteran Henrik Lundqvist this off-season. But, with a myriad of unfortunate circumstances, Vitek ended up grabbing the reins and has seemingly cemented himself as the starting goaltender this season. With Samsonov on the COVID-19 Protocol list entering the playoffs, it looks like the playoff starting job is Vanecek’s to lose.
Here’s where the concern for the Capitals’ success in the playoffs lies: .908 and a .902 save percentage in the playoffs will result in a quick exit. The last five goaltenders to hoist the Stanley Cup had higher save percentages through the playoffs: Andrei Vasilevskiy (.927), Jordan Binnington (.914), Braden Holtby (.922) and Matt Murray (.937 and .923).
The ultimate key to success in the playoffs is hot goaltending and timely goal scoring. We saw that in the 2018 playoffs en route to the Caps’ first ever Stanley Cup. The question is, which goaltender provides the best chance for that to happen?
Of 78 goaltenders that have played over 300 minutes this season, Vanecek is 55th in high danger save percentage. Samsonov is 60th. In overall save percentage, Vanecek is 35th out of 78. Samsonov is 49th.
Now, before a parallel is drawn between Braden Holtby entering the NHL playoffs in 2011 as a relatively unheralded goaltending prospect: Holtby played in 7 games in the 2011-12 season. He had a .922 save percentage and a 2.5 goals against average. He then played 14 games in the playoffs and put up a .935 save percentage and a 1.95 goals against average.
The problem for the Caps is neither Vanecek or Samsonov have sniffed these numbers at the NHL level for prolonged periods of time. Can we expect that to change in the playoffs? We’ll see.
Overall, the Capitals’ defensive corps was extremely strong and consistent throughout the season. Without their levels of contribution, especially when the forward group was decimated by injury and COVID protocol, the Caps could have really slipped in the standings and likely wouldn’t have had home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Goaltending was and still is the Capitals’ biggest question mark. Perhaps a clean slate against a familiar opponent will help the Capitals’ goaltending settle in and realize some of the potential. With Ilya Samsonov still out of the lineup and in the COVID protocol for the second time this season, will Vitek Vanecek solidify himself as a starting goaltender?
By Justin Trudel