Power(less) Play: Decay Of The Capitals’ Once Great Power Play

Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m not sure if others feel this way, but what was once one of the more exciting aspects of any Capitals’ game was the power play. You’d get to see the finesse of Nicklas Backstrom and playmaking abilities of Evgeny Kuznetsov. You’d see the raw power and pinpoint accuracy of an Alex Ovechkin one-timer off of a feed from John Carlson. Most importantly, you’d see one of, if not the best, power plays in the league punish teams for daring to commit a penalty against them. It was often a swift and lethal response.

The power play is no longer powerful. The Capitals have struggled immensely to convert on power plays over the course of the season, and they now sit at a 14.2% effectiveness rate, a paltry ranking of 30th in the league. The only two teams behind the Capitals are the Arizona Coyotes, who are losing effectively on purpose, and the French Canadian implosion that is the Montreal Canadiens. Those two teams combine for eight less standings points than the Capitals currently have.

That tells me that this isn’t a talent issue for the Capitals. There’s no excuse for their power play to be 30th in the NHL with a generational talent who is the greatest goal scorer of all time in Ovechkin, two top-end playmaking centers in Backstrom and Kuznetsov, a top-five offensive defenseman in Carlson, and no slouch in TJ Oshie at the bumper spot.

Predictable Play

So, if it isn’t talent, then what is it? To put it simply, it’s scheme and the overall strategy of the power play. The power play scheme and formation has largely stayed the same for about a decade, when current coach Blaine Forsythe took over the power play on Adam Oates’ staff. The theme of broadcasters and analysts when covering the Capitals and their power play has been pretty constant: “Everyone knows what’s coming [an Ovechkin one-timer from the left circle], but no one is stopping it.” The issue is, teams are stopping it now.

The formation is effectively a 1-3-1, with a forward at goal line extended (Kuznetsov), three forwards across the ice (Backstrom at the half wall on the right side, Oshie in the slot, and Ovechkin at the left circle), and a defenseman (Carlson) at the point. The strategy is to create mismatches that’ll leave someone uncovered, resulting in the penalty killers scrambling. For years, that’s typically meant that Ovechkin would be wide open on the back side for a one timer:

The issues begin with zone entries. If the Capitals win the first face-off on a power play and get set up, they typically have a strong power play. When the Capitals don’t win the face-off, they struggle and eat time trying to regain possession of the puck in the offensive zone, and have to regroup in the neutral zone. The Capitals have a very hard time entering the zone with control and resetting.

The drop-off can be tied to a few things. One of which can be the fact that the Capitals’ scheme and strategy when set up has been solved (where it was already predictable), and relies too much on pinpoint passes when the players don’t move from their set spot in the formation. The reliance on pinpoint accuracy passing results in passes being deflected or intercepted, and the puck being cleared out of the zone. Rinse and repeat with zone entry issues.

Dangerless Chances

The data from this season shows that teams that generate more dynamic scoring opportunities on the power play and generate a higher rate of scoring chances are more successful. Additionally, generating a higher rate of high-danger chances results in better performance on the power play.

Below is a graph that shows each team, ordered from best power play on the left to worst on the right, with their high-danger chances for per 60 minutes (HDCF/60) and their scoring chances for per 60 minutes (SCF/60).

Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

The HDCF/60 (or the red line) is much slighter of a trend, but you can still see that the top-end power plays typically generate higher rates of HDCF than the teams with worse power plays, with a few outliers. On the other hand, SCF/60 has a much more clear trend.

The best power plays generate a high rate of scoring chances. The worst ones don’t. The Capitals are among the worst in both. In HDCF/60, the Capitals are 31st in the NHL. In SCF/60, the Capitals are 29th. Since these two stats are in the basement of the NHL, it’s no surprise that the power play is also struggling.

The Blame Game

The injuries are one issue that’s been brought up, but I’m not so sure that it’s relevant. How many teams on the left are truly better or more talented than this Capitals? The answer is not many. The Caps are tied for seventh in the NHL in standings points. The team is obviously talented enough during five-on-five play to score goals, where they’re seventh in the NHL in goals for per 60 minutes. On the power play? 30th in the same statistic.

Here’s how these stats have trended for the Capitals since the 2012-13 season (statistics also via Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com):

The first four years in this stretch, the Capitals’ power play was elite during the regular season, but HDCF/60 remains rather constant throughout the years, except for the drop starting last season and culminating in the 14.2% power play we are seeing this year. The power play this year is also producing the lowest rate of SCF/60 in this stretch.

This tells me that the scheme and formation on the power play was elite until the 2016-17 season. The power play still operated at a decent percentage after that, but was mainly propped up by the talent on the ice, and that brings us to today.

The talent on the ice is no longer able to prop up the stale 1-3-1 formation on the power play, and has culminated in the worst power play in the Ovechkin era. No, I’m not joking. It’s worse than the 2005-06 and 2006-07 rebuilding teams in power play effectiveness.

What Now?

Where do we go from here? Something’s gotta give. The scheme has to change. The coaches have to make drastic changes, or changes need to be made to who’s running the power play. The places where shots come from on the ice needs to be diversified.

Here’s a visual of shot locations on the power play, courtesy of HockeyViz:

The vast majority of shots on the power play come from the “Ovi Spot”. The big purple blob right in front of the net is where the Capitals generally never create shot attempts. That’s the most dangerous place on the ice.

If goaltenders know the direction and location of where a shot is going to be taken from, they will be able to react much faster. Generally, the power play needs to be generating higher danger chances, or scoring chances in general, not just shots from the left circle.

Ultimately, in the playoffs, teams who can’t score on the power play don’t advance. We saw it in the Capitals 2018 Cup run. The power play was lethal, it scored on 29.3% of its chances. In tight games with playoff refereeing, the power play (and penalty kill for that matter) wins or loses games. It’s extremely important for the Capitals to right the ship on the power play, or struggles await in the post-season, or even prior to that.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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10 Responses to Power(less) Play: Decay Of The Capitals’ Once Great Power Play

  1. DC Scappeli says:

    Definitely need to re-tool the PP….zone entries with that slingshot chews up precious seconds. Kuzy seems to do well skating it in. And I’ve felt that the Caps are trying for too much finesse, when sometimes they need brute force down low around the net. It’s hard to keep up the saucer passes across ice, thru defenders’ sticks, to Ovi….wish they could be more like Tampa where they threaten from both the left and right side. either way, just fix it!!! As you wrote , and many fans have felt, this team has too much talent to be bottom dwellers in the league on the PP

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      I guess I’m one of the very few that actually believes in the “slingshot”, or at least the reason why they do it. It not only sets up the best player to dive into the zone with speed (Kuznetsov), but it also gives a little time for the other players to lineup at ideal locations (spread out) along the blueline for the entry. The backwards pass seems to be counterproductive but I think it’s useful. It may not be working for the Caps right now, but other teams utilize it with success.

      • Marky says:

        Carlson refusing to shoot doesn’t help either. Teams need to know that the threat can come from more than just one or two spots every time.

      • DC Scappeli says:

        Jon, I guess it’s just poor execution by the Caps on the zone entries when the PK unit stack the blue line…with the Caps big size, I figured the dump and chase would be better to get the puck in the corners, but I guess every strategy has its pros and cons!

        • Jon Sorensen says:

          Well, “dump and chase” is certainly the other option. I guess it depends on your preference. I personally don’t like dump and chase because you are actually relinquishing control of the puck, albeit deep in the zone.

      • Anonymous says:

        But the other 4 are standing still!!!! They don’t win faceoffs and by the time they pass it backwards at least twice, 1 minute is all that’s left and still have to set it up. Teams know how to defense it. Bring it up on the left side and start a play from behind the net and shoot high!!!!

  2. novafyre says:

    Criticizing the PP is not devaluing or demeaning Ovi and his office shot. For proof, look at Vegas’ goalie mask. But it can’t be the only tool. We need to be creating chaos, not predictability. That might mean using Ovi as bait, moving Ovi around (I remember hearing a TV analyst this year mention that he scored more goals away from his spot than in it), or even going without Ovi on the PP. Change it up. Change the scheme, change the personnel.

    The PP is becoming a joke. Read the fan sites comments. Isn’t it a dreadful warning sign when fans ask if we can decline the PP?

    • DC Scappeli says:

      agree, more chaos and blocking the goalie’s sight lines!!! Caps don’t get enough traffic in front, the fans and Alan May have been screaming about this for years now. And yes, more movement on the PP to get the PK unit out of position if they have to move and make the goalie shift side to side

  3. Jon Sorensen says:

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