What’s Up With The Steady Decline In The Capitals Shot Differential?

Al Davis once famously stated back in the day, “Just win, baby!” And while the motto will always hold true in the sports universe, there are times when a win can be deflated a bit by the underlying performance of the winning team. Thursday night in Montreal was a prime example for the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals were shockingly out-attempted in shots by the league’s worst team, 49-28, Thursday night in Montreal. Fortunately, Ilya Samsonov had a very good game, the Capitals stole two points and made a break for the border.

So is being outshot a recent trend for the Capitals? Or was Thursday night an exception to the norm? Victory aside, the shot differential was very concerning, so I decided to take a closer look at the Capitals shot attempts, for and against, in recent games.

[Note: If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our analytics glossary. Statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat TrickNHL.com, Hockey Reference and NoVa Caps Advanced Stats model.]

Shots Fired!

First, let’s put a bow on last night. As noted in the preamble, the Capitals pulled-off a 5-2 victory, all despite being outshot by the Canadiens, 49-28. The possession metrics for the game reflect the underlying lopsidedness of the game. [Click to enlarge.]

With the exception of a few, like Connor McMichael, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Schultz, Tom Wilson and Trevor van Reimsdyk, the performance of the team was well below the 50% threshold. Again, against the league’s worst team.

In addition to shot attempts, the Canadiens led in scoring chances for 24-18, high danger shot attempts 10-4 and expected goals for 2.46 to 1.31. Simply put, they dominated and took the loss.

Trend Setting?

But more importantly, has this been a trend for the Capitals as of late? Well, possibly. There are signs of things getting worse in the shot attempts department. Here are the shot attempts for the Capitals and their opponents in 2022.

You can see that the Capitals started the year off out-attempting the opposition in shots in six of their first nine games. In the last nine games it’s been more of a mixed bag, with the Capitals dominating in just two games while their opposition dominated in four games. [Again, and as is the case with any stats, much of this is directly related to the strength of schedule].

Shots Per Game Differential

It’s often said that a strong offense is the best defense. If you are busy hammering shots at the opponents net and spending the majority of the game in the opponents end, then the opponent isn’t in your end of the ice firing shots at your goal.

The following graph plots the difference in average shots per game for (SF/GM) minus average shots against per game (SA/GM) for the season. The differential (SF/GM – SA/GM) has been steadily decreasing in 2022.

The concerning portion of the graph above is not the cratering in the beginning of December, as the team was dealing with mass confusion related to COVID absences and injuries, and yet still rebounded in the second half of the month. No, the concern is the trend in shot differential since New Years Eve.

Potential Factors

If we look at the key dates flagged in the graphs above we can begin to assess where, when and possibly why things might have begun to decline. The high-point in shot differential in the past two months came on New Years Eve in Detroit. Therefore, we’ll focus on that time frame to determine potential causes.

Expected Regression?

One could (easily) hypothesize that the Capitals began the season playing above their weight class, or performing better than they should have. (The team went without a regulation loss in October). PDO, if you believe in the metric, might back up your case for this theory.

PDO – called SPSV% by the NHL, is the sum of a team’s shooting percentage and its save percentage. The sum is then multiplied by 10 and the total is the teams PDO. The combined SPSV% of all 32 NHL teams will always equal 100%.

The sum is also used separately to see if a team should expect a regression or improvement. PDO is often viewed as a proxy for how “lucky” a team is. According to this definition, the Capitals were “lucky” at the start of the season.

Now there are weaknesses with the PDO stat, but it does gives us a good feel for the shooting and save percentages, and how a team is doing compared to the rest of the league. Regardless, the Capitals PDO has been in steady decline (regressing) since the beginning of the season, although there has been a recent uptick.

Note: While it’s comparing apples to oranges, for the most part, the Capitals finished last season with a PDO of 1.017 – about where they are right now.

Missing Offense

The Capitals have missed T.J. Oshie. Oshie has played in just two games in 2022. (1/10 vs. Bruins and 1/15 vs. Islanders). His absence directly aligns with the team’s decline in shot differential. The Capitals have also missed Alex Ovechkin, as his offense quieted in the last six games and he also missed two games.

Disjointed Defense

The Capitals defensive pairs saw significant consistency at the start of the season (first 20 games). COVID, strangely enough, struck just the forwards at the beginning of the season. That changed in 2022. Nick Jensen, Dmitry Orlov and Martin Fehervary have all missed time due to time COVID protocol.

As a result, the defensive pairs have been make-shift and on several nights, simply consisting of what was available. The timing also directly aligns with the Capitals decline in shot differential, so far in 2022.

Going Forward

The cause for the steady decline is a combination of the three factors outlined above. The good news is there is some reason for hope and improvement in the coming days. Oshie will eventually return (hopefully), and the defense will likely settle down in the coming games, as long as the pairings remain consistent.

However, it can also be said that the Capitals are just finding their “normal”, after an unexpected, above-average start to the season. This is the more troubling factor that will likely only be corrected by moves at the trade deadline or off-season retooling.

Side Bar

An interesting side note unearthed in this investigation is the performance of the Capitals netminders. If the Capitals are seeing more shots, are the goalies giving up more goals? Nope.

While the shot differential has been on the decline, the Capitals team save percentage has actually been improving during a majority of 2022 – since January 10. Goaltending has not been the issue of late.

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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13 Responses to What’s Up With The Steady Decline In The Capitals Shot Differential?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great look at this and a concern. Like you said, is there an issue, or are they just returning to “normal”? Worth watching in the next handful of games.

  2. novafyre says:

    Here is what my eyes tell me. Lavi gave the rookies more ice time and depended on them more in the early games. They played in groups they way they would have in Hershey. They shot more. As vets have returned, rookies have gotten less ice time (even if dressed they just sit on the bench) and we have gone back to a vets dominated pass-pass-pass style looking for that perfect shot.

    You have the stats, I don’t. So I would be interested in knowing if what I think I saw is actually supported by the stats. To me, the Hershey Capitals (or Washington Bears, take your pick) shoot more than the Washington Capitals.

    Am I right?

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Good question, Frye, and something I hadn’t considered, and thus, looked at supporting numbers for. I will take a look. To confirm, your theory is somewhat two parts: The Capitals/Bears shot more in the fall and during veteran absences from the lineup. 2) As players slowly return, shots/minute of ice time is dwindling for Capitals veterans and ice time is obviously dwindling for Bears players?

      • novafyre says:

        Yes. I feel that the composition of the team (on ice, not just dressed) has changed dramatically over the course of the season. The team generating ice time today is not the same team that started the season and I think their style of play has changed. They had more of a Wild West Rod-Gallant-Gabby offense early on and have reverted to what Lavi is more comfortable with, a more stilted defensive scheme. I think that is because of the different reliance on rookies.

        As you said “COVID, strangely enough, struck just the forwards at the beginning of the season.” The rookie to veteran offense ratio has changed so Lavi has gone back to being more staid.

        Thanks.

  3. steven says:

    First there is alomst no scoring on the PP and no secondary scoring. The last 10 they are even, 5-5, so would not expect them to increase the soring defferential. Wondering if the wins are by 1 or 2 and the losses by 3,4 or 5 goals?

  4. DC Scappeli says:

    Jon, nice analysis. What seems troubling, just from the eyeball test, is how they don’t have much sustained puck possession. Seems like it’s too much one and done and they’re back up the ice playing D again. In the game against the Pens, they couldn’t clear the puck and were giving up 3rd and 4th chances. Hard to score when you don’t have the puck…..I guess it’s another way of saying the best defense is a good offense!

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Thanks, DC. 👊

      I agree with your sense of lack of sustained zone time, one and done. The lack of a second line (Mantha and Oshie) is part of it, but that’s not a new issue.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Cause they are old. Old team is literally falling apart. Bye Ovie.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Certainly looks like the Capitals are finding their “norm”. Their possession stats have started to dip as well, also in 2022 for the most past. Somewhat surprised to see goaltending is actually trading up.

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