Comparing The Capitals’ Goals Above Replacement (GAR) Before And After Free Agency

Photo: NHL via Getty Images

The 2022-23 season is set to be an intriguing one for the Washington Capitals. Following the fourth straight first round exit in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it was clear there would be changes to the roster. On top of roster additions, subtractions, and additions by subtractions, the Capitals are hoping that they can address their aging veteran core by adding younger, faster talent around them.

As we inch closer to training camp, we’ve yet to see how the roster battles will shake out, but there are potential openings on the roster for prospects at the NHL level. Between Connor McMichael potentially making his way into full time center duties and Martin Fehervary continuing to solidify himself as an integral piece to the Capitals’ defensive group, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Lucas Johansen, Aliaksei Protas, and Brett Leason all have opportunities to make the big club out of camp. Other free agency acquisitions like Erik Gustafsson, Dylan Strome, Darcy Kuemper, and Charlie Lindgren will fill the other holes in the roster.

In this post, I’ll take a look at trends regarding Goals Above Replacement (GAR) for the Capitals’ skaters over the past couple of seasons and compare them to how the team stands in terms of projections from Evolving Hockey. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.

Current Projections

Below are the GAR projections for the projected regulars in the lineup next season. Backstrom was included here because there hasn’t been a conclusive decision announced around his recovery time and whether he’ll be on the long-term injury list for the entire season. Evolving Hockey makes these projections based off of past performance, age, and replacement levels across the league: [Click to enlarge]

Some immediate takeaways here are that the projections are rather down on a few of the Capitals key players:

  • Nick Jensen coming in at 4.4 after posting 19.1 GAR last season is an interesting take. Part of that projection coming down quite a bit off of an excellent performance last season was Jensen’s historical GAR figures. He posted a GAR of 5 in the 2019-20 season and a GAR of 3.7 during the 2020-21 season. Those seasons, plus Jensen turning 32 this year, lower the overall projection for Jensen and look at his breakout performance last season as a potential outlier.
  • The projections didn’t take too kindly to TJ Oshie either. After 9.1 GAR in the 2019-20 season, 10.7 GAR in 2020-21, and 1.8 GAR last season, Evolving Hockey is projecting Oshie’s overall performance to continue its downward trend. Ultimately, replacement level valuing in hockey (or any sport for that matter) is not going to be kind to older players. The Capitals have quite a few aging stars, which will result in lower projections than what we might see on the ice over the course of the season.
  • On a positive note, newcomer Dylan Strome is valued rather highly in Evolving Hockey’s model. Coming off a solid season with Chicago where he posted 9.4 GAR, Strome should be a heavy contributor in the Capitals’ top six forward group especially with Tom Wilson and Backstrom missing considerable time this season. Additionally, recently acquired winger Connor Brown is projected to have a solid season and will add a lot of value on the penalty kill and add a bit of depth scoring to the top six until Wilson’s return to the lineup.

Projections Compared to Previous Seasons

Now that we’ve seen the GAR projections for the upcoming season, let’s take a look at how those projections look compared to GAR production over the last few seasons:

The GAR projections for the 2022-23 season obviously look a bit paltry in comparison to the actual GAR from the past three seasons. As previously mentioned, the projection models are not going to be friendly to older players who are aged out of their “prime years”.

The Capitals only have a few players within that prime age window of 24 to 29: Anthony Mantha, Connor Brown, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, and Dylan Strome. That would be another reason why Mantha, Brown, and Strome were among the teams’ highest value GAR projections.

Caveats And Context

By no means does this mean that the team has necessarily gotten worse. With the upgrade in net in the signings of Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren, the Capitals got better in the area where they struggled the most last season. On top of that, the GAR projections for the 2022-23 season were only for 22 players.

In 2021-22, the Caps had 31 players suit up for games. Based on the numbers game alone, as long as you don’t have a large swath of those players posting negative GAR numbers to outweigh the value other players are driving, the accumulated GAR values over a season are going to be higher with more players.

Last season, the Capitals had only six players with negative GAR value: Marcus Johansson, Brett Leason, Martin Fehervary, Michal Kempny, Carl Hagelin, and Justin Schultz. Those six players accumulated -14.7 GAR, where the other 25 players who played accounted for 117.4 GAR.

Conclusion

The Capitals are in an interesting place when it comes to GAR projections. What really drives the intrigue is the fact that the team’s core is led by Alex Ovechkin, who has seemingly avoided Father Time so far (at least in terms of goal scoring). This is the cross section of accumulated data points that look at the law of averages and the law of aging versus on ice production.

The Capitals’ roster is among the oldest in the league, so projections aren’t going to be too kind to the older, core players on the roster. Historically, that model works out correctly since older players are typically not only on the back nine of their careers but are on the last couple holes of their career.

Based on the projections, if the Capitals are going to have success this season, it means that the older core veterans stay rather healthy (at least the ones that are already healthy currently) and the younger players blossom earlier. With some supplementing of last year’s skaters with key additions like Connor Brown and Dylan Strome, on top of actually shoring up the situation in net, the Capitals should fare rather well this season. Cup contender? It’s a stretch. But anything can happen once you get into the playoffs.

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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