How Has John Carlson’s Absence Affected The Capitals Play At Even Strength?

Photo: Jordan Bondurant/NoVa Caps

The Washington Capitals’ 3-0 win over the Nashville Predators on October 29th did not come without cost, as the team lost two stalwart core pieces in TJ Oshie and John Carlson to injuries. Oshie and Carlson’s injuries added to the pileup of current Capitals on the injury list, joining Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Carl Hagelin, Connor Brown, and Beck Malenstyn.

The bevy of injuries incurred has tested the Capitals’ depth at forward and at defense, but for the purpose of this post, we’ll be taking a look at Carlson’s absence from the roster during five-on-five play.

The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL analytics glossary.

Team performance with and without Carlson

First, let’s look through a wider lens at the Capitals’ performance during five-on-five play, both with and without Carlson in the lineup: [Click to enlarge].

At a glance, the Capitals were underperforming in key areas, namely Corsi and Fenwick shot attempts (CF% and FF%), expected goals for percentage (xGF%), and scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances (SCF% and HDCF%). The one key area that the Capitals have fared better when Carlson is in the lineup is in goals for percentage (GF%), which is arguably the most important statistic to track.

One key thing to mention here is that GF outpacing xGF is a key indicator that a team is successful. Of the top ten teams in the league in points percentage this season, eight of them have a higher GF% than xGF%.

Of the bottom ten teams in the league in points percentage this season, eight of them have a lower GF% than xGF%. Why is this the case? Well, typically, the better teams in the league generate an excess of high-danger chances and nearly certainly convert a higher percentage of high-danger goals. Shooting percentages have a high impact on this rating as well, since shots that are considered low-danger opportunities may find the back of the net.

With Carlson, the Capitals were scoring a higher percentage of goals than they were expected to, a key indicator of success. Without Carlson (and a bevy of other players that are now missing time), the Capitals are drastically underperforming expectations. The interesting piece is that the Capitals own the majority share of nearly every key metric shown above except for GF% and xGF%.

A possible piece of commentary around why the Capitals haven’t had much success in the win column since Carlson exited is that the team has really struggled to play an entire 60 minutes of high-performance hockey. Outside of the loss to Pittsburgh on November 9th, the Capitals’ goaltending has been buoying the Capitals’ lackluster play and keeping them in games. The goalscoring touch during five-on-five play has not been there.

Defensive corps performance with and without Carlson

To set the stage, let’s look at Carlson’s individual on-ice statistics:

Carlson’s stat line here pretty much mirrors the Capitals’ performance as a whole while he was in the lineup. His on-ice GF% and xGF% is the key takeaway here. As mentioned earlier, Carlson’s value is his offensive prowess. The team owns the majority of goals scored while he’s on the ice, although they tend to give up more scoring chances and high danger chances against.

This is typical for an offensively focused defenseman–he’s typically going to be on the ice with the Capitals’ other offensively focused players. The gamble you make there is that you’ll make the other team pay for their mistakes, but there’s always the risk of defensive miscues or missed assignments in the neutral zone or defensive zone.

Here’s how all of the Capitals defensemen have performed in these key metrics throughout the entire season:

Since the Capitals as a whole have struggled in the xGF% category, it’s not quite a shocker to see every defenseman that has skated in more than one game this season (which is why you won’t see Alex Alexeyev or Lucas Johansen here) below the 50% marker in xGF.

This is the impact of a team that’s sorely lacking depth due to nearly half of the team’s salary cap allotment being on the injury list and a team underperforming in general. Outside of just missing Carlson on the backend, the Capitals have had to deal with Dmitry Orlov’s absence. Orlov is undoubtedly one of the Capitals best defensemen, and his absence is something that is plaguing the Capitals currently as well.

The Capitals as a whole need to be better at stifling high-danger and scoring chances against. There’s no way to completely eliminate teams from generating those types of chances, but in order to be successful, you at least need to outpace your opponents in those metrics. The Capitals have struggled there, both with and without Carlson.

Here’s how the Capitals defensemen have performed while Carlson has been out of the lineup:

The defensemen have actually fared a bit better in the six and two third games since Carlson’s injury. The Capitals have owned the majority of shot attempts, but you see there’s a bit of a dip in xGF after you get past the top pairing of Martin Fehervary and Nick Jensen.

Without Orlov there to help buoy the second pairing, there’s a clear lack of depth on the backend. Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson are a fine third pairing, but they’re finer when the two pairings ahead of them consist of Nick Jensen, Martin Fehervary, Dmitry Orlov, and John Carlson. Asking van Riemsdyk and Gustafsson to essentially skate top four pairing minutes is really out of the realm of high performance for any team.

Conclusive evidence of lack of depth and closing remarks

The Capitals are entering rather uncharted territory in the team’s recent history. I can’t remember a time when the Capitals were without such key pieces in the lineup for an extended period of time like they’re dealing with this season.

For a team that has been in the competitive window for about a decade and a half, we’re seeing the results of that: a lack of very high-caliber prospects to step into the fold and high-priced contracts handed out to veteran pieces of an aging core of players.

The “lack of very high caliber prospects” comment isn’t a dig at the Hendrix Lapierres, Connor McMichaels, or Alex Alexeyevs of the world, but it’s not like the Capitals have a highly touted prospect pipeline rich with lottery pick levels of prospects.

At the end of the day, the Capitals will have to keep their heads above water until those who are ailing on the injury list recover. The goaltending the Capitals have gotten so far this season from Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren help keep the outlook optimistic, for now. With a few players on the injured list starting to work back into on-ice work, some reinforcements seem close to returning.

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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3 Responses to How Has John Carlson’s Absence Affected The Capitals Play At Even Strength?

  1. novafyre says:

    Not all highly successful NHL players were high draft choices. Some were late bloomers, some simply needed better coaching. Pat Maroon, holder of four Rings, was told as a junior to go home and find something else to do. Good development coaching can make a difference.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Carlson’s salary is an anchor at this point.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Caps have high caliber draft picks. They are just playing on other teams.

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