At the start of the 2022-23 season, there was plenty of optimism regarding the Capitals’ roster, especially with the additions of Dylan Strome, Connor Brown, Darcy Kuemper, and Charlie Lindgren. The Caps expected to be without Tom Wilson and franchise cornerstone Nicklas Backstrom for the first half or so of the regular season, but felt the new additions would help ease the blow of missing a third of their top six forwards.
Fast forward to today, the Capitals are sellers at the trade deadline after leading the league in man games lost due to injury, following up an electric December run with a catastrophic January and February. The Caps clearly didn’t have what it takes to be true contenders this season, and obviously injuries are a key contributor there. The key is, even with a relatively healthy lineup the past couple of months, the Capitals have struggled. Since January 1st, the Capitals are the league’s worst team, going 8-14-1 in that stretch.
Prior to the Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway trade to the Boston Bruins, you could look at the lineup and scratch your head a bit. Why is this team struggling so much? We’re going to get into those struggles and the key indicator of why this team has fallen so short of expectations in this post.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, 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.
The signs of struggle
I went back a decade of seasons to compare the Capitals’ performance during five-on-five play to see what the falling off point was this season. The key stats for comparison are shooting percentage (S%), shots on goal per sixty minutes of play (S/60), goals for per sixty minutes of play (GF/60), expected goals for per sixty minutes of play (xGF/60), and the differential of goals for minus expected goals for (xG differential). Here’s what these look like over the past decade:
We’ll work right to left on this chart to start out the analysis. The start of this research was the fact that the Capitals’ S% is quite a bit below what the team has experienced, posting their lowest S% since 2013-14. The first thing that came to mind is that the Capitals were putting more SOG due to Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s strategy of quantity over quality regarding shot attempts. This increase in SOG/60 was observed, and is the highest SOG/60 the Caps have posted since 2019-20.
This is where things start to get a bit more concerning. The Caps are on pace for their lowest marks in GF/60 since 2014-15 while posting their highest xGF/60 in the past decade. This means that the Caps are generating chances and scoring opportunities at a higher rate than the previous nine seasons, but scoring less goals as a result. To wit, the Capitals have posted their first negative xG differential in a decade, and the lowest since the 2010-11 season.
In order to highlight just how important the xG differential is, I pulled the same five-on-five regular season statistics for the last 10 Stanley Cup championship teams:
Since the 2016-17 season, each Stanley Cup winning team had a positive xG differential. On top of that, since about the same time frame, the NHL game has changed to a more puck skill dominant and pace-driven style of play. It’s becoming more and more important to have your GF/60 outpace your xGF/60 to be successful enough to make the playoffs and ultimately win the Stanley Cup.
So, the question becomes why the Caps have fallen into this state this season? Largely, we’re seeing quite a drop-off due to the lack of pure goal scoring depth on this team’s roster. Here’s the 2022-23 iteration of the Capitals’ shot location heat map from HockeyViz:
Now, compare this to the 2018-19 Capitals, who posted the highest GF/60 in the past decade:
The shot locations this season are considerably better than 2018-19. One of the areas with the most excess shot attempts compared to league average are right in front of the goal. That’s showing the Caps are getting good opportunities, but can’t finish the job, hence the lowest S% since 2013-14.
To nail that point, here’s the Caps’ finishing chart from HockeyViz:
The highest likelihood of a goal to be scored in the offensive zone is in a particular area where the greatest goal scorer of all time likes to set up shop. The Caps are rather devoid of finishing on the right side of the ice.
For comparison’s sake, here’s the finishing chart via HockeyViz for the 2018-19 Caps:
It’s a pretty stark contrast here. The 2018-19 iteration of the Capitals were able to finish on shot attempts on more areas of the ice, indicating more scoring depth on both sides of the ice.
I did a breakdown of how many 10+ and 20+ goal scorers the Capitals have had each season:
The number of double-digit goal scorers over the past decade has been rather stable between 8 and 11 players hitting that 10 goal mark. The issue this season is, Ovechkin is the only player currently with more than 20 goals. TJ Oshie is on pace to score 21.8 goals this season, and he’s the only remaining player on the Caps that’s on pace to hit that 20 goal plateau.
Realistically, this shows that the Capitals are lacking scoring depth. There are good forwards on this team, but Ovechkin is the only real pure goal scorer at this point with Anthony Mantha’s play falling off of a cliff. Oshie is the next closest thing to a goal scorer on this team. On top of that, with the Capitals trading Marcus Johansson to the Minnesota Wild and the likelihood that Conor Sheary will be traded, the Caps will only have six double-digit goal scorers this season.
This is a roster construction issue that needs to be solved this off-season. It’s unclear how much you can bank on Mantha regaining form. Looking back at the 2015-16 through 2018-19 teams, the Caps had highly effective scoring in their middle six. Gone are the days when you had players like Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, and Brett Connolly able to score goals in second and third line roles. It’s clear that the Caps need to add another right wing who can score at least 20 goals a season this off-season.
The path forward
It’s clear this issue isn’t going to be solved this season. The Caps are selling off assets on expiring contracts in an effort to collect as many trade chips as possible to target young NHL ready talent to inject into the roster to pad the aging core group.
This offseason is going to define Brian MacLellan’s legacy as the general manager of the Capitals. He needs to find a way to inject more offense and scoring acumen into a team that was devoid of scoring this season. If the Rasmus Sandin trade tells us anything, he’s on the right track.
By Justin Trudel
The finishing chart appears to indicate a serious problem on the right side. This can possibly be explained by the fact that Wilson, Carlson and Oshie have missed much of the season, and Brown missed pretty much all of it. There are clearly other contributors, but losing multiple scoring forwards and one of the best offensive RD in the game is certainly a big factor.
The question is whether they can recover on the right side next year… Assume Wilson will return to form (he appears to have already done so). Oshie is a question mark due to his age and recent history. Brown is a UFA, and Carlson is a true unknown right now, given the severity of his injury.
The big job for GMBM this summer is to reinforce that side of the ice.
100% agree with you. Wilson and Oshie definitely will impact finishing on the right side of the ice, but the Caps clearly need another scorer on that side to play in the middle six. Ideally, at his age, Oshie can play on the third line and get a little less ice time during five-on-five play, and the new acquisition (and that might just be Connor Brown) can score 20 goals to jump start the offense.
Thanks for doing this, Justin. I think most of us have forgotten about the optimism that prevailed pre season. I was eager to see what Brown would bring and fully expected Mantha to produce big time. The injuries surely doomed the Caps this year. It’s probably for the best. The Caps’ “scoring” resides with past-their-prime players. Another early exit from the play-offs was easily predictable. With so much cap space already committed to past-their-prime players (sorry Ovi, but it’s true) GMBM has big challenges. I believe he has always done well with what he has to work with.
Thanks for reading! I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown was brought back on a one year “prove it” deal after recovering from his injury. It’s a bit more risky, but the free agency class for goal scorers is pretty devoid of options.
Your point about the aging core is very true. The best possible thing for the Capitals would be to get as high of a draft pick as possible and select a true difference making prospect. Having a cost-controlled high level talent with the expensive core is a key to success with an aging roster.
Tampa Bay should be the model there. They had their core in place and identified (and acquired/drafted) their “next” core in Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak. The Caps should hope to be as lucky as that.
I had hoped that we would hear more on Brown and his/Caps plans by this time.
I’m sure the Caps will take their time in those negotiations. He’s not going to be traded due to his injury, so there’s much more time to hammer out a deal with him than there was with the other pending UFAs.