The hot-button issue surrounding the Washington Capitals and their current roster construction centers on the narrative that the Capitals are older and slower than their competition, resulting in more poor performances against teams that are younger and faster.
The topic piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to really dig into the data and see if the Capitals truly struggle against young teams (because they’re old), or because the roster is inherently flawed and needs a retool.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Elite Prospects (for teams’ average age for the season), Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, 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.
Setting the stage
First up, I want to acknowledge my bias here. I entered into this investigation with the mindset that the Capitals are too old and slow to compete with more upstart teams that are entering their prime contending years. The data I’m about to show you sort of sends a mixed message about the Capitals’ average age ranking as the second oldest team in the league, but also around roster construction in terms of on-ice finishing ability during five-on-five play.
NHL Teams Average Age
In order to really understand how the Caps stack up with other teams in the league, here’s the average age of each NHL team this season: [Click to enlarge]
As previously mentioned, the Capitals are currently the second oldest team in the NHL, ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins by almost a year. The Capitals and the Penguins are effectively hand-in-hand when it comes to current roster construction: aging veteran core players that are expected to shoulder a lot of the load when it comes to ice time and production.
Realistically, average age only tells us so much. The two youngest teams in the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Buffalo Sabres, are in very different places when it comes to competitiveness and trajectory. The Blue Jackets are the NHL’s worst team this season and the Buffalo Sabres are starting to shed the rebuild and are aiming towards contention. The Sabres are likely not going to make the playoffs this season, but their young roster and overall performance puts them in a spot where they could potentially make the playoffs next season.
There’s really six team trajectories or expectations: fire sale (see Chicago), rebuilding (see Detroit and Arizona), retooling (Washington and St. Louis), bubble teams (see Buffalo and Florida), contending teams (see the Rangers and Vegas), and favorites (see Boston).
To show that, here’s the points percentage for each team this season, with the x-axis going from youngest team to oldest:
You can see peaks and valleys in each effective grouping of youngest to oldest teams here. You can see teams like the New Jersey Devils, who have a young core group, performing very well this season. You can also see the more veteran-laden teams like the Boston Bruins performing extremely well, despite the age of their roster.
Ultimately, there’s teams at each end of the average age spectrum that are in very different places. The average age difference between the Caps and the Colorado Avalanche aren’t much different, but the core groups of those teams are. There’s a very real variable in performance around average age of core groups of players on each team and the success of the overall team this season.
Capitals head-to-head match-up performance
Now let’s look at the Capitals and how they stacked up against each of their opponents. Here’s their points percentage against each NHL team:
The x-axis here is also going youngest to oldest. There’s no real discernable trend here where the Caps supremely struggle against young teams and do fine against more veteran teams, at least in terms of points percentage.
The interesting piece is that the Caps do extremely well against many of the playoff teams (the Islanders and the Jets) but completely fell apart against others (the Panthers, the Stars, the Wild, and the Avalanche). They fare well against the league’s worst team in Columbus, but struggle against the rebuilding Red Wings.
To really understand the performances against each of these teams, here’s the Capitals expected goal percentage differential, which takes the Caps’ goals for percentage (GF%) and subtracts their expected goals for percentage (xGF%). A positive percentage means the Capitals are finishing at a high rate, and a negative percentage means that the Capitals struggled to finish.
This chart is in order of lowest to highest, just to paint an example here. The Capitals finished with a negative expected goal percentage differential against 17 of 31 teams. That’s no recipe for success, and that’s something I’ve touched on in a previous post outlining one of the key metrics that have determined the Capitals’ fate this season.
There’s a mix of teams with younger and older rosters on each end of this chart, so that’s not a discernable trend either.
Here’s the Caps’ expected goal percentage differential based on their opponent’s age:
Again, it’s really all over the place here. The Capitals have struggled the most in finishing against the Florida Panthers and the Minnesota Wild, but have had good success against the Montreal Canadiens and San Jose Sharks.
It appears that the Capitals have more struggles finishing against older, more experienced teams than they do against younger teams that might be closer to a rebuilding status than as a true contender.
Here’s how this data looks when we order the x-axis based off of their opponent’s point percentage this season:
The Caps struggle against teams that are in the top two spots in the league in Boston and Carolina, but match up rather well with the Devils and the Maple Leafs. The trend here is that there is none.
What does this mean?
The Capitals have an inherently flawed roster. Finishing on scoring chances and other opportunities to score is one of the most impactful factors on team success, and the Capitals have struggled immensely in that category.
The Capitals’ total expected goal percentage differential this season sits at -1.3%. The best teams in the league exceed in this regard: the Bruins have an expected goal percentage differential of 11.03%.
While the data presented above doesn’t exactly point to the Capitals solely struggling against younger, faster teams, they struggle against better teams. The teams likely either have younger core groups of players performing at a high level in the prime of their careers, or have more veteran core players with quality young players in supporting roles down their lineup.
For the Capitals, it is true that they need to get younger and faster, mainly because the roster construction calls for that. Every member of the Capitals’ core group of players is past their prime production years. Obviously, Alex Ovechkin is a huge outlier in terms of goal production, but the rest of the lineup cannot produce at a rate near their prime production.
This is a roster construction issue where the Caps need to address giant, gaping holes in their lineup. They are clearly missing another goal scoring force on the ice, and the best way to address that is by either drafting or acquiring a player in their prime years that can complement the aging core.
The Capitals do need younger players to fill in the ranks, and MacLellan started that trend with bringing in players like Dylan Strome, Sonny Milano, and Rasmus Sandin. That trend will need to continue with young goal scorers. If the Capitals fail to address scoring and finishing in the lineup, the team is bound to fail in the twilight years of the Ovechkin era.
By Justin Trudel
They will need to shed dead weight, Mainly Backstrom and Mantha.
Weight or age?
Little of both. Also IF looking at getting younger and faster does that mean resigning Brown and Sheary is out this summer? How about Wilson after next year? Retooling may get them younger, a little, but will it make them better or just keep them the same? As the main goal for this team, in a team sport, is to get an individual a personal record, I wonder what happens after the 24/25 season if he does not have the record, do they resign Backy, Kuzy, Oshie and Dowd?
It may seem nice to promise a man that you will be competitive during his declining and last year while trying to break a record. However as a team sport the goal is a CUP and this team has not for the past 3 seasons, this season and probably not for the next 5-7 years be a true contender for the Cup just to get one player a record. So basically this is what the fans are going to see for the next several year, average to below average hockey yet be expected to pay top dollar to go to games and cheer on a team that is not a contender for the Cup. So why keep any of the picks the next several years, rather trade them for older players who can get that one man and the owner his record and stay average and don’t even think of the playoffs or the Cup!!
Yawn….here we go. Not once has Ted L or anyone else said anything about keeping roster in tact, it has clearly been stated to keep it competitive which it clearly is.
True no one said keep the roster but with so large contracts or with age or with both how and to whom do you trade them? And if the goal was to keep this team competitive they sure have done a sucky job at it. Honestly what do them mean by “staying competitive”? Is it just to make the playoffs and then go out in the first round or is it to win more games than they lose? To me being competitive means being in the playoffs and making a run for the Cup! This team has NOT been a legitimate contender since the 2019/20 season. With the aging, high priced talent deteriorating and injuries they are a shadow of what they were 5 years ago and sad to say retooling is not working.
Mantha being dealt or bought out is much more likely than Backstrom leaving the team. There’s no team in the league that would absorb his contract.
Main question around Mantha is, if you decide to buy him out, you get some cap relief this season, but take on a bit more in a cap hit from him the season after next. That’s pretty risky with Wilson and Sandin needing new contracts at the end of next season.
Realistically, you might see Mantha back on the roster this season with hopes that he figures his game out. When he’s on, he’s a force. When he’s not, he’s completely invisible.
With Mantha’s stats the past 2 years who wants him? Im thinking that if someone would have wanted him he would have gone at the trade deadline. Sad to say but the best solution concerning Mantha would be to wait and just let him walk after next season.
Justin, I have often wondered how the age of a team is determined. Beginning of October? After trade deadline? All players under contract? Those on the roster each game?
Those dressing each game? I have to think that some teams have really been on an age roller coaster as players get injured or healthy, players are called up or sent down, players are traded in or out. How is it determined?
I believe it’s anyone on the NHL active roster. I’m not sure if that includes players on LTIR or not, though.
So is the age recalculated every time the active roster changes? For the Caps, that would be every game.
I appreciate the work you’ve put into this article, but if not recalculated every game, I just question the relative team ages for each game played. For example, what was the Caps’ age the game before Backy and Willy came back and then the game they did? If I’m going to compare performance against a particular team I feel I would need to know the ages of the players actually on the ice that game (or games).
I’m not sure that the average ages would vary a ton in a typical game. Most of the time, you have your active roster (meaning anyone on the NHL roster at the time, including scratches) and you might have different players in and out of the lineup.
I think when you’re looking at a season level, sure you’re losing some of the zoomed in context of a single game, but when we’re looking at a season long trend, it’s not going to make a huge difference in my eyes.
In my opinion, it’s more about quality of rosters the Caps are facing, and how their roster matches up against that opponent. The data here just solidifies the fact that the Caps don’t have a high enough caliber roster to keep up with the competitive teams around the league in an 82 game schedule.
Mantha yes, backy no. If 19 is our biggest problem, we’ll be in good shape!
Offensively NB19 and his salary IS their biggest problem. 9.2 million for a 4th liner and not a good one, but you think they are in good shape? Are you Caps management? cause that would explain a lot. As bad as Mantha as been he’s still more productive than Backstrom at 5v5. 1.6 pts/60 for Mantha to 1 pt/60 for Backstrom. And NO he’s not making his linemates better, they are dragging him.