FanPost

Analysis: Which Caps Play Better Against Good Competition – And Which Don't

When Mike Gartner was traded for Dino Ciccarelli in 1989, it sent shockwaves through our fan base. We were trading a perennial goal-scoring dynamo who played a finesse game for a rough-around-the-edges winger who had no problem planting himself in front of the net and wreaking havoc on everyone -opponents, teammates, neighbors, adolescent girls - in his path. It was a gamble for GM David Poile as he was giving up a very popular player in Gartner because, for whatever reason, Gartner chronically faded in the playoffs. Dino was brought here solely to change that.

With all due respect to #11, I have a burning suspicion that we have players with Gartner syndrome, padding their stats against middling competition but failing to produce similarly against elite competition – the type we need to beat in May and June to have this season be considered a success.  So I set out to figure out which Caps players failed to step up their game against elite competition as well as those who do.

What I did was separate this season’s Caps games into two groups: those played against top 10 teams (really, teams #2 through #10 based on the current standings since we’re #1) and those against the remaining 20 teams in the NHL. I then compared player’s even strength performance against teams in the Top 10 with those in the Bottom 20, which you’ll see further below. From there I bucketed players into three groupings:

-          Those who play better against Top 10 teams, rather than Bottom 20 teams (aka, "The Big Game Hunters")

-          Those who stay consistent no matter the opponent ("The Steady Eddies")

-          Those who play better against Bottom 20 teams (aka, "The Bottom-Feeders").

The Big Game Hunters are great. They thrive on playing better competition and, come playoff time, we shouldn’t be worried about them elevating their game as those guys step up when they need to. The Steady Eddies are great as well. Nothing beats consistency, right? It’s the Bottom Feeders that scare me, because I worry that we over-inflate their value to our team. Sure, you may have a player with great stats, but when it’s piled up against the Islanders and Thrashers - and not the Penguins or Devils -that worries me. Because as we all know it’s how we’re going to play against the Penguins, Devils, Hawks and Sharks that will define whether this season’s a success.

The Stats I Tracked

Like I stated earlier I looked solely at even strength stats (GFON/60, GAON/60, +/-ON/60) to figure out where to bucket our players. For those not familiar with these stats:

  • GFON/60 is the number of goals a team scores across 60 minutes when this player is on the ice
  • GAON/60 is the number of goals the other team scores across 60 minutes when this player is on the ice.
  • +/-ON/60 is the difference.

So if a player has a 3.00 GOF/60 and a 2.30 GOA/60, his +/-ON/60 is 0.70 indicating that his presence is a net positive for the team based on even strength production. When the +/-ON/60 number is negative, it means he has a net negative impact on the team during even strength situations.

Some Prep Work First…

I’m almost ready to show you the results but there’s two more prep items you need to know. The first one is the difference between the Caps even strength +/-ON/60 against the Top 10 vs their +/-ON/60 against the Bottom 20 teams. It’s 0.69.

Grouping

EV GOF/60

EV GOA/60

EV  +/-ON/60

Delta +/-ON/60

Top 10

3.60

2.76

0.84

--

Bottom 20

3.56

2.03

1.53

0.69

 

Why is this 0.69 important? Because if a player has an +/-ON/60 of 1.50 against Bottom 20 competition but it drops to 0.81 against Top 10 competition that’s actually okay. His 0.69 production drop is exactly in line with the team’s overall performance drop against better teams.  In fact, it means he’s pretty darn consistent – a Steady Eddie. (One of our players fits this bill.)  If a player’s Top 10 +/-ON/60 were to drop more than 0.69 compared to his Bottom 20 +/-ON/60 - say from 1.50 to -0.35 - that 1.85 drop would indicate that he plays worse against good competition. He’s a Bottom Feeder. Finally, if a player’s Top 10 +/-ON/60 decreases less than 0.69 (or even increases), then he’s a Big Game Hunter, or one who plays better against elite competition.

The second item is sample size. The Caps are 34-8-5 against Bottom 20 competition for a 77.7% points percentage. They are 7-5-3 against Top 10 competition for a 56.7% points percentage.  More importantly, 15 games against Top 10 competition is, in my opinion, a large enough sample size for the data to tell an accurate story.

The Stats

Enough explaining…now the fun begins. Let’s look at the stats ordered by the difference between their "Top 10 +/-ON/60" and their "Bottom 20 +/-ON/60". I call this the "Delta +/-ON/60", or the "score". Note, the higher the score the better this person plays against better competition:

Player

Top 10 Teams

Bottom 20 Teams

Score

EV GOF/60

EV GOA/60

EV +/-ON/60

EV GOF/60

EV GOA/60

EV +/-ON/60

Delta EV +/- ON/60

STECKEL, DAVID

3.21

0.92

2.29

1.73

1.73

0.00

2.29

SLOAN, TYLER

3.42

2.56

0.85

1.78

2.84

-1.07

1.92

OVECHKIN, A.

5.48

1.37

4.11

4.01

1.78

2.23

1.89

LAING, QUINTIN

2.01

0.00

2.01

1.84

1.47

0.37

1.65

BRADLEY, MATT

2.76

1.18

1.58

2.15

2.15

0.00

1.58

GORDON, BOYD

1.11

1.11

0.00

2.33

3.11

-0.78

0.78

MORRISONN, S.

3.86

2.68

1.19

3.33

2.80

0.54

0.65

KNUBLE, MIKE

4.09

1.70

2.38

3.54

1.34

2.20

0.19

ERSKINE, JOHN

3.89

2.33

1.55

3.40

1.70

1.70

-0.15

BACKSTROM, N.

4.56

2.95

1.61

4.23

1.95

2.28

-0.67

GREEN, MIKE

3.53

3.06

0.47

4.36

2.38

1.98

-1.51

POTHIER, BRIAN

4.08

4.60

-0.51

2.29

0.98

1.31

-1.82

FEHR,  ERIC

3.02

3.02

0.00

3.45

1.35

2.10

-2.10

POTI, TOM

2.32

2.90

-0.58

3.07

1.49

1.58

-2.16

FLEISHMANN, T.

2.60

4.08

-1.48

3.37

2.59

0.78

-2.26

SEMIN, A.

3.08

3.38

-0.31

4.60

2.25

2.35

-2.66

SCHULTZ, JEFF

2.58

2.58

0.00

4.08

1.27

2.81

-2.81

MORRISON, B.

1.61

2.58

-0.97

3.45

1.58

1.87

-2.84

LAICH, BROOKS

1.83

3.65

-1.83

3.78

2.32

1.45

-3.28

CHIMERA, J.

1.82

4.55

-2.73

3.64

1.09

2.55

-5.28

 

Notes: I left out players with less than 20 games played. Jason Chimera and Tyler Sloan have only 5 and 6 games (respectively) played against Top 10 competition.

Before jumping into "Observations", keep in mind that this data set tells you more than just who steps up in big games and who doesn’t. It also shows you how our players fare at even strength against Top 10 competition. This should be a strong indicator of how our players will play against playoff opponents.

Observations: The Good…

  • Captain Ovi (1.89), as expected, brings his "A" game against good competition. We knew this.
  • Our fourth liners (Steckel, Gordon, Laing and Bradley) all elevate their game against top 10 teams. That’s impressive. Consequently, I’m not worried about them come playoff time.
  • That said...Boyd Gordon (0.78) is truly an oddball. He genuinely plays worse against weaker competition. His Bottom 20 GOA/60 is 3.11, by far the worst on the team. His Top 10 GOA/60 is a very impressive 1.11. Unless one of you can explain this, it screams out "ANOMOLY"
  • Knuble (0.19) being a plus player in big games is no surprise.
  • Backstrom’s performance (-0.67) is consistent regardless of opponent. He is our Steady Eddie. No complaints.
  • One person who I was surprised to see on this list was Shaone Morrissonn (0.65).  I envision him being no higher than a 5th or 6th defense on a playoff team, but it appears he can step up his game when he needs to in his role as #4 d-man. That’s comforting to know.
  • Sloan (1.92) and Erskine (-0.15) are tough players with very respectable scores, but they’re simply not who you want on the ice in the playoffs. Thank them for stepping up their games against good teams in the regular season but let’s hope they aren’t called upon in the playoffs.

…And The Bad

  •  The data shows our top 3 defensemen - Green, Poti, Schultz - regress more than expected against better competition with scores of -1.51, -2.16 and -2.81 respectively. What really concerns me is their rather high GAON/60 numbers against Top 10 competition (3.60, 2.90, 2.58). You don’t want to see your top defensemen have even strength GOA/60 numbers above 2.0 because when you factor in other teams’ power play efficiency, you’re looking at giving up 3 + goals/game with your BEST defensemen on the ice. That’s not sufficient for playoff hockey. (If that isn’t a sign that the Caps need to upgrade the defense, I don’t know what is.)
  • Semin’s (-2.66) and Flash’s (-2.26) appearance so low on this list doesn’t surprise me. I’ve suspected that they feast on lesser teams while disappearing against tougher competition and –well - this confirms it. But before throwing those two entirely under the bus know that they at least chip in on special teams. (Nonetheless, they do make interesting trade-bait if you believe in the selling high theory.)
  • Chimera, with a team-worst -5.28 score, can’t fall back on the special teams excuse. He really needs to step up his game. He doesn’t chip in on special teams, and he isn’t exactly a Matt Cooke-style agitator. The expectation is that he plays physical, chips in occasional goals and keeps the puck out of our net. His numbers show that he’s failing miserably.
  • I’m surprised – dumbfounded actually – that Books Laich is so low on this list (-3.28). It indicates a bigger trend: our entire 2nd and 3rd lines are on the entirely wrong side of this list.  I think that points to our glaring weakness at the center slot. Morrissonn and Fleishmann are clearly getting outplayed against elite competition. We need to shore this area up to compete with the better teams we’re going to play in the playoffs. I think once we do, you’ll see Semin’s, Laich’s and Fehr’s +/- ON/60 numbers improve. After all, unless your name is Ovechkin a winger is only as good as his center.
  • Did anyone notice that our tougher players - save for Laich and Chimera – all seem to hover around the top of this list? I don’t believe this is a coincidence. Tougher players are better equipped to play tougher opponents. (Somehow Sloan snuck in there too!)

What does all of this tell us?

We need to improve before the trade deadline. None of this is new to anyone, but the following needs to be done to be Eastern Conference favorites.

  • We need to upgrade the defense
  • We need to get tougher
  • We need a second line center that doesn’t disappear against good competition andmais linemates better.

Also, we need to guard against over-valuing players. And this is where this write-up gets downright scandalous.  Some of our superstars aren’t quite performing at super-star level. I’m specifically referring to Mike Green and Alex Semin. In Green’s case, yes, he still is a positive player against Top 10 Competition (0.47) but it’s not a special number for a guy that will get 20 even strength minutes/game in the playoffs. Green gives us a lot on the power play but I simply expect a more dominant performance out of someone who Caps fans fancy as one of the top defensemen in the game. It’s time he showed it.  Otherwise, his gaudy point production, incredible fantasy numbers and impressive GVT – to me – are really just a product of bottom-feeding against weak competition.

It’s even more egregious with Semin, a Bottom Feeder with a -0.31 even strength ON/60 against Top 10 competition. That’s a very poor number for a "star" player with the gifts he has. At least Green is a positive player - Semin’s not even that! Like Green, Semin adds a lot to the power play, but this guy will also get ~15 even strength minutes/game in the playoffs. Sure, you can say that his center production is deficient and is deflating his effectiveness. That’s valid. But the same can be said for the less gifted Eric Fehr, who has a 0.00 Top 10 even strength rating while playing with lower quality teammates.  Simply stated, Semin needs to start being more productive against elite competition, or we should ship him out now while his trade value is inflated over his actual performance level.

In summary, for the Caps to be legit SC contenders we need to see significant improvement from our Bottom Feeders and our stars need to start living up to their hype. Or we’re watching the Finals again on TV this June. GMGM knows this, so don’t be surprised if we see a trade on the scale of Gartner-Ciccarelli.

Now, it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? See any conclusions from the data that I didn’t? Let’s hear it. (And thanks for getting this far!)

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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