Fix the power play, fix the team.
And while the focus with regards to the power play is on how a unit with essentially the same personnel can drop so precipitously so quickly - from first in the League a season ago to the bottom third this season - one related point isn't being discussed nearly as much, and that's the decline in power-play opportunities.
In addition to having an absolutely lethal power-play in 2009-10, the Caps were also in the top ten in the League in power-play opportunities (which is mildly surprising, given that teams that frequently play with leads don't ordinarily do well in penalty ratio, as we've discussed previously). That's obviously a pretty optimal combination.
This year's team, however, has not only struggled with the extra man, but it has also drawn relatively few penalties. That's obviously a combination at the other end of the desirability spectrum.
To quantify the difference, last year's Caps averaged 3.82 power-play opportunities per game; this year's team is averaging 3.41, a decline of more than 10% (and that number has dropped even further, to 2.8, for calendar year 2011). Put another way, even if the power-play conversion rate for this season was held constant at its current 16.8%, if the team was still averaging 3.82 power-plays per game, they'd have converted another four-plus goals, which isn't much, but it's worth more than one point in the standings (and potentially a few more in reality, given that the Caps lead the League in OT/SO losses).
So what's to blame for the drop-off? Well, effort, willingness to go into high-traffic areas, etc. And a less-aggressive offensive attack is almost certainly going to draw fewer penalties. But it's hard to quantify those and other theories. What we can show, however, is a bit of who is to blame for the drop-off - simply look at last year's penalties drawn (at even-strength) and compare it to this year's. The biggest culprits, in terms of penalties-drawn rate? Here you go:
|Player||2009-10 PDRAW/60||2010-11 PDRAW/60||∆|
Of note, Alex Ovechkin, despite his down year almost across-the-board, has actually increased his rate of drawing penalties (up from 1.2 to 1.8). So there's that.
Clearly the problems with the Caps' power-play are many, and the points discussed here really have far more to do with the team's performance at even-strength than with the extra man anyway. But practice makes perfect, as they say, and this team certainly could use some more in-game power-play practice, yet another aspect of this team's performance that pales in comparison to last year's.