Possession is Nine-Tenths of ... the Problem

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: Head coach Dale Hunter of the Washington Capitals looks on from the bench during the third period of thier 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center on December 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
[W]hile the Capitals may appear to be spinning in neutral, it’s thanks only to some percentages that are keeping the team in games now, rather than bad bounces going against the team like they were with Boudreau. With bad percentages at the start of the season, they were on a 93-point pace, good enough for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season. With Hunter, and good percentages, they’re now on a [90]-point pace. - Cam Charron, Backhand Shelf

It's no secret that the final days and weeks of Bruce Boudreau's tenure in Washington were characterized by poor goaltending (Tomas Vokoun followed up a sensational October with a brutal November that seemed to feature a soft goal or two per night), snake-bitten shooters (a woeful 7.3% shooting percentage over Boudreau's last ten games) and an inability to general inability to see the two for what they were - cold streaks. Frustration mounted (or was given reason to come out of repression), Boudreau threw his hands up, and the situation became untenable.

Enter Dale Hunter.

And exit puck possession.

As Cam Charron details in the post quoted above, Boudreau's Capitals were a great possession team, even to the end of his tenure.

[Brief digression: "possession" here doesn't literally mean time with the puck, but rather it refers to advanced metrics such as Corsi or Fenwick, both of which measure shot generation for and against, as a proxy for possession; they're imperfect, but do the trick. As Charron uses it, a "possession rate of 55.4%" means that the team saw 55.4% of shots - those on goal, blocked and missing the net - go in its favor. In other words, for every 20 or so shots attempted in a game, 11 were directed at the opponents' goal, nine at the Caps' net. Charron further limits his analysis to game-tied, even-strength situations to get a measure of the team's abilities without the influence of "score effect." Alright, back to the post.]

Granted, there wasn't much time when the score was tied when they were getting blasted 7-1, 5-1 and so on, but even over those last five games, they were on the right side of 50% just about any way you'd want to slice the possession numbers.

[OK, another digression: we're using a script written by Vic Ferrari which captures the data we're looking for. Here, for example, are Boudreau's last five games overall. Throw in the word "tied" in the URL and it looks like this. There are other game situations available as well, but note that some of the terms (like "close") don't necessarily have their plain meanings associated with them. For the sake of this post, we're going to stick with score-tied data.]

Under Hunter, the story has been drastically different, as the Caps have been dominated in terms of possession - whereas they had a "possession rate of 55.4%" under Boudreau, that number has dropped to 45.4% under Hunter... which probably marries up with what your eyes have told you, as the Caps have been outshot by an average of 30.8 to 25.0 (so the Caps have registered 44.9% of the shots on goal in their games, 44.8% at even strength), drawn far fewer penalties, and have blocked upwards of 18 shots per night. [For more on that SOG imbalance, check out Neil Greenberg's article over at ESPN.com.] To put that 45.4% in perspective, the Caps' Fenwick (which simply removes blocked shots from the equation) over the same period is 47.1%, which would rank 26th in the League over the course of the season.

So what's at the root of the drop-off? Charron praises Boudreau (who certainly deserves credit for Anaheim's turn-around and all he did here), but let's look at some other possible contributing factors after the jump.

  • Thought #1: Boudreau had Mike Green for one-third of his tenure; Hunter hasn't had him at all. Green certainly helps with possession (here's what his numbers looked like last year), and would presumably be hugely important to get back in the Caps' lineup, but even without Green, Boudreau's Caps were at 52.7% (note: that does include the eight shifts Green skated against New Jersey on November 11). Hunter has had a very-limited Green for a game-and-change and came in at 46.8%. Verdict: Mike Green helps, but doesn't explain the huge drop-off.
  • Thought #2: Hunter has coached nearly half his games without Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom is another possession machine (see last year, for example), but the Caps under Hunter were at 48.7% with Backstrom and 42.1% without him. Verdict: Missing Backstrom is a killer (shocking, I know), even if the team wasn't above the waterline with him in the lineup.
  • Thought #3: There's a learning curve associated with Hunter's system. Since he's coached 30 games, let's look at 10-game segments since Hunter took over: 50.6%, 43.8%, 41.9%. Verdict: Yeah, that ain't it.

There are other possibilities, but it would seem that injuries have played a significant part in the discrepancy between the even-strength possession numbers under the Caps' two 2011-12 bench bosses... but they don't explain it all. Dale Hunter's system seems to be predicated upon limiting scoring chances-against at the expense of puck possession, almost dropping back to neutral ice at the first sign of a 50/50 puck in the offensive so as to avoid odd-man rushes-against, and frequently collapsing to block shots from the outside when the opponents establish possession in the Capitals zone. That the Caps have been moderately successful playing Hunter's system is a testament to Vokoun's resurgence (though, to be fair, that's also a bit of a two-way street), and some timely scoring.

Maybe with a few key names back in the lineup and better effort and results along the boards, it's a system that will work. And it might even be good enough to win games as-is if the special teams can perform near the top of the League. But right now every game is like rolling a 20-sided die (if you've read this far, chances are you own one), with nine winning numbers and 11 losers. And that's a tough way to try to make up ground in a playoff race when you're on the outside looking in.

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