Our first question this week is about the Capitals early season puck possession struggles, and what steps they might take to improve upon them without any drastic changes to the roster:
@JapersRink is there any way to become a better puck possession team w/o different players? How long till we know they just can't possess?— Joey Truncale (@Joey_Truncale) October 29, 2013
@JapersRink the sample size seems small still... But the results seem pretty conclusive that this team can't generate enough shots to win— Joey Truncale (@Joey_Truncale) October 29, 2013
Let's get this out of the way early: there is a very simple way to improve possession numbers without changing personnel, and it goes as follows: attempt more shots, allow the opposition to attempt fewer. Boom. Possession issues solved, right?
If only it were so easy. Before talking about how to improve possession, let's take a look at where the Caps are currently situated on the possession spectrum, and brush upon the what/how/and why of it.
"Possession" is a term tossed somewhat willy-nilly ‘round the hockey lexicon these days. The reality is popular possession metrics Corsi and Fenwick don't actually measure possession, but rather measure shot attempts, with the logic being that a favorable shot attempt ratio correlates with spending more time on the right side of center ice. Previous studies have buttressed this proxy theory.
Presently the Caps are hovering in the middle of the possession pack in Corsi, and a bit lower in Fenwick (which means they might have more shot attempts blocked then might be expected, as Fenwick does not register a blocked shot as a possession event, whereas Corsi does), and even lower still - 25th - in Fenwick in "close" situations, which is what tends to matter most (as it strips score effects out of the equation).
So there's your crash course. Let's move to the ice where, yes, the Washington Capitals would presumably prefer to improve upon their mediocre possession numbers. But how? Well, the issue probably starts in their own end. Adam Oates certainly seems to think so. After an October 16 shutout defeat at the hands of the Rangers, the bench boss told NBC's Adam Vingan, "We've got to take care of our own end better. Obviously we want to score, and we want to get down the ice, but until we cross the defensive blue line, we can't."
We noticed the same deficiencies as the coach, in fact, and we detailed them here. And then when you do exit into the neutral zone, there's still another blue line yet to be crossed. Mike Green illustrates what not to do here (though it’s worth nothing that this particular moment occurred on the power play).
A few days after that Rangers game, CSN's Chuck Gormley asked Karl Alzner if he thought the problem might be that the forwards were too eager to exit the defensive zone, and their stretching the ice made breaking out more difficult. Alzner said this to Gormley: "Yes. We don't have the structure. We're so excited to turn the puck over and play offense that we're forgetting about our [defensive] responsibilities."
So one line of thinking is increased efficiency in breaking out of the defensive zone will limit the opposition's chances, while increasing opportunities going the other way, therefore improving possession numbers - it's a lot easier to do what you want to through the neutral zone when you have the puck under control and haven't spent 45 seconds getting it out of your own end.
One last - and important - point: it's worth noting that when the team (this team) says they want to be a better possession team, they might not necessarily be thinking of "possession" in the same way that is has come to be defined in new-media circles. That's not to say that the organization hasn't identified the value in attempting more shots than the other, and we know that they track "touches," among other things. But their emphasis on chipping the puck out, or dumping the puck in evinces the notion that climbing the Corsi/Fenwick standings isn't necessarily on their radar, or at least is not a priority. But we already knew that, didn't we?
As Rob wrote here last week:
"Chimera seems to essentially be saying that the team is happy to give the puck away for the first 125 feet of the rink - the reality is that until this team gets better at exiting its own zone under control, you're going to see a lot of chip-and-chase."
But take heart - it's not all doom and gloom on the possession front: since returning from that ugly-ending trip out west, the Caps' possession fortunes have been looking up, as the squad has buckled down with three consecutive games in which they out-possessed (56.8% Fenwick Close overall) some mixed competition and, yes, won the hockey games too. It's too early to say they've turned the corner on possession, but it's somewhat encouraging and sets up a real interesting game tonight against one of the top puck-possession teams in the League in Minnesota. We'll certainly be paying close attention to who owns the puck tonight...
Our second question focuses on Mike Green and his up-and-down (to be generous) even-strength performance so far this season:
@JapersRink When was the last time Green had a stretch of really good 5v5 play?— GL (@imgsl57) October 29, 2013
Well, I guess that would depend, at least in part, on how you're defining "really good 5v5 play" (as well as "a stretch," but that's less critical right now).
Green actually has three even-strength assists in his last four games, which may not sound all that impressive, but consider this - that's just one less than he had all of last year (yes, really), and as many as he had the season before. We've documented how his even-strength assist-production had all but dried up, so perhaps this is an encouraging sign of things to come. Green has also been on the right side of 50% in 5v5 Corsi in seven of his last 11 games, posting a 52.5% mark over that stretch, his best run over as many games since a span from early last season (which, as you can see here, was a pretty uneven campaign).
That said, there have definitely been plenty of "what the heck is this guy doing?" moments (and games) liberally sprinkled in with the good and, more to the point, these aren't benchmarks for good play for a guy who was twice a Norris Trophy finalist and posted 40 even-strength points as recently as 2009-10. (Of course, Green isn't the only similarly situated defenseman that's been under the microscope lately.)
And it hasn't really mattered who his defensive partner has been, either - in still-small samples with Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt (his two most-frequent partners this year), he was right at 50% in both Corsi and goal percentage (as of the last update there)... which isn't quite where you'd want it, given how he's been used.
It's a bit chicken-or-egg at this point - the Caps' even-strength offense has struggled some and Green's even-strength offense has struggled with it; as the Caps' even-strength offense has rebounded, so has Green's, to an extent. Which is cause and which is effect? Probably a bit of both in both cases. But given his resume and salary, the Caps need more from Green at even-strength, and "a stretch of really good 5v5 play" would be a start.
If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. There are still a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.