Let's get this out of the way at the top: the Caps' penalty kill has, for the most part, been brutal this season.
Just how bad they've been depends on your preferred metric for evaluating special teams play. At the most basic and obvious level, there's efficiency, in this case penalty-kill percentage. At the moment, the Caps are ranked 28th, at a cringe-worthy 77.8% (which is actually up a few ticks thanks to an 13-for-13 run over their last four games). That number includes an unsightly 2-for-8 killing off 3-on-5 disadvantages, but even pushing those numbers aside, the 4-on-5 unit has had a rough go of things.
If you want to dig a little deeper (and who doesn't?), we can look at the rate of shots the Caps are allowing... and it's even uglier, dead last in the League at 61.1 shots allowed per sixty minutes of 4-on-5 ice time. To put that number in perspective, it's nearly 70% more shots-per-sixty than the St. Louis Blues have allowed, and the second-worst rate over the last half-dozen seasons (the 2010-11 Coyotes allowed 61.4 shots per sixty). Unsurprisingly, more shots-against tends to lead to more goals-against.
So how'd the Caps get here? Let's take a look at the last five seasons on the kill (and note that the middle two columns relate to 4v5 stats, while the third is all-PK-inclusive):
|Season||4v5 SA/60 (Rank)||4v5 SV%||PK %|
|2007-08||50.8 (26th)||.877 (13th)||80.5 (25th)|
|2008-09||52.1 (17th)||.871 (16th)||80.6 (17th)|
|2009-10||48.5 (8th)||.855 (26th)||78.8 (25th)|
|2010-11||46.2 (5th)||.900 (7th)||85.6 (2nd)|
|2011-12||49.4 (15th)||.865 (24th)||81.6 (21st)|
|2013||61.1 (30th)||.882 (10th)||77.8 (28th)|
If you didn't believe before that there was a correlation between shots allowed and efficiency, maybe you do now - when they haven't had extreme performances in net (nice work, guys), the shots-against rate has tracked fairly closely to overall efficiency .
What are we really talking about in raw numbers when we're looking at shot rate? The Caps have allowed 61 shots/60 at 4v5 and have spent 224 minutes of ice time in those situations, so 228 shots against. If they were allowing fewer shots - say 10th-fewest in the League (Anaheim, at 45) - they'd have faced 168 shots. That's a 60 shot difference and around seven goals if their save percentage held. Coincidentally, seven is the same number of power-play goals the Caps have allowed in their nine one-goal losses. It's not a stretch to say the Caps may have left some points on the table this season simply by virtue of the number of shots they've allowed on the penalty kill.
All of this brings us to an interesting question - is the Caps' dramatic change in penalty-killing fortunes over the past few seasons the result of changes in systems or personnel? For the three seasons prior to this one, assistant coach Dean Evason was largely in charge of the penalty kill, and that obviously changed once he left the organization last summer and Adam Oates - who spent last year as an assistant for the team with the League's best PK - took over behind the bench. But the personnel and deployment of the penalty killers has varied as well. So let's look at the two points in turn, starting with "the system."
If shots-allowed was driven by the system employed, you'd expect individual numbers to increase more or less across-the-board and at a similar rate. So let's take a look at the Caps' 2013 penalty killers who were here before this season (all numbers via BtN)...
What's not important about this chart is the difficulty in identifying individual lines. What is important about this chart is the trend, and that's fairly dramatic - almost every skater has seen a large increase in the shots headed towards the Caps' cage on the penalty kill this year. In fact, the only two exceptions are Matt Hendricks and Jeff Schultz (who have seen their SA/60 improve a bit. But even with those players factored in, the average increase in SA/60 among this group is 11 shots and 25%.
That would seem like a fairly strong case for the increase in shots-allowed to be a result of the system change. Then again, perhaps the system is fine and the Caps simply don't have the right personnel to effectively execute it (or any shorthanded scheme). Here's a look at the Caps' primary penalty-killers in terms of total shorthanded ice time over the past three seasons (click to enlarge):
The changes may not seem dramatic, but they're there and would seem to be most significant in terms of defensive depth (no surprise there) and some shifts in deployment up front, either necessitated by injury (i.e. the loss of Brooks Laich) or roster changes (the losses of Boyd Gordon and Jeff Halpern in successive seasons). Interestingly enough, the Caps' shorthanded face-off percentage this season is 51.2%, just slightly down from last year's 51.5% and 2010-11's 52.2%. But the losses of guys like Gordon (who is doing a nice job suppressing shots in Phoenix) and Halpern (who's doing the same in Montreal) can't help matters.
Is Jay Beagle a "good" penalty killer? How about John Erskine? Matt Hendricks? Steve Oleksy? These guys are all getting big minutes down a man (behind stalwarts Laich, Karl Alzner and John Carlson) on a team that is hemorrhaging shots-against. To go back to our earlier question, are they the reason or victims of the system? Well, let's take a look at that chart from further up the page, except we'll clear it up be leaving just the top-five in shorthanded ice time per game:
Again, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that the system is having a significant impact here, and that certainly seemed to be the case early in the season, as Alzner implied after just two games:
"We have too much separation I think between the forwards and the [defense]," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner of the team’s penalty-killing unit. "That’s how [the Jets] scored their second goal in the last game.
"We’re playing half of what we were doing last year and half of what we’re doing this year, and it’s not the right halves. They’re not meshing with each other at all. And I’m definitely a culprit for remembering the right time to pressure now. Last year, the right time to pressure was all the time. This year, it has to be a certain moment. I think that’s where we faltered."
Alzner admits most of the problems on the penalty kill were caused by the tweaks that head coach Adam Oates has made to the penalty-killing units and the resultant overthinking that comes with trying to learn a new system without the benefit of a lot of practice. They had six days with Oates before kicking off the season in Tampa Bay Saturday night.
"There’s a little bit of running around, guys trying to figure out what position they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to cross and switch and fill lanes, " said Alzner. "It was just way overthinking it."
Alnzer thinks simplicity is more effective in Oates’s system. "I think we can get a lot more done without having to move as much," he said.
What are some of the changes that Oates has made to the penalty kill?
"I think it’s mainly the forwards switching, taking away the big, down-the-middle one-timers that you see some teams trying to set up," said Alzner." Just making sure their big shooters don’t ever get the puck, pretty much, and we gotta play good two-on-ones."
"It’s little things, but they are different, and I’m sure we’ll figure it out," he said. "It’s just things that’ll come easier after we have a couple of practices and couple of games."
Well, they had a couple of practices and a couple of games, and for a stretch in mid-February, they seemed to have been on the right track:
According to Troy Brouwer, who is fourth among forwards with an average of 1:49 of short-handed time per game, the biggest adjustments have come from communication and making sure that each movement has a purpose.
"Guys are blocking shots and making a conscious effort to be in lanes and taking away passing lanes," Brouwer said. "I think before we were just kind of mindless pressure, and we were getting exposed as a result. So now we’re slowing it down a little bit and making sure that we’re taking away lanes and being more conscious of where they are on the ice."
So, what exactly did he mean by mindless pressure?
"Mindless pressure is just when you just push all out," Brouwer explained. "There’s a loose puck, you go hard, you’re not worried about taking sticks away, you’re just focused mindlessly on the puck and trying to create pressure so the other team makes a bad play."
In essence, the Capitals’ aggressiveness on the penalty kill has become more deliberate and they’re managing to have four players work as one within the penalty-killing unit.
Holtby said the biggest difference maker for him, isn’t that they’re taking away lanes but rather that the penalty killers have found ways to clear out bodies in front and that he knows exactly what the group’s priorities are in terms of removing threats.
"It’s more the net presence. They’re doing a great job of making sure they’re on the right side fronting guys in front," Holtby said. "So I know we’re on the same page, I know where to look so there’s no confusion like there was in the first while."
That was followed by a seven-game stretch of... 75%-effective penalty killing.
Now that things are going well again, everyone's talking about what they've gone through to get to this point:
"We just wanted to rebuild the whole thing right from the get-go," said Assistant Coach Tim Hunter, who directs the penalty kill. "There’s just been a whole revelation of how to kill penalties for our guys. They went from being completely aggressive to being somewhat passive and now we’re edging toward being a little more aggressive in certain areas."
Coach Adam Oates, Hunter and the rest of the coaching staff put an end to the mantra of all-out aggression and shot-blocking at any cost that prevailed during Dale Hunter’s tenure as coach last season.
They want penalty killers standing up, focused on correct positioning in order to anticipate and guard against the next play — not diving in front of shots. Capitals penalty killers are still encouraged to block shots, but without dropping to the ice because the moment a player leaves his feet it’s more difficult, if not impossible, to recover and defend against the next play.
"When they tell you not to block a shot it’s kind of like, ‘Well, then, what do I do?’" Karl Alzner said. "Normally you go out there and you think, ‘My job is to go out there, block a shot and get it down.’ Now it’s more trying to think a little bit, think what the PP’s going to do and be ready for it — we’re trying to be a smarter hockey team."
The penalty killers weren’t the only ones who needed to adapt to the new style. Goaltender Braden Holtby was used to having clean sight lines over teammates as they blocked shots; he could more easily see the trajectory of the puck and potential deflections. Now he has to contend with many more screens.
"It was tough. At the start of the year I was wondering why I was never seeing pucks. There was constantly something in the way," Holtby said. "We changed a bit of my game to get lower on things. It exposes the top half of the net a bit more but it gives me a better chance to see around and it’s worked a lot more."
The transition was ugly at first. Penalty killers trying to reprogram themselves had to fight their shot-blocking instincts and were often caught out of position.
"There was a lot of teaching going on," Hunter explained. "When you go out and you’re on your feet, now what do you do with your stick?. . . As a forward, do something with your stick that’s useful. Put it in the right place. Deter them or try to stall them in what they want to do."
The Caps' kill is currently on a roll again, and if we discard the first 11 games of the season (as everyone is so fond of doing), they're at 81.4% for the season, which would put them solidly in the middle of the pack in terms of efficiency. Since March 19, the penalty kill has gone 50-for-58, an 86% clip, and they've cut their shots-against to around 54 per sixty... which is still too many. But it's certainly a big step in the right direction. Maybe it's all clicked. Or maybe this has just been another good stretch, like the one in February.
So to answer our question from above - is the Caps' dramatic change in penalty-killing fortunes over the past few seasons the result of changes in systems or personnel? - the answer is probably "both." It doesn't appear as if the Caps have (or have properly executed) a "good" penalty-killing system (curious, given Oates's Devils ties), but it's hard to look at some of the players who have been tasked with shorthanded duties and wonder if they're really up to the job. Either way, the bottom line is that until the shot rate is brought down a bit more, the Caps' penalty kill will continue to be a ticking time bomb, and it's unclear whether they have the personnel or the schematics to defuse it.