Japers' Rink Mailbag: Capitals Olympic Hopefuls and the Penalty Kill

Photo via @PaceSagester

Olympic hopefuls and some penalty kill thoughts in our latest installment of "you ask, we answer"

Our first question this week (which is actually two questions, one of which we've been holding onto for a while) goes to Rob and is timely in the wake of Team USA and Team Canada holding their respective orientation camps earlier in the week:

Capitals fans have been speculating on the USA and Canadian Olympic rosters since well before camps opened, wondering which players may make their national teams. John Carlson and Braden Holtby in particular have lots of competition on their respective squads (at least in terms of quantity, if not necessarily quality) - so let's take a look at their respective chances, starting with the Real American Hero.

While it's hard to tell what the Team USA braintrust is thinking, some well-respected writers have Carlson on the outside looking in. Of course, there are also predictions that have Carlson on the team, so it's not entirely clear where Carlson falls in the pecking order, but it's safe to say that, in aggregate, he's probably a bubble player. However, when looking at the field of available defensemen, even labeling Carlson as a bubble player is baffling, considering how he stacks up against his American-born competition.

There are five incumbents from the 2010 Team USA Olympic roster (Ryan Suter, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, Brooks Orpik, and Paul Martin, who was injured but an original choice for the team). That isn't to say that each of these players is a lock to make the team, but they do have the inside track and Team USA historically places a lot of value on prior international participation. On quality of play, Suter is the only clear lock in that group. The Johnsons both have extensive experience playing for Team USA, and always seem to be favorites among the men picking the team, in part due to their loyalty - when asked, they've shown up. Orpik and Martin seem to be the easiest players to supplant, but their NHL head coach is going to be Team USA's head coach, so some home cooking wouldn't be entirely shocking. Still, even if all five incumbents are on the roster (and I do not believe they should be), that leaves three or four spots open for new blood.

When we start to talk about the qualitative aspects Team USA will need on defense, the pendulum swings in Carlson's favor. There are a lot of offensive defensemen on the Team USA invite list, enough to run three or four power play units. Unfortunately for Team USA, the value of that depth is limited as there is realistically only enough ice time for a couple of power plays (especially as some of the defensively capable D, like Suter, can also step in on a PP unit). And considering that the other strong teams in the tournament (Sweden, Canada, Russia among them) all have a lot of forward depth, it becomes clear that Team USA will need some D that can play in their own end, at even-strength and to kill penalties.

To that end, let's take a look at how the candidates who were at camp this week and who played in the NHL last year were used (at even strength) by their coaches last season, and how they performed, via Hockey Abstract. (Team USA and Nashville Predators GM David Poile did say that players could make the team despite not being invited, and we'd nominate Matt Carle on that front, but we'll stick to the guys that are at camp since they seem to be the most likely choices.)

Usa_d_medium

Carlson and Ryan McDonagh are the only two players who are solidly in the shutdown quadrant, with positive Corsi Rel numbers. If Team USA wants to add players that can handle tough minutes (as all the minutes will be, particularly once the medal rounds start), they need to be looking at these two. Sure, there are several rearguards that played shutdown minutes, but Carlson and McDonagh are really the only two guys that did it well. There's very little chance that McDonagh isn't on Team USA, and there should be only the slightest bit more chance that Carlson isn't. And keep in mind that Carlson played his minutes with John Erskine; it's likely that his bubble would have been even more impressive if he had a better defensive partner, as he would have on the Team USA roster.

Further, while Adam Oates will not be part of the Team USA decision-making process (though that hasn't stopped him from lobbying on behalf of Carlson), our experience with Oates as a head coach this season has made us acutely aware of the left/right breakdown among blueliners. When Carlson is compared to the other right-handed defensemen, the list of competition becomes even thinner, and the choice even more obvious. The other righties at Team USA camp are Zach Bogosian, Dustin Byfuglien, Justin Faulk, Erik Johnson, Seth Jones, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Jacob Trouba.

How many of those guys are better than Carlson? Jones and Trouba haven't even worn an NHL jersey yet, and as good as they will be, it's a real long shot that they are going to be better players than Carlson by the time the Sochi Olympics roll around. Byfuglien appears decent on the usage chart above, but there is simply no way he's as qualified as Carlson to play minutes against a line centered by Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews. Shattenkirk is a nice player, but he's never been counted on to handle the same kind of responsibilities as Carlson. I'm a big fan of Faulk, but he's not on Carlson's level yet, and right now he fits into the crowded PP specialist category. The story is similar for Danny DeKeyser. He looked good in his short stint last season, but wasn't playing tough minutes and needs a larger body of work to show he belongs. Bogosian, despite his recent contract, is not yet the player that Carlson is. While he did face very tough assignments, he didn't perform as well as Carlson. It's tempting to say that Bogosian suffered from being on a much weaker team, but his difficult minutes came playing with Ron Hainsey, who is much better than Erskine. Even Erik Johnson, a likely legacy choice, is not as good as Carlson is. Everyone values players a little bit differently, but we have Carlson as the best righty option that Team USA has. Even accounting for subjective differences, it's hard to imagine pushing Carlson below third on the right handed depth chart.

Ultimately, our selections for Team USA defense (assuming eight rearguards are chosen) would be: Suter, McDonagh, Carlson, Shattenkirk, Erik Johnson, Martin, Carle and then one of Byfuglien/Yandle/Jack Johnson to serve as a power-play specialist. There's a lot of room for debate over a couple of those selections, but the bottom line is that if John Carlson is not on the Team USA roster, the team simply won't be taking their best players to Sochi.

Braden Holtby is in a bit of a different situation. Team Canada only invited five goalies to camp, so there is less competition for a spot, but obviously there are fewer spots to fight for as well. Holtby's competition includes Roberto Luongo, Corey Crawford, Carey Price, and Mike Smith. Fans from Carolina to Pittsburgh to Edmonton were indignant over perceived snubs of their goalie, but it's hard to say that any of the goalies in question (Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Devan Dubnyk, respectively) are better than Holtby. Ward is still riding on the reputation of one hot streak at the right time, while Fleury is riding on this number one overall draft status and being the guy on a stacked team - and both have shown themselves to be average goaltenders in the NHL over the past several seasons. Dubnyk, aside from putting up an admirable performance on a defensively challenged team, hasn't done anything that Holtby hasn't done (and on the flip side hasn't done some of the things Holtby has... like win games that matter).

Team Canada isn't looking for a goalie that is going to steal games. Team Canada is looking for a goalie that won't lose games behind a loaded roster (and for that reason alone, Fleury is out). Luongo has already won gold with Team Canada and been to a Stanley Cup final. He's a lock to make the team, and probably goes in as the starter. Crawford just won the Cup playing behind a stacked roster. His play was quite a bit better than "didn't lose it for his team," though ultimately he's got more to prove to show that he's more than an average goalie. Still, the experience of winning a Cup with great teammates will surely be enticing to the Team Canada staff. Price and Smith have put up great numbers as starters on teams that didn't have elite rosters, but they haven't done a whole lot in the playoffs (although Smith did get to the Western Conference Finals with Phoenix in 2012, which is more than Holtby can say).

Even-strength save percentage is generally the most accepted measure of a goalie's skill, and in that regard, Holtby stacks up pretty well. Last season he was sixth (tied with Cory Schneider, a Team USA hopeful) in ESSV% among goalies that played 30 games, at .931. Crawford is the only Team Canada invite above Holtby on that list. In 2011-12, Holtby only played seven regular season games, but had a .932 ESSV%, but followed it up with a .940 in 14 playoff games. In 14 games in 2010-11, he was at .930. Holtby's body of work is not as substantial as the rest of the Team Canada field, but with each passing game and season, Holtby looks more impressive, and over the three year sample he's top ten in ESSV%, with Luongo as the only Canadian goalie above him. Unlike most of the other Canadian options, there's a very low chance (~8%) that Holtby is simply an average goalie getting lucky. There's no reason, aside from age, that he doesn't belong in camp, and on individual performance alone he looks like a legitimate option for Team Canada. And we know he's unlikely to flinch under pressure...

Peverleymockslash-boston04252012_medium

My guess is that Luongo and Crawford end up with the top two spots in Team Canada's crease, mostly based on being "proven winners." There's a tsunami of narrative that Luongo is a choker, but he's been an elite goalie in the NHL for a long time, and given that gold medal, I don't think Team Canada brass will be swayed by the public opinion (though Luongo was mediocre, at best, in that 2010 gold medal game). That means the rest of the field is battling for the third spot in net - and that's where I think Holtby's biggest advantage is.

The third goaltending spot is frequently given to young goalies to give them some exposure to what the Olympic atmosphere is like; he is rarely going to play, so it's not as much a question about how to make the team better now as it is how to make the team better next time around. Consider Team Russia and Team USA in this regard. Jonathan Quick was Team USA's third goalie in 2010, and he'll enter the 2014 camp as the prohibitive favorite to start. Will the 2010 experience help him? We hope so. Russia brought Semyon Varlamov as the third goalie in 2010, and while his status on Team Russia is not as certain as Quick's is with Team USA, he's still a front runner to make the team. So, in that context, Holtby looks like a solid option for Team Canada. He's younger than his competitors and is already showing signs that he may be a truly elite goaltender. If Team Canada wants to prepare for the future, Holtby is the third goalie they should bring.

Personally, if I were picking for Team Canada, I'd take Fleury, Martin Brodeur, and Steve Mason. All three have the hardware to prove they're elite performers. Can't go wrong with that.

Next up, a question about the penalty kill and the frequency with which it's on likely to be on the ice in 2013-14:

Let's take this one piece-by-piece. The Caps did, indeed, have an awful penalty kill overall in 2013, finishing 27th in the League in efficiency and 29th in 4-on-5 shots-against rate (which means it could've been worse if not for the netminders posting the sixth-best 4-on-5 save percentage in the League).

But there were certainly stretches over which they were good, and they finished strong, hitting their high-water mark in penalty-kill percentage on the last day of the season (at a woeful 77.9%, thanks to an 81.2% second half and an 84.8% fourth quarter) before killing 26 of 28 penalties against the Rangers in the playoffs. Throw out those first 11 games of the season - i.e. the generally accepted adjustment period everyone's so fond of excusing - and the kill was 81.3% effective, which would have been a perfectly middling efficiency. So things probably look a bit worse than they were, but they still weren't great, and Tim Hunter, who had a role in all of it as an assistant coach, was replaced over the summer (for much more on the PK, check out the post linked in the sidebar).

The second part of the lead up to the question notes that the Caps were strong at five-on-five. Well... yes and no. They had a pretty good goals-for/against ratio, but take your pick of possession metrics (shots, Corsi or Fenwick) and the Caps were in the bottom third of the League. They did what they did at five-on-five largely thanks to a high PDO (which you can read up on a bit here). Then the script flipped in the playoffs and they dominated possession but "puck luck" deserted them. Go figure. But that's not really what this question is about, so we'll move on.

Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks finished one-two on the Caps in penalty minutes during last year's regular season, but that includes seven majors (all fights) and a misconduct for Hendricks and a fighting major (remember that one?) and two misconducts for Ribeiro, so that's 75 of 126 minutes that didn't impact manpower at all. The Caps' leader in minor penalties in 2013? That would be Alex Ovechkin with 18 (Hendricks and Ribeiro, along with Jason Chimera, each clocked in in second place with 14). Hendricks did lead the team in five-on-five penalties-taken rate (at 1.5 per sixty minutes of ice time), though, and Ribeiro wasn't too far behind (at 0.9).

That brings us to Mikhail Grabovski, who took just 0.6 penalties per sixty minutes of five-on-five hockey in 2013, which was more or less in line with his previous years' rates. I guess we can add another bullet point in the "pro-Grabovski" column.

All of this bring us to the payoff, which is something we've harped on seemingly forever when talking about special teams - while it's easy to get hung up on efficiency (be it penalty kill or power-play percentage), it's critically important to consider the frequency that those special teams units are on the ice. A terrible penalty kill doesn't hurt a well-disciplined team nearly as much as it does a team that cuts ruts in the ice to the penalty box; a great power-play doesn't do nearly as much good for a team that never has the puck and can't draw penalties. Last year, the Caps' penalty kill was bad and they took a lot of penalties (14th in the League, though for much of the season worse than that). Take a look at where the Caps were relative to the rest of the League on each day of last season in terms of penalty kill percentage and times shorthanded (image is ours, via McKeen's):

Capitals_2013_pk_medium

They never could quite get to the median in times-shorthanded and never really got close in penalty kill percentage. The Caps lived in that lower-right quadrant all season, and that's just not a good place to be.

So how do they get out of there? The off-season personnel moves the Caps have made might help a bit with the discipline portion of the equation, and if the penalty kill from the end of 2013 is what Caps fans should expect going forward, they could cross onto the right side of each of these League averages. And not to beat a dead horse, but an upgrade in the top-four defensemen could - should - help in both areas.

***

Agree? Disagree?

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. It's a long summer and there are a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.

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