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Being Up Front About the Capitals Defense

It seems that the book on the Washington Capitals in the playoff is going to be some variation on the following: great offense, mediocre defense, questions in net.  Looking at the team from the outside, it's easy to understand why.  The Caps are among the NHL leaders in both total offense and powerplay production, sport great secondary scoring, and in Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom have four elite offensive talents.  Meanwhile Jose Theodore wallows somewhere near the basement when it comes to save percentage, the team's penalty kill units are unspectacular, and the Capitals are noticeably below average when it comes to goals allowed per game.  The evidence seems to be not just in the numbers, but in our eyes as well.  While Semin dazzles with impossibly nimble hands, Green picks corners with laser-like accuracy, Backstrom makes pass after dazzling pass, Ovechkin runs roughshod over opponents, and Brooks Laich seems to produce points via sheer willpower, Jeff Schultz fumbles pucks, John Erskine struggles to keep up with shifty forwards, and Tom Poti has trouble getting the puck out of his own end.  At a cursory glace it seems that that forwards are the ones carrying the team while Theodore and the blueliners (save for Mike Green, of course) are merely along for the ride. 

However, the difficulties the Capitals have had with keeping the puck out of their own net are in large part because of the play of the team's forwards.  It's not that the team lacks defensively skilled forwards or that its forwards are disinterested in play defense.  Rather the problem is with penalties - the Capitals simply take too many and hence spend too much time trying to kill them off.

At even strength the Capitals are a good defensive team.  Five-on-five the Caps are ninth in the league in goals against per minute, fifth in shots allowed per minute, third in shot differential per minute, and sixteenth in save percentage, a number that isn't bad given Jose Theodore's poor start to season.  In addition only three of the forty goalies who have played more than thirty games have seen fewer shots per minute of even strength time than Theodore.  The problem isn't how the Capitals play defense five-on-five, it's that they don't get to play five-on-five enough - few teams spend more time in four-on-five situations or have been shorthanded more times.  Fixing that problem starts with the forwards.

As a whole, forwards have accounted for 60.3% of the minor penalties the Capitals have taken this season, a number that is arguably somewhat high given that the inherent nature of playing forward versus playing defense will generally lend itself to fewer penalties but can be somewhat explained away by the fact that more minutes are taken by forwards than defensemen.  However what really stands out is the fact that Capitals forwards are responsible for 63.5% of the team's restraining fouls and 63.3% of the team's hooking, holding, and tripping penalties, fouls that should generally only be taken when a player is beaten in the defensive zone.  Consider that the team plays a wide open style that can often leave defenseman outnumbered on odd man rushes and that nearly one in every five man-games on defenseman been played by someone who has spent most of the year in Hershey (the number is one in twenty-five for forwards) and those numbers start to look even worse.

Just how significant of an impact do the overabundance of penalties have on the Capitals goals against numbers?  Heading into Tuesday night's game the Caps have allowed 74 powerplay goals against, had been shorthanded 375 times, are killing 80.3% of their shorthanded opportunities, and are allowing 2.86 goals per game, twentieth best NHL.  Thus, assuming the same penalty kill success rate, here's how the team could have stacked up at the beginning of week:

  • A reduction in the number of time shorthanded per game to 4.16, the league median, would result in 329 penalty kill situations, 46 fewer than the team has faced this season.  Given that opponents are currently converting 19.7% of their powerplay chances against the Capitals the team's total in powerplay goals allowed would drop from 74 to 65.  As a result, the team's goals against average would drop from 2.86 to 2.78 and the team would go from being 20th in the league in goals against average to tied for 13th.
  • Getting both penalties taken and penalty killing efficiency to the league median would result in 329 penalty kill situations and an 81.6% success rate, 61 powerplay goals against, and a 2.72 goals against average, which would be good for 12th in the league.
  • Forwards reducing their restraining fouls to be equal to the number taken by defensemen would result in 68 fewer shorthanded situations and 13 fewer powerplay goals against and take the overall goals against number down to 2.73, which would be tied for 12th in the league.
  • Forwards reducing their HHT to the same number as taken by defensemen would result in 52 fewer shorthanded situations, 10 fewer powerplay goals against, and 2.77 goals against average, which would be 13th in the league.

Realistically, although the team's forwards take too many penalties it's not as if it's a problem that doesn't affect the defense - Milan Jurcina, John Erskine, and Mike Green could all stand to take fewer penalties.  Still, it is the defensive players (and to a lesser extent the defensive forwards) who bear the burden of the team's aggressive style of play and lack of discipline.

Building a successful hockey team isn't just about having the best players, it's also about putting players in situations where they can succeed.  This season's data - that the team has lost so many man-games to injury on defense, that Theodore was in a significant slump for the season's first ten weeks, and that the team has been so good five-on-five - suggests that the Capitals defense corps has been doing their job when they're put in a position to succeed.  If it's the case that this team's defense is it's weakness, it has more to do with how formidable the offense is than shortcomings on the blue line.