The Capitals will wrap up a home-and-home with the New York Islanders tonight, a two-game set which has offered Washington a chance to show that it belongs among the East's top teams. If the first of the two games is any indication, however, the Caps have plenty of work to do, as Washington was overmatched on Wednesday night (final score notwithstanding), continuing a bit of a downward spiral.
On a numbers basis, a month ago, it was hard to see this coming. After being one of the strongest possession teams through October, the Caps have had a much tougher time in November, and have now fallen out of the top 10 in score-adjusted Corsi. This sort of fall isn't unheard of—but most teams who are able to possess the puck as well as Washington did don't see as much of a drop-off, and most of the teams that had as strong underlying numbers in October are still near the top of the league in possession.
The decline still leaves the Caps in a much better position than they were in last season, and it's not something that seems to concern the coaching staff and management, but it is a big blow to fall from potential "championship contender" level puck possession to "good, not great."
So why has Washington fallen off?
Let's first look at strength of schedule.
(score-adjusted Corsi via Puck On Net)
The Caps had strong possession numbers playing strong possession teams at home, and have fallen off playing weaker teams - first at home, and then on the road. I suspect the actual explanation lies elsewhere. Let's move on.
How about the blueline?
It doesn't look like there's much to see here. If we could point to a single culprit pair, we'd see that pair fall off while the others remained steady. But that hasn't been the case—all three pairs have seen their possession come down together over the last 10 games, albeit to slightly varying degrees. While the John Carlson - Brooks Orpik pair has broken that trend over the last couple of games, that could merely be a byproduct of the absence of Mike Green, whose presence would bring up both the black and red lines.
How about the forwards?
This is interesting. We have different lines going in different directions. For a few games, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov saw their possession numbers go in the opposite direction as the team's, while the first and third lines saw their possession crater. As Adam noted earlier in the week, the top line's rebound can largely be attributed to a dominant performance against Buffalo, an awful possession team (to be generous). Still, it's worth looking at the forward lines in more depth to try to figure out what's been going on.
(I'll call the Jason Chimera line the third line, though it's worth noting that he plays slightly more per game at even strength than "second-line center" Burakovsky.)
First, it's worth looking at context. What we could have are team-wide declines masked by role changes - maybe a struggling line starts seeing easier minutes, mitigating its fall-off while exacerbating that of the other trios. We can check this theory by looking at the team's usage charts for October (left) and November (right).
(larger version here)
It looks like every player in the top nine got worse at possession, which suggests a team-wide issue.
Let's try one more thing: lineup construction. Could the rotating case of right wingers explain what's been going on?
Looking at the graphs, it's a plausible theory, for the top line, at least:
With either Eric Fehr or Troy Brouwer on the right side, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had the better of possession. The arrivals of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson on their wing coincided with their possession falling, zone start push notwithstanding. (The spike at the end is mostly thanks to a that Buffalo game.) Correlation isn't always causation, but here, given the players involved, it wouldn't be surprising if Beagle and Wilson are the biggest reasons why the top line hasn't been controlling the puck lately.
Let's take a look at the third line, which has seen a huge drop in possession.
The Chimera-Fehr-Ward line hasn't been able to control play as well as it did last year, and, in fact, it looks like the Chimera-Ward duo may simply not be that effective anymore. (Granted, a rookie wing-turned-center, a veteran winger-turned-part-time-center, and a fourth-liner haven't exactly provided great support down the middle.)
Chimera has actually been an effective option for Washington off defensive-zone draws and has been playing 50-50 hockey in "open play," at least, as far as Corsi is concerned. Where he and his linemates have fallen short thus far is mainly after faceoffs. Take a look:
These aren't big sample sizes, but looking back at what's already happened, what the Caps have been doing with Chimera on the ice after neutral- and offensive-zone draws hasn't worked over the first 20-plus games. His centers' aptitude in the faceoff circle isn't even a big factor, either - Chimera's on-ice numbers have been ugly after offensive-zone losses and both neutral-zone wins and losses.
Again, correlation isn't causation, so this may not be Chimera's fault. It's up to the coaching staff to go through the video to figure out what's going on (if anything).
* * *
So why has the Caps' possession fallen off? It looks like team-wide issues are a culprit, but so is the choice of right wing on each line - the early season choices worked, while the recent ones have not.
What can the Caps do to help improve their puck possession?
- Get Green - the team's best possession player - back in the lineup, and give him more ice time. Reduce the minutes for Orpik and Carlson at even strength.
- Play Fehr or Brouwer next to Ovechkin and Backstrom (again, this should be pretty obvious at this point).
- Address team-wide issues like systems/work ethic/preparation.
- See if Michael Latta and Kuznetsov can give the team good possession play from the fourth line, and if they can, use them more frequently. They might be able to replace Chimera, Ward and Beagle, if the team's recent issues with those three on the ice is a personnel problem instead of a system problem (or randomness, which is a factor in small samples).
- More generally, look at how the team fares with Chimera on the ice after faceoffs, and decide whether the issues thus far are player-related or system-related; if the former, find other players to start their shifts with those faceoffs instead of Chimera.
- Alternatively, shuffle the bottom-six to get something closer resembling the early season lineup. A healthy Brooks Laich would help here.
The first two ideas may make a significant difference and are easy changes to make. The third is a difficult change to make, but could also make a big difference. The others probably won't. But margins are thin in this league, and every little bit the Caps fix helps determine whether they'll be great - or merely good - in the relatively weak Eastern Conference.