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The Missing Piece: Goaltending

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How a slow start in net has resulted in a slow start in the standings

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Losing streaks and light schedules aren't necessarily a great combination for hockey teams or the people who cover them - too much time to think and write. We've talked (and talked) and written about turnovers and mental lapses, leadership and lousy luck, and how truly unlikely this whole stretch has been. But one thing we know is that things are rarely as bad as they seem when a team is losing (or as good as they seem when they're winning), and that's certainly the case here.

All that said, at some point you have to evaluate the team's performance between the pipes. We've touched on it a bit (and a bit more), but given the importance of the position, let's touch on it a bit more here, shall we?

Frankly, it's difficult to win hockey games when your goalies are stopping less than 90% of the shots that they're facing, and that's where Braden Holtby and Justin Peters are right now, well below that bare minimum Mendoza line. Take a look at how they got there, via Talk The Red's Stephen Hudson's compilation:

To be sure, some of the goals are not on the goalies (who also have gone above and beyond at times to keep shot attempts from ending up on the "highlight" reel above). But others, well, they are. And while Peters' struggles might not be too terribly surprising (he is, after all, a back-up), Holtby's early-season numbers are nearly as shocking as they are ugly. Holtby is "the guy" for this team and for good reason - he has a track record of being a top-ten NHL goaltender, but his early-season numbers sure don't indicate that he's been playing like one.

Thanks to the good folks over at War-On-Ice we have access to some detailed information about the shots that Holtby (and the rest of the League's goalies) have faced so far this year. Using that data, War-On-Ice created an adjusted save percentage to reflect the difficulty of shots faced (based upon shot location). Here is how Holtby compares to his peers:

Adj SV% 2

Holtby has the worst five-on-five adjusted save percentage in the National Hockey League. Holtby has, by this metric at least, been the single worst goalie in the League so far this season. So it's fair to say that he's not playing well. That said, we know that he can, and eventually will, bounce back - his performance thus far has simply been unsustainably bad.

But why?

According to Holtby, it might have something to to with the Capitals' decreased shot-volume against:

"It seems like when a team like us, where our defense is so good at getting stick on puck and the gaps are so good, you don’t get a lot of those feel-good shots.... It seems like every shot is interior or screens. I’d rather have it that way than the other way with a lot more to the net, where there’s chances of stuff going wrong."

So better defense (or, at a minimum, better shot suppression) has led to worse goaltending? At first glance this claim appears to have little merit based upon the chart above - if Holtby was facing a large number of shots from a high percentage area it would show up in his adjusted save percentage. But, intuitively, it makes some sense - if fewer low-percentage shots are getting through, that's theoretically fewer stat-padding easy saves (though, as Holtby notes, "there's chances of stuff going wrong."). And with a little more digging, the war-on-ice numbers seem to back-up what Holtby saying:

High%2

Holtby is facing a very low number of high percentage shots per sixty minutes of five-on-five play (less than six), but those high percentage shots account for 24% of the total shots he faces over those sixty minutes (versus just over 21% last season). So while Holtby isn't facing a lot of "interior" shots, a relatively larger percentage of the shots that he's facing are from those high percentage areas.

Generally speaking, however, there's not enough evidence to conclude that decreased shot volumes results in lower save percentages. As Tom Awad noted in the most recent edition of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract:

"Overall, the goalies who face relatively fewer shots, like Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford,Jimmy Howard and anyone who plays for the New Jersey Devils, fare no better nor worse than those who routinely get shelled, like Toronto's goalies."

Regardless, Holtby's poor save percentage is not warranted by the shots - quantity or quality - the Caps are yielding. His problems between the pipes may be between the ears - it seems reasonable to expect it might be difficult for a goalie to adjust to a(nother) new coach and system. The good news is that the Caps' defense appears to truly be solid; the bad news is that the goaltending has been abysmal. In terms of long-term success, this actually bodes well for the team, as it seems far more likely that the goaltending will get better than that the defense will get worse.

The big takeaway from last season was that the Capitals needed to limit the amount of shots-against each night in order to cede fewer goals, and they have done so. If you want proof of how impactful that has been, look no further than Holtby himself, who has actually lowered his goals against average by nearly two-tenths of a point (2.85 to 2.67), despite having fallen off the cliff in save percentage (.915 to .891). As visualized in the charts above, and reflected in the team's incredibly improved possession numbers, the Capitals are not giving up a lot of shots (nor a large number of high percentage shots) but they are yielding a lot of goals. The team is not losing due to bad habits, a lack of effort, general misfortune, or even the occasional unnecessary turnover... they are losing due to poor goaltending.

On the bright side, we know it's going to get better.