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Alex Ovechkin and Forwards Improving in New Structure

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Everyone knows the Caps are playing a better brand of hockey under Trotz. Here's a glance at exactly how much better it's been for the forwards in particular.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

"It was pretty consistent. They would say, 'Don't let them score on the rush. Don't let their forwards freewheel. Take away time and space. They don't do much around the net. They're not very physical. They don't block shots.' It was good information, and now I've got to get it changed. I know I can."

-  Barry Trotz on the reasons he was given for the Caps missing the playoffs last year, August 2014.

Fast approaching the halfway mark of Barry Trotz's first campaign behind the Caps' bench, an awful lot has been made regarding a polar shift in philosophy from the Adam Oates days. The perception is that this is manifest primarily in having all his forwards, regardless of skillset, play a strong two-way game.

So when the team begins playing well, and particularly when the goals against numbers trend well, you begin hearing platitudes about "buying in" or "playing the right way." Or, in some cases, you hear about the necessity for that kind of vacuous improvement during the preseason.

We already know that the Caps are a much better shot suppression team than in years past, and largely as a result of that (as well as related factors such as a stronger possession game and a new-look blueline and unrelated factors, namely some pretty great goaltending), their opponents are scoring fewer goals at even strength.

But let's not ignore the contributions the team's forwards are making. Below (via HockeyAnalysis), let's take a look at the Caps forwards, year-over-year, and quantify their improvement.

2013-2014

Player GA/60 OPP GF/60 GF Delta SA/60 Opp SF/60 SA Delta
BACKSTROM, NICKLAS 2.91 2.25 0.66 33.15 29.29 3.86
BEAGLE, JAY 1.91 2.2 -0.29 28.9 29.1 -0.20
BROUWER, TROY 2.04 2.28 -0.24 25.92 29.44 -3.52
CHIMERA, JASON 2.57 2.25 0.32 32.62 29.16 3.46
FEHR, ERIC 2.37 2.24 0.13 30.36 29.22 1.14
JOHANSSON, MARCUS 2.75 2.25 0.5 32.04 29.21 2.83
KUZNETSOV, EVGENY 2.96 2.30 0.66 33.79 29.82 3.97
LAICH, BROOKS 2.28 2.24 0.04 30.25 28.99 1.26
LATTA, MICHAEL 1.61 2.11 -0.50 29.03 28.08 0.95
OVECHKIN, ALEX 3.2 2.24 0.96 34.17 29.11 5.06
WARD, JOEL 2.41 2.25 0.16 28.17 29.17 -1.00
WILSON, TOM 1.5 2.1 -0.6 28.9 28.49 0.41

Here's a quick explanation: the column labeled "GF Delta" is the difference between the skater's actual Goals-Against per sixty minutes of five-on-five play, and the average Goals-For per 60 of his opponents, when those opponents are not facing him. So basically, if the number is a positive, the opposition (overall) performed better against the Cap skater than against the rest of the League; a negative number means production slackened when they were on-ice with that Caps' skater. All the same principles apply to the SA (Shots-Against) Delta column.

In 2013, the Caps were pretty dismal in this regard. Only Troy Brouwer and Jay Beagle cut into their foes' shot and goal production, and opposing goal scorer's eyes lit up when Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov were on the ice.

Here's the same data for this season:

Player GA/60 OPP GF/60 GF Delta SA/60 Opp SF/60 SA Delta
BACKSTROM, NICKLAS 2.37 2.13 0.24 24.28 28.97 -4.69
BEAGLE, JAY 2.62 2.04 0.58 28.42 28.16 0.26
BROUWER, TROY 2.65 2.1 0.55 28.50 28.43 0.07
BURAKOVSKY, ANDRE 2.7 2.1 0.60 27.17 28.38 -1.21
CHIMERA, JASON 2.28 2.08 0.20 26.41 28.54 -2.13
FEHR, ERIC 1.75 2.12 -0.37 25.72 28.67 -2.95
JOHANSSON, MARCUS 2.58 2.09 0.49 28.38 28.38 0
KUZNETSOV, EVGENY 1.6 2.09 -0.49 30.37 27.95 2.42
LAICH, BROOKS 2.02 2.14 -0.12 30.55 29.20 1.35
LATTA, MICHAEL 0.88 1.94 -1.06 25.72 27.34 -1.62
OVECHKIN, ALEX 2.51 2.14 0.37 25.32 29.01 -3.69
WARD, JOEL 2.25 2.14 0.11 26.89 28.92 -2.03
WILSON, TOM 2 2.12 -0.12 25.67 28.83 -3.16

That's a lot of negatives in the far right column, which means the Caps forwards are providing more stifling defense than their opponents are used to. That still hasn't manifest as goal reduction quite to the degree you'd hope for, but over the course of a full season, it should.

Evgeny Kuznetsov and Michael Latta have slowed the production of the opposition, while Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Jay Beagle have opened the gates a little bit.

But this data doesn't exist in a vacuum, and with a new coach and a new system, what really matters is whether things are actually getting better.

To try to answer that, we're going to look at those deltas year over year, which will yield a stat that I'll dub "Improvement Delta" (since "Delta Delta" sounds silly). First, the on-ice goal data:

Player Name 2013 GF Delta 2014 GF Delta GF Improvement Delta
BEAGLE, JAY -0.29 0.58 -0.87
BROUWER, TROY -0.24 0.55 -0.79
JOHANSSON, MARCUS 0.5 0.49 0.01
OVECHKIN, ALEX 0.96 0.34 0.62
BACKSTROM, NICKLAS 0.66 0.24 0.42
CHIMERA, JASON 0.32 0.20 0.12
WARD, JOEL 0.16 0.11 0.05
WILSON, TOM -0.6 -0.12 -0.48
LAICH, BROOKS 0.04 -0.12 0.16
FEHR, ERIC 0.13 -0.37 0.50
KUZNETSOV, EVGENY 0.66 -0.49 1.15
LATTA, MICHAEL -0.5 -1.06 0.56

Check it out. Here, improvement is represented by a positive delta. Even though at first glance it looks like the Caps are a bit of an easier team to score on at even strength than the league average, what this shows is they're closing the gap. Almost every single forward on the team has seen improvement from last year, and the only one who aren't explicitly improving, are the two stingiest defensive forwards from last year.

For shot suppression, the improvement is even more stark:

Player Name 2013 SA Delta 2014 SA Delta Improvement Delta
BEAGLE, JAY -0.2 0.26 -0.46
BROUWER, TROY -3.52 0.07 -3.59
JOHANSSON, MARCUS 2.83 0 2.83
OVECHKIN, ALEX 5.06 -3.69 8.75
BACKSTROM, NICKLAS 3.86 -4.69 8.55
CHIMERA, JASON 3.46 -2.13 5.59
WARD, JOEL -1 -2.03 1.03
WILSON, TOM 0.41 -3.16 3.57
LAICH, BROOKS 1.26 1.35 0.09
FEHR, ERIC 1.14 -2.95 4.09
KUZNETSOV, EVGENY 3.97 2.42 1.55
LATTA, MICHAEL 0.95 -1.62 2.57

This is "buying in" quantified — a verification of the usually meaningless praises sung by talking heads when new coaches start seeing success. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are seeing an almost nine-shot swing in their favor per 60 minutes of five-a-side ice time (these two are also seeing major upticks in their FF%— the best defense is a great offense, right?). Really impressive, and for damn sure a recipe for success — with the lion's share of the ice time, those 60 minutes are resetting frequently.

In 2013, the forward corps allowed, on average, 1.5 more shots per 60 minutes of even strength ice time, than the opposition's average when they weren't playing the Caps. This season, opponents can expect almost 1.5 fewer shots per 60. That's an incredible reversal.

It's difficult to say whether these numbers are a result of the structure an experienced coach like Trotz has brought to the ice, or whether they're result of a competent blue line, where positive trends for GA, SA, and Improvement Deltas are all mirrored. The answer is that probably both of those factors are considerable, but it doesn't negate that the Caps forwards are playing well inside that structure.

And if the theory of "If Alex Ovechkin buys in then his teammates will follow" holds any water, well, he's certainly leading the charge in turning around his game.

Lead on, captain.