Back in mid-November we expressed some concern over the way the Capitals were playing when they held a lead. It's been less than four weeks and only 11 games since, and the Caps have only held leads in five of those games, for a total of just over 149 minutes (third-lowest ice time with a lead in the League over that span, ahead of only Colorado and Edmonton). But some recent performances have brought the issue back to the forefront, specifically last Saturday's game against New Jersey.
Here's the Corsi timeline for that game (via hockeystats.ca; note that the Caps took a 2-1 lead at 9:15 of the second period and pushed the lead to 3-1 3:25 later):
The Caps attempted just 11 shots (and put seven on goal) in the 26:55 after Evgeny Kuznetsov made it 3-1 before Brooks Laich hit an empty net to make it 4-1. Over the same stretch, the Devils attempted 35 shots, with 18 requiring Braden Holtby to make a save. Now, it's important to note that the Caps did still beat the Devils, that they were playing that entire span with a two-goal cushion, and that despite getting hemmed into their own zone for almost the entire third period they did not give up a goal. But poor play with good results hardly makes the poor play any less poor. And while this was just one game, it's somewhat indicative of a larger issue when it comes to puck possession.
The Capitals fell out of the League's top-10 in terms of Score-Adjusted-Corsi following the game against New Jersey, and though the team's possession numbers are still good in aggregate, they've certainly fallen off from what was a great start. A big part of the Capitals recent puck possession woes can be traced back to what's going on in their own zone. The following is a graph that details how the Capitals' attempted shots-against rate has evolved as the season has gone on:
Note: Graph generated using data from Puck On Net. For a reason unknown to us, there appears to be a data disagreement between the data presented here and the data from Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com (H.A). In our previous post on this topic we used data from H.A, which would explain inconsistencies between the two posts... but the underlying points are still just as valid, as the trends shown in the data are mirrored across both sites.
As you can see the Caps have been giving up more shot attempts regardless of the score as the year has gone on. There's is a noticeable gap based on the different score situations, a gap which is to be expected (these are "score effects")... but it's the size of the gap that is somewhat unexpected. More on that in a moment, but first, here's what's happening at the other end of the ice, the graph with the Capitals' attempted-shots-for rate for throughout the year (again, via Puck On Net):
So over the course of the season the Capitals have allowed more shot attempts across all score states, generally without really offsetting those increases by generating more offense of their own. Put it all together and here's where the Capitals' rank (as of Monday afternoon) in each score state based upon Corsi-For percentage from our two data sources (Puck On Net and H.A.):
|As of 12/8/14||Down 2+||Down 1||Tied||Up 1||Up 2+|
|Puck On Net||11th (60.7%)||4th (62.6%)||13th (52.0%)||14th (46.5%)||26th (36.7%)|
|Hockey Analysis||7th (60.4%)||4th (60.2%)||14th (51.6%)||15th (47.1%)||26th (37.9%)|
As you can see the numbers don't fall exactly in line, which is a little troubling, but nonetheless the general trends do remain. The Caps' overall possession numbers have decayed rather steadily since the end of October, but we don't even have to go that far back to see a decline in play. Here are the ranks and percentages as they were a little less than a month ago:
|As of 11/14/14||Down 2+||Down 1||Tied||Up 1||Up 2+|
|Puck On Net||6th (61.3%)||4th (64.3%)||7th (53.2%)||11th (47.9%)||17th (41.6%)|
The Caps have seen their possession erode across every score state in both raw percentages and rank (with the exception of that "Down 1" status quo), and per the charts above the problem appears to be connected more to a loss (or perhaps just a regression) of shot suppression more than anything else. The Caps have been generating more shot attempts recently, but the increase has not kept pace with the increase of attempts against.
So what gives?
Earlier in the season, playing with the lead was pretty clearly the Caps biggest puck possession-related problem, so we took a look at how the Capitals were deploying their players with a lead versus when the game is tied. Due to the way that the Capitals' possession numbers have deteriorated across all score states, there may be some value in comparing the Vollman usage charts across all score states from before and after November 14th (charts from War-On-Ice).
The most obvious change is the clear development of clusters. The evidence of Barry Trotz's early line tinkering can be seen in the widespread distribution of players in the first chart. But once Trotz settled on his desired combinations and deployments, the players start showing up in clusters (with the ever-shuffling rookies and fourth-liners being exceptions). If the team's drop-off in possession is related to personnel - the result of sub-optimal line combinations and/or deployments - this would be where we might see it.
Regarding those rookies (one of whom has centered the second line on a nightly basis), neither Andre Burakovsky nor Kuznetsov has been exceptional of late, and while the cause(s) of their recent struggles are open to debate, the presence of those struggles is evident. One plausible theory is that Burakovsky's and Kuznetsov's numbers are taking a big hit due to Mike Green's injury - while on the ice with Green, Burakovsky sees 58.9% of all shot attempts go towards the opponents net while Kuznetsov sees 58.5%. Both Burakovsky and Kuznetsov have spent at least 25% of their five-on-five ice time with Green... which is a lot when you consider the amount of time Green has missed. The team's numbers were declining before Green's injury, but the team (and apparently their rookies) is certainly missing their best puck-possession defenseman.
Personnel is one piece of the puzzle, though, and systems and schemes are another.
Let's take a look back at what we said back in June about Trotz and zone entries:
Barry Trotz used a conservative approach in Nashville (Nashville dumped the puck for over 57% of their even strength zone entries), but he should change that in Washington - the Caps have not been particularly good at recovering the puck after depositing it into the zone. So here's a chance for Trotz to make good on his claim that he's going to let the talent dictate the way the team plays - the skill level of Washington's forwards is high, but their puck possession numbers have eroded over the last couple of seasons. If Trotz is able to increase the shot generating efficiency of Washington's top players without making them carry the puck significantly less, the Capitals will be a successful team next season.
Well the good news is that the Capitals do have better puck possession numbers this year than they did at this point last year. The bad news is that their record isn't much improved and the games have been relatively slow moving... but the team is generating more shots while allowing fewer than they did a season ago and that's a big positive. But one thing that does not seem to be driving the team's shot attempts is controlled entries.
As noted above, Nashville very rarely entered the offensive zone with control, an assertion can actually be revised based upon the latest information that we have available from Corey Sznajder's work - in 2013-14 Nashville appears to have been the worst team in the entire League when it came to entering the offensive zone with control (you can take our word for it, or kick Corey a few bucks and check for yourself). So if your eyes are telling you that Washington is dumping the puck a little more than necessary, you're probably not wrong. It's definitely something worth keeping an eye on moving forward (and as we track entries ourselves).
We won't know until we are further into the entry tracking, but it's possible the team started dumping the puck with much more frequency following their trip to western Canada:
"Teams were really clogging us up and when we needed to chip pucks and have self-retrieval we we're trying to dangle," Trotz said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. "I call it analytics death. There's a time to carry and there's a time to self-chip it. You've got all the speed so self-chip it, get on the other side of the guy, and hang onto it. We were trying to dangle guys."
The pro-hockey analytics crowd argues that dumping the puck in is a bad play because why give the puck up just to go try to retrieve it? Trotz understands that point of view, but he said it doesn't take into account how a team is defending its blue line and the moment in the game.
What he saw in Western Canada was his team trying to force the puck into the zone too often only to either lose it or lose momentum.
"That takes all of your speed away," he said. "You get into that transition game and you're on the wrong side of the puck. I love that we have the skill that we can carry the puck in, but there are times when we can't and we still want to carry the puck in. It's those little decisions on this trip that we weren't as strong as we needed to be."
There does appear to be a general lack of offensive creativity with the team, specifically with the more gifted offensive players and particularly around the offensive blueline. It's hard to not assume that some of that is based upon Trotz's desire to play more of a 'north-south' style of hockey (which typically may not take full advantage of individual skill).
But zone entries aren't just about a forward making a choice when he is at the offensive blueline - a successful entry is often predicated around the breakout which leads to it... which leads us to another problem. The Caps have been having trouble executing their breakout passes, and the result is that they're struggling to generate speed through the neutral zone. With speed, a player they can either chip the puck or attempt to carry it into the zone (even though only one of those options is considered "controlled'); without speed, a player doesn't have many alternatives to dumping the puck which, of course, is the least likely way to generate offense on an entry.
Granted, it's not as if dump-ins never result in offensive opportunities, they just tend to require the defense to make a mistake and are thus less repeatable:
You can view the enlarged version of all the GFY by following the embedded links
The best way for the Capitals to stabilize their puck possession numbers is to assert themselves more on the breakout. Rather than panic in their own defensive zone once they have established possession, the Caps need to look to quickly move the puck up ice. Here are two examples of poor breakouts, but they're not all this bad, nor would we expect them all to be perfect. First here:
You can see a couple more here and here.If you want to learn about what the breakout should look like, you can check out Patrick Holden's piece over at Russian Machine Never Breaks.
Sometimes an aggressive breakout will result in a turnover, but more often than not it's the right play, not necessarily because it will produce more offense (but it should), but because it takes pressure off of the defense. The increased shot volume the Capitals are facing seems to come as result of consecutive entries for their opposition which in turn lead to sustained pressure. By executing their breakouts better Washington will see an uptick in their possession numbers by simultaneously increasing their own shot rate while decreasing their opponents'.
All of this isn't to say the situation is dire in any respect - it's important to note that the team is still a better possession team this year than they were last... but they won't be celebrating that improvement if it's not enough to get the team into the playoffs, so the sooner they turn around some of these current trends, the better.