Among the many areas in which the Washington Capitals needed to get dramatically better in the wake of the dismissal of Adam Oates following the train wreck that was the 2013-14 season, none was more critical than the team's even-strength play.
Sure enough, the Caps have gotten much better at five-a-side. Here's a quick look at the improvements (data in this post via HockeyAnalysis):
That's literally an across-the-board betterment, with the exception of shooting and save percentages (which should rebound a bit and help those goal differential numbers).
The most dramatic of those improvements, unsurprisingly, are in the areas of shot-suppression - the shots-, Fenwick- and Corsi-Against rates (though they've slipped of late, as we detailed this morning). But the Caps have also managed to make modest gains in their five-on-five shot-generation, which is also a good thing.
Or is it?
Well, yes... and no. Look at the data above and you'll see that even though the Caps are converting on a slightly lower percentage of their shots, the uptick in shot rate has them scoring at a higher rate. That's the good.
But here's the bad: the increase in shot volume is coming from the wrong players. Let's take it line by line, using iCorsi/60 (that is each individual player's rate of shot attempts):
Uh oh. As you might have heard, Alex Ovechkin isn't shooting the puck quite as much as he has in the past, and his five-on-five shot rates are reflecting that. The drop-off isn't huge, but it's there - through 26 games this season, Ovechkin has put 71 five-on-five shots on net and five in net; through 26 games last season he had 91 five-on-five shots and 11 goals (via war-on-ice.com). The volume is the more troublesome of the drop-offs... for the time being.
It's a similar story on Nicklas Backstrom, who isn't generating as many shots as he did last year. So that's the Caps' top-two offensive weapons - two guys who had a combined 9.6 five-on-five shooting percentage over the seven seasons years prior to this one - shooting less. But their on-ice shot rates are up, so where are the shots coming from? Tom Wilson (he of the four career five-on-five goals on 89 shots) and an assortment of others. Interestingly enough, Ovechkin has a lower iCorsi in games in which he started on a line with Backstrom and Wilson (21.9) or Backstrom and Fehr (19.4) than he does with Backstrom and Jay Beagle (22.6). That's not to imply that the Caps should put an overly deferential winger out there with Ovechkin and Backstrom or reunite that ill-fated top line simply because Ovechkin shot more in that configuration - we know how Ovechkin-anyone-Beagle has gone. But they've got to find a way to get that duo more shots without sacrificing overall production, which is up on the season... only because last year was such an abomination - Ovechkin's Goals-For percentage and rate are currently the second-worst of his career.
On to the second line:
With the new-and-improved more shoot-y Marcus Johansson leading the way, the second line is generating more shots than it did last year, and Johansson already has eight five-on-five goals to lead the team (three more than Ovechkin, in case you had lost track). Troy Brouwer and Andre Burakovsky have just two each, and Evgeny Kuznetsov one. That's pretty good production, in aggregate, but it was a bit front-loaded. Third line time:
These guys have bounced around a bit, but there's essentially been a small drop-off for Joel Ward and the third-line left wing and a slight uptick for Eric Fehr (though he's spent time all up and down the lineup... when he's gotten a sweater. Not much else to note. On to the fourth line:
The Caps' fourth line right now is as good as any fourth line they've iced in recent memory, especially since the line's actual composition has usually included whichever of those rookie second-line centers isn't taking his twirls with that trio. Jason Chimera in a fourth-line role looks like a good fit, and the line is clicking right now.
So what we've seen up front is some modest increases in shot rates on down the lines... but they're largely coming from on down the lines, from lower-percentage shooters. Speaking of low percentage shooters, what about the defense? Glad you asked...
The order there reflects even-strength ice time per game, but the story (in aggregate) is actually just about the same. In fact, last year's Caps' blueline had an iCorsi/60 rate of roughly 8.8, while this year's is currently at around 8.7. Mike Green is up a little, John Carlson is about the same. Karl Alzner is down, but Matt Niskanen is a bit above where Dmitry Orlov was a year ago. The obvious big difference is that Brooks Orpik (an incredibly low shot-generator) is now getting the most even-strength minutes per game, while Green (a high shot-generator) had those last year. But this year's defense is balancing the minutes more, so the totals are pretty close.
Anyway, all of this is a long-winded way to say the Caps need to find a way to get Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom more shots (without sacrificing much on the defensive side of the puck, of course). Because while an uptick in shot-generation is nice, it's essentially wiped out if the wrong guys are taking the shots. And right now, some of the wrong guys are taking the shots.