The Washington Capitals have completed their first ten games in the second year of the Brian MacLellan/Barry Trotz era. So how did they compare to the first ten games of last season? Let's take a look.
- Then: 4-4-2
- Now: 8-2-0
Year 1 of the new era got off to a bit of a bumpy start. The Caps did not win consecutive games in regulation at any point in their first ten games (they did win consecutive games, in Game 4 and 5, the second of them a 2-1 shootout win over the Florida Panthers).
Their home and road records reflected a lack of continuity as well. Washington was 2-1-2 in the home portion of their first ten games last season. What was odd about that was the record, certainly, but also that it was compiled having played only one Metropolitan Division team, a 6-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.
The road portion of last season's first ten games was played entirely out of division. It included a three-game road trip to the Canadian west, where the Caps lost to the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks around a win against the Calgary Flames.
Compare that to this season to date. The Caps have won four of six home contests, and the two losses can be said to be low-energy efforts - a 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks and a 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. On the other hand, three of the four wins were by multi-goal margins (only one of the two wins was such a victory last season).
The road portion of the season also featured a trip to the Canadian west, playing the same teams. The results, however, were very different, and this is the biggest difference with respect to the record to date. Whereas the Caps managed only two of a possible six points on their western swing last season, they swept Calgary, Vancouver, and Edmonton, scoring 16 goals in the process. That trip accounts for four of the six standings point difference between last year's first ten games and those of this season.
If this was a comparison of the first seven games of last year and this, then the power play of Year 2 would reflect improvement over Year 1. This is a look at ten-game bites, though, and the recent struggles of the Caps' power play rendered it less efficient at this stage of the season (7-for-29/24.1 percent) than a comparable stage last season (9-for-35/25.7 percent).
The Caps did not go consecutive games without a power play goal over their first ten-game segment last season. Part of that might be chances. The Caps had three games with five or more chances in their opening ten-game segment last season, and the scored a power play goal in two of those games. So far this season the Caps have had as many as five power play chances once, that coming on Opening Night on which they scored a pair of power play goals.
The power play difference all comes down to that three-game streak without power play goal that closed this season's first ten-game segment. In that streak the Caps had only seven opportunities in all.
The penalty kill looks very different, this season compared to last. It might be said that this is where a ten-game segment might be a bit small to divine any trends, since the Caps killed the same number of penalties at the same point, this season and last (29), while the efficiency is much better this season so far (87.9 percent to 80.6 percent). The difference is facing three fewer chances through ten games this season (33) than they faced at this point last season (36). Managing chances might matter here. Last season, the Caps played five games in their first ten in which they faced three or fewer shorthanded situations. They were 10-for-13 killing penalties in those games (76.9 percent). So far this season they have played seven games in which they faced three or fewer shorthanded situations with a record of 16-for-18 killing penalties in those games (88.9 percent). It is one thing to be better (which they appear to be), it is even more not to have to test that proposition often.
Here we will also add the matter of shootouts. The Caps played three games in their first five last season that went to the freestyle competition, all of them at home, losing two of them. So far this season, the rule change to 3-on-3 in overtime has not had much of an effect on numbers of shootouts played or avoided; the Caps have participated in only one extra-time game to date (a win in Game 10).
This might strike some as a bit odd, given the success the Caps have had to date compared to last season through ten games, but the possession numbers at five-on-five, at the Corsi and Fenwick level, are not significantly different overall. Let us descend through the levels (numbers to follow from war-on-ice.com).
First, there is the matter of total events. The Caps have played to a higher volume of their own Corsi events (439 to 423) their opponents' Corsi events (371 to 360) and total events (810 to 783) this year compared to last. The result is that Corsi-for percentage at five-on-five through ten games this season (54.2) is not significantly different from that through ten games last season (54.0).
The numbers are similar for Fenwick. More total events for the Caps (327 to 313), more for their opponents (266 to 259), and little difference in the percentages (55.1 this season, 54.7 last season). At a high level, possession was a positive in both seasons.
Even in close score situations the relationships hold up. Total Corsi events in such situations are higher this season (538) than last (513), a reflection of higher totals for the Caps (298 to 277) and for their opponents (240 to 236). There is a bit more of a spread in the percentages (55.4 percent this season, 54.0 percent last), but not so much as to suggest dramatic improvement.
Fenwick in close score situations behaves in similar fashion. Total events are higher this season (407) compared to last (381), a product of higher totals for the Caps (225 to 201) and for their opponents (182 to 171). The percentages, year versus year, are almost identical - 55.3 percent this season, 55.1 percent last season.
If there is a difference, it is in the consistency, and even there it is not much. Looking at the numbers on a game-to-game basis, the Caps had three games with an overall Corsi-for percentage under 50 percent in their first ten games last season. Oddly enough, the Caps won two of those games (against Boston and New Jersey, where the Caps outscored those clubs by a combined 10-2 margin). This season, the Caps have had two games in which they finished a contest with overall Corsi below 50 percent, winning both games (against New Jersey and Chicago) by a combined score of 9-4.
The Caps had very good possession numbers in both their opening ten-game segment last season and in their ten-game segment to open this season. It might suggest just how thin a margin it is between winning and losing in the NHL, even when possession numbers are positive.
The Individual Skaters
There are 15 skaters who appeared in the first ten games of last season and in the first ten of this season for the Capitals. That group has played only five more man-games this season (134) than as a group last season (129). However, the performance numbers of the group are considerably improved as a group, year to year.
This 15-player group has almost doubled its goal output from last year to this (28 to 16), and while much of that is owed to the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov (four more goals at this juncture than through ten games last season), the bounty has been spread around, too. Four other players - Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, Matt Niskanen, and Nicklas Backstrom - have two more goals at this point than they had after ten games last season.
It is a group that is both more prolific and more efficient shooting the puck. This year's "Group of 15" has 227 shots on goal in 134 man-games (1.69 shots/game) while last season's group had 201 shots in 129 man-games (1.56 shots/game). That is not much of a difference, but shooting to a 12.3 percent rate versus 8.0 percent through ten games last season is. And, the odd part of that is the player with the second highest shot differential from last season to this (Brooks Laich at plus-11) does not have a goal in 16 total shots on goal through ten games this season. In a way, Laich is in a bad luck rut. He is one of 19 forwards with at least 16 shots on goal without having turned on the red light. It is not Jakub Voracek territory (no goals on 44 shots so far), but it is frustrating nonetheless.
Departures and Arrivals
As is the case in any offseason, there were players who left the club and players who arrived. It was a significant off-season for the Caps, though, who said goodbye to one of the best defensemen in a long history of fine defensemen playing for the franchise in Mike Green. Eric Fehr, a former first round draft pick who had a knack for scoring outdoors, departed as well. The Caps also parted ways with Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, a pair of forwards who arrived in Washington from other places, but who provided a lot of memorable moments to earn a following among the fan base.
The arrivals were important as well. T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams were added to address what was a weakness left on the right side of the top six forwards. And, in an odd sort of arrival, Dmitry Orlov returned to the lineup after missing the entire 2014-2015 season.
Comparing the performance of the departed players from last season and the arrivals for this season over the opening ten game segments, what jumps out is that Oshie and Williams (combined 6-10-16, plus-7 in 20 man-games) have kept pace, more or less, with the production of Brouwer, Ward, and Fehr (8-7-15, plus-2 in 29 man-games). The difference is that Dmitry Orlov has not yet shaken off the rust of his absence. It would be a stretch to think Orlov will replace Green's production in its entirety, but one might expect he will improve on his lack of goals in his first ten games as the season wears on.
The constant here is, of course, Braden Holtby. In both last season and this he appeared in eight of the Caps' first ten contests. The difference is that he did not earn a decision in one of those eight appearances to start last season, getting pulled less than ten minutes into the Caps' 6-5 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks. It was not the only difference in Holtby's performance. He got off to a slow start generally last season, allowing three or more goals in four of those eight appearances.
This season is a different story. Holtby allowed three goals in each of his first two appearances of the season, but in six appearances since he has a goals against average of 1.51 and a save percentage of ..938. At the moment, that five-year/$30.5 million contract extension he signed last summer looks pretty good.
The odd thing about the goaltending is at the backup spot. One might forget that after ten games last season, Justin Peters played pretty well. The wheels soon fell off his season, but in three appearances in the Caps' first ten games, he had a very good goals against average (2.01) and a solid save percentage (.914).
On the other hand, Philipp Grubauer has two appearances this season in his new role as backup to Holbty, and he is still settling into that role. He was the beneficiary of a lot of goal support in his first appearance, a 7-4 win over the Edmonton Oilers in which he allowed four goals on 23 shots. He was much better in his second appearance, stopping 26 of 27 shots in a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers.
In the end...
The comparison of the Capitals' first ten games of last year to this provides a glimpse at how the club addressed what it perceived as weaknesses and how it has been able to improve from last season's shakedown cruise with their new head coach. The first ten games of this season are better in terms of record and consistency. It is not significantly better than last year's club in terms of underlying numbers, but that is in no small part a function of the fact that the Caps were pretty good in that regard to start last season.
Of no small consequence, the Caps have been able to settle things in the hockey portion of the contest, not having to rely on the roll of the dice that can be the shootout, in which they participated three times in their first ten games last season.
To the extent ten games means anything, it is that the Caps are no fluke. They have been solid at five-on-five, solid on special teams (despite the recent hiccups on the power play), and solid on possession. Their goaltending has been, if not exceptional, then very much in the plus column to date.
The combination of factors suggests that this version of the Caps, at least through ten games is more comfortable in the system they play, deep and consistent in their production, and playing at a level that makes them a part of the conversation on the subject of the league's best teams.