Brian MacLellan's second offseason is shaping up to be quite different from his first. The Capitals aren't coming off missing the playoffs — they were a goal away (on two different occasions) from advancing to their first conference final in over 15 years.
This time around, the Capitals have around $20 million in cap room to re-sign three restricted free agents (Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby) and probably add at least a couple of forwards and a spare skater or two before the start of next season. The goal, presumably, is to build a team that can compete at five-on-five with the best teams in the league. (The Caps weren't quite there last season, ranking just outside the top-10.)
With that in mind, we can compare last year's team at five-aside, roster spot by roster spot, to other top teams to identify where Washington most needs to improve.
First, a look at where the Caps are starting from:
What you see here is how each forward performed with each defenseman at fives in terms of shot-attempt percentage (SAT%), a.k.a. Corsi-For percentage (CF%), a.k.a. the percentage of total shots attempted with the player(s) on the ice which are directed at the opponents net. The player order here is determined by ice time and common line combinations (more information here).
You can find all the charts here.
Elite possession teams
Let's first look at how the Caps stacked up against the top four possession teams this season: Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Detroit:
This chart illustrates the difference in shot attempt percentage, cell by cell. The top left cell, for example, is Nicklas Backstrom with Matt Niskanen (about 54%) minus the average top left cell of the aforementioned teams: Jonathan Toews with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Anze Kopitar with Drew Doughty, Steven Stamkos with Anton Stralman, and Henrik Zetterberg with Niklas Kronwall (56%). The slight red in that No. 1 forward/No. 1 defenseman cell means Backstrom and Niskanen's SAT% is slightly worse than that of the four other teams' 1F/1D combination. You can see those combinations here.
(Additionally, an ‘X' means no data for one of the teams, a ‘-‘ means more than 15 percentage points worse — common on the Buffalo graph — while a ‘+' means more than 15 percentage points better.)
Based on the light red and blue in the top left, we can see that for a top line and top pair, the Caps compared favorably to the cream of the crop. The rest of the lineup, though, doesn't come out looking as good. Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, and Brooks Laich are in the red more-or-less across the board, and while the difficulty of their minutes explains a part of that, a player like Marcus Kruger (who took on a more difficult role for his team, albeit with better talent on his wings) came out looking much better.
Ward's and Fehr's presumed departures via free agency, then, may be a bit of a blessing in disguise. They counted for $4.5 million against the cap and neither formed part of a plus-possession line (minimum 21 minutes) without Ovechkin and Backstrom. There are a few players slated for unrestricted free agency who might be able to step in and provide a better possession performance, which, combined with more minutes for Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and an improved Kuznetsov, could solve the possession problem in the middle six.
Further down, the "second line" was below par compared to top possession teams' third lines — Kuznetsov's cohort at No. 8 forward in terms of five-on-five time on ice, for example, is Bryan Bickell, Tyler Toffoli, Luke Glendening, and Brian Boyle, a group which averaged 50-52% of the shots with their top defensemen. It's not that high a bar to clear, but the Johansson-Kuznetsov-Troy Brouwer line was at 49% together. Absent more substantial growth from Johansson and Kuznetsov, the team may need to rethink that line, possibly with an addition through trade or free agency (as we touched on in last week's Mailbag).
Washington's fringe roster forwards formed a bright spot. Getting the least ice time, it's not much consolation, but an Andre Burakovsky move up the roster is a prime candidate to help stabilize the situation in the middle six.
On the defensive end, it's clear the Caps' top three fared better than the other five. Mike Green's column is a little disappointing, though Nate Schmidt's column implies that Green was dragged down quite a bit from playing with Tim Gleason and Jack Hillen. (It's also worth noting that the third pair on these four top teams tended to do slightly better in possession than the first and second pairs, meaning Green has a higher bar to clear to get into blue.) While a healthy Dmitry Orlov cannot replace Green, if the team can avoid having a minus-possession player paired with Orlov or Schmidt, the third pair should be in decent shape.
Brooks Orpik's column is also not very good, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. He'll likely have to take on a reduced role on the ice sooner rather than later, or the Caps' challenges with him on the ice will likely only get more difficult.
The four conference finalists from last season present a slightly lower bar. Here's how the Caps stacked up.
The Caps come out looking better. Aside from the spare defensemen and a couple of depth forwards, it's hard to pinpoint any big problems — it's a little too much red for several players, not a whole lot of red for just a few. That implies the team simply needs to be better as a whole. A major talent addition could help (bumping other players down the depth chart), as could better systems and execution.
Absent either of those or a major breakout season from Burakovsky or Kuznetsov, the remaining option for improvement to the level of the Blackhawks, Ducks, Lightning, and Rangers is a series of marginal upgrades.
Los Angeles and Chicago
Finally, it may be instructive to look at two perennial Stanley Cup favorites.
They appear to go about their business in slightly different ways. Los Angeles rolls with its top players: Kopitar, Justin Williams, Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter, Toffoli, Doughty, and Jake Muzzin. With Chicago, the relative strength comes more from the depth up front — it's again worth remembering Kruger's tough role — and Duncan Keith, who didn't always play the most minutes for Chicago during the regular season but clearly is terrific.
The Caps, by comparison, are in a bit of an interesting situation. They could go either way. They could bolster their depth and try to look more like Chicago. Alternatively, they could load up the top of the roster more and look more like Los Angeles (in terms of which players dominate possession and which players do not).
Either way, although the Caps look close to the top few teams in the league, it looks like it could take a series of moves, not just one or two, for Brian MacLellan to get them to the next level.