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Are the Capitals Making the Most of Defensive-Zone Face-Off Wins?

When the Caps brought Barry Trotz over from Nashville, did he bring one of his systematic shortcomings with him?

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

In the lead-up to the 2013-14 season, The Score ran a series of posts in which talented analysts and writers Justin Bourne and Thomas Drance took a look at "Unique Team Traits," pointing out some of the game's finer points as they applied to individual teams. For the Caps, the trait was Alex Ovechkin's power-play one-timer... yeah, that meets the definition of "unique." But with Barry Trotz about to embark on his first season behind the Caps' bench after 15 years in Nashville, the Predators' team trait was of particular interest, for obvious reasons. That trait? The Preds were "hockey’s best faceoff team, particularly in the defensive zone" (good), "but [didn't] do much with those possessions" (bad).

Now, with a year of Trotz-coached Caps hockey to reflect upon, it's worth looking at whether that trend continued in Washington. And while we're at it, why not look at how the Caps performed in each zone, off face-off wins and losses, at a team and individual level, both last year and as compared to the season before?

It sounds like a lot, and it is. So this will be a series of posts, and hopefully something we can look at even more closely as the summer drags on, with some video and such. But let's start with a look at that initial question - were the 2014-15 Caps a team that was good on defensive-zone face-offs without much to show for it?

To begin with, let's dig in a bit on what Bourne and Drance identified in their post on Nashville. Sure enough, the Preds led the League in five-on-five face-off percentage in the defensive zone, winning 56.6% of their draws. So far so good. But how best to measure what they did with those possessions? We came up with two pretty simple metrics - Next Shot Attempt Percentage (Next SAT%) and 15-Second Shot Attempt Percentage (15s SAT%). The former (Next SAT%) is the percentage of times that team attempted the game's next shot after the face-off, the latter (15-Second SAT%) is the percentage of shot attempts that team got in the 15 seconds (or until the next whistle, if it came sooner) following the face-off. So if, for example, a team won a draw and was able to attempt the next shot and two more while their opponent regained possession and fired off one attempt before that 15 seconds was up, the team in question would have a Next SAT% of 100% and a 15-Sec SAT% of 75%. Easy enough (oh, and for you old schoolers, "Shot Attempt" is the new-ish "Corsi").

With that background out of the way, here's how 2013-14 shook out at the team level on five-on-five defensive-zone face-offs:

2013-14 Post DZ

How about that? Despite having the League's best face-off efficiency in the defensive zone, Nashville indeed didn't do much with those possessions, ranking 17th in the League in terms of getting the next shot attempt following a won draw and 11th in terms of 15-second shot-attempt percentage. (Sidenote: we haven't looked into repeatability yet, so it's not clear how much predictive value there is in this stuff, but it seems likely that Next SAT% would involve more skill than 15s SAT%... a discussion for another day.)

So the Preds won a lot of draws, but were mediocre relative to the rest of the League after doing so. Why? Here's Bourne (and be sure to check out the post for video examples):

Teams tend to have some set plays off pucks won clean .... Some teams will drop a winger back on the far side below the goal line (while the middle D picks the forechecker), and have the other D pass him the puck. Some run a reverse to the center, with the D-man pulling the first forechecker to him. There’s a ton of options.

Nashville, however, basically picks a side to go up, bangs it off the glass, prays that the puck gets out, and that the bounces leave the puck in their forwards’ hands. We watched a good amount of D-zone video without seeing a variation.

I get the idea: if the Preds don’t pick up the puck after the chip, at least it’s out, and since their team knows where the puck is going, they have a little advantage in re-acquiring it. But, yeah, still pretty unimpressive.

Sound familiar? It should. Here's that same chart for 2014-15:

2014-15 Team Post DZ

The Caps were the League's fourth-best team in defensive-zone face-offs at fives... but didn't do much with those possessions, ranking 19th in Next SAT% and 22nd in 15s SAT%. Looking at it another way, here's what all 30 teams looked like following defensive-zone wins:

2014-15 Teams Post DZ Wins

(Thanks, Sabres, for breaking another chart.)

There are some surprising results on the charts, and it's by no means perfectly reflective of the quality of teams (with the exception of Buffalo)... which makes this a good time to note that roughly 21% of last season was played at five-on-five within 15 seconds after a face-off, so this is a subset of a subset of game time. But it can still be informative, and what it informs us of here is that the Caps' breakouts following defensive-zone wins - just like Barry Trotz's Predators - need work. And it's probably more about the system than execution of it (and their defense following losses in their own end are no picnic either, as they ranked 25th in each of our metrics on those, taking a sizable step back in 15s SAT%... and you might recall their last defensive-zone loss that resulted in two immediate shot attempts-against).

Besides the scheme itself, are individual players to blame here? You be the judge - heres how the Caps' defensemen fared following defensive-zone draws (click to enlarge):

D Post DZ

Any real surprises there? Probably not. Mike Green's numbers following wins are worse than you'd expect, though given how good Nate Schmidt's are and how lousy Jack Hillen's and Tim Gleason's are, it's pretty safe to assume that the guys to the right of Green on the chart did their typical boat-anchoring, while Schmidt once again impressed. Otherwise, the Caps' top-four defensemen (also the top-four on the team in defensive-zone face-off chances) were basically at or above the team's 45.9 Next SAT% following a defensive-zone win, while the second pairing of Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner beat the team's 38.2 15s SAT% and the top pair of John Carlson and Brooks Orpik fell short. As good as Mike Green is, there's a very real chance that he and Hillen/Gleason will be outperformed in this area by a 2015-16 pairing of Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov (though Green with either Schmidt or Orlov would probably have destroyed everyone).

Of course, it's not just the defensemen that are responsible for getting the puck up ice, so how'd the forwards do? Using the team's top-four centers as a rough proxy, we see mixed results:

C Post DZ Draws

How about that Jay Beagle? Of all the skaters on the team, only Michael Latta (we can get into that in another post) had a higher post-defensive-zone win 15s SAT% than Beagle, and only Latta, Schmidt and Joel Ward bested Beagle in Next SAT%. Obviously this is where being good on face-offs comes into play a bit - the Caps won 54.7% of their defensive-zone draws at five-on-five with Beagle on the ice (most of them his own wins, of course). Then again, they won 56.8% with Nicklas Backstrom on, 54.4% with Evgeny Kuznetsov, and 50.7 with Eric Fehr, so it's not just winning draws (which circles back to the initial point of this post). [Sidenote: the Caps won 57% of the five-on-five defensive-zone face-offs for which Troy Brouwer was on the ice, and he crushed it in that dot, so that's something to keep in mind with his recent departure.] Does Jay Beagle flat-out move the puck up ice after a defensive-zone win (quality of competition, perhaps, coming into play here)? Possibly. Though it's likely that after a win he gets the puck to neutral and goes for a change unless he has a clear chance at creating some offense (and we're only counting the portion of the 15 seconds that the player stays on the ice), while others may take some more chances. But Beagle was decent in these metrics in 2013-14 as well, so maybe there's some "there" there.

As for Backstrom, let's chalk-up his relative lack of success here to the struggles that Carlson and, more likely, Orpik had that we identified above and their frequently shared ice time. Still, his numbers should be better here. Kuznetsov's numbers are probably not surprising in the context of all of this (and his fourth-line time), and Fehr's 15s SAT% stands out, but his Next SAT% is relatively decent, so it's probably nothing to worry about (and given his free agent status, probably really nothing to worry about).

Like Trotz's Predators, Trotz's Caps have proven to be a good face-off team that hasn't made the most of their defensive-zone wins in terms of getting pucks up ice and fired towards the opposing netminder. If they can tweak their breakout and neutral-zone schemes to take better advantage of their strong draw efficiency, it'd certainly make them a more dangerous team at even-strength... and might even get 'em over that proverbial hump come playoff time.