[Ed. Note: Last week, special contributor Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp), In Lou We Trust contributor and passing-play tracker extraordinaire, used passing stats to predict what the defense might look like sans Mike Green this season. Today he'll take a look at the potential impact of two new Caps, Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie.]
Why Look at Passes?
Well, in addition to being able to isolate how players contribute rather than relying on on-ice metrics, we can quantify which types of shot attempts are the most dangerous. For example, we tracked full seasons for six teams last season (Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and the Washington Capitals), and found, collectively, these shooting percentages:
Teams that were able to complete at least a single pass prior to shooting saw their shooting percentage rise from 7.2% to 8.0%; teams that completed multiple passes (at least two) prior to shooting saw that 8.0% rise to 9.6%. In other words, teams whose shots were preceded by multiple passes increased their likelihood of scoring a goal by 2.4%.
Now, the first step in looking at passing rates is to identify if they are repeatable and predictive (they are), so if there are players that can boost shooting percentage, this may be a place to start. We won't know for sure until we get more data in the upcoming season. However, it does show up in the data and it makes logical sense. Any shot that gives the goalie less time to adjust would provide an advantage to the shooter.
I start out by including this data because it will help frame the rest of the piece as I discuss things like primary and secondary passes. You now know the likely increase in shooting percentage based on these sequences, so you can quickly see that not all possession is equal.
The Big Guys
Last season, the Capitals’ offense was mostly driven by four forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, and Marcus Johansson. I decided to throw in Evgeny Kuznetsov since Caps fans are excited about what he can potentially bring to the table next season.
If we look at their on-ice rates for primary and secondary passes leading to shot attempts, we see some interesting trends.
We tracked between 500 – 600 minutes for all forwards here in this format, with the exception of Burakovsky (288 minutes). The smaller sample likely explains some of his higher pace of play. However, we see that when Backstrom was on the ice, the Capitals generally had a significant advantage in generating offense through passes. Defensively, the Capitals performed best against passes with Johansson on the ice.
Since some of these players would often be on the ice at the same time, we need to try and unpack these on-ice rates into individual production. Some good work on the team as a whole has already been done by Adam Stringham, so I'll focus just on these individuals
The data is arranged in descending order in terms of Composite SAG/60 (blue bar), which presents the total number of shot attempts a player generated through both primary and secondary passes expressed as a per sixty minute rate. The red bar is the player’s total offensive contributions (total passing plus individual shot attempts). This shows you how much of a player’s offensive production is from passes and shot attempts.
Not surprisingly, Ovechkin is simply a beast when it comes to shooting the puck; same with Backstrom? It’s the middle three that are more intriguing.
The trio of Kuznetsov, Johannsson, and Burakovsky all seem to shoot at similar rates (11 – 13 iCF/60), but we see a wider range in their passing ability. Burakovsky had the second-highest mark on the team in terms of total passing contributions. And sure, his most common linemates at five-on-five were Johannsson, Ovechkin, and Backstrom, but it’s still impressive. With some of the roster moves the Capitals have made, I would expect Burakovsky to be a big contributor on the Capitals second (or possibly third) line next season... the Caps have a ton of skill up front, and it may not be a bad thing to have him play on the third line and dominate competition similar to how the Blackhawks used Teuvo Teravainen last season.
Of course, you might look at this and think, "Ovechkin really doesn’t generate many shot attempts with his passing." There are a few reasons why this is not the case. The first is that great shooters and great setup men often go together, amplifying each other’s numbers. Ovi is going to command the puck when he’s on the ice and Backstrom is the best player at distributing the puck, so, naturally, they perform well together.
The second reason is that, like shot attempts, not all passes are created equally. While Ovi generates very few shot attempts from passes compared to how often he shoots the puck, he’s one of the more underrated passers on the team. Using the Royal Road data we collected over the Capitals final forty-four games, let’s look at which forwards were most successful at generating these types of chances.
Ovechkin leads the team by a fair margin. Now, there’s not many of these attempts as they are difficult to pull off (a cross ice pass below the faceoff circles is incredibly challenging as there are usually several bodies inhabiting that space), yet we still see Ovi setting them up 50% more often than the next best passer – Johannsson. Let’s take a look at a few of these.
We’ll pick this sequence up in the neutral zone. Ovechkin has the puck and Johannsson is his winger on the opposite side. Sami Vatanen is the Anaheim Ducks defenseman closest to Ovechkin and he has to respect the fact that Alex might just try to blow by him and go to the net.
Now Ovi pulls up and doesn’t many options. What’s a Russian Superstar to do?
With a flick of his wrist the puck beats the latecomers to the zone and the far-side Duck defender is caught in no man’s land. Johannsson is able to get off a shot, but misses the net. Notice the Ducks goalie still isn't fully set as he moves over at the near post. That’s how quickly Ovechkin can pass the puck - and it’s right on Johannsson’s stick.
Let's look at a few other passes by #8.
We pick up the game in the second period. After the Ducks dump the puck out of their zone, the Capitals regroup and Jack Hillen has just sent the puck up to Ovechkin on a wonderful stretch pass.
Ovechkin turns Clayton Stoner and races in on goal. Hampus Lindholm will be defending a two-on-one with Burakovsky sliding in behind him.
Ovi backhands he puck across as Lindholm sells out to stop him. Ovechkin's pass, once again, is right onto Burakovsky’s stick. He scores on the ensuing shot. With that much open net, he should score.
About halfway through the third period, Stoner once again proves his lack of skill. A Duck passes him the puck and he can’t find it in his skates. Ovechkin is going to steal this from him and go off on a two-on-one with Burakovsky.
What? Ovechkin making a defensive play? But everyone says he’s an enigmatic forward who doesn’t do anything in his own zone!
Ovechkin waits until Ben Lovejoy is practically on top of him before sending this forward for Burakovsky. Ovechkin's patience and skill turns a two-on-one into a semi-breakaway for Burakovsky. This is the third straight event in which the recipient hasn’t had to break stride in order to receive Ovi’s pass. Another good sign of a passer: waiting until the precise moment before releasing the pass. If he passes too early, Lovejoy might be able to recover, but that’s not the case here. This is another goal for the Capitals.
Of course, just as it is beneficial to making this difficult pass, there is also a degree of skill for the shooter to find the lane and get open. Let’s add in the number of Royal Road shot attempts each forward took and see who was contributing most often to Royal Road events.
Well, Ovechkin is still on top. Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle actually make an appearance on this one after putting up goose eggs on the other. Here is also where we see Burakovsky rocket up in terms of value. In two of the three examples above, he is the recipient of a one-on-on with the goalie, but knowing when to accelerate or hang back so the passer can get the puck to you in the proper moment is an underrated skill. Let’s look at two instances of this.
The first is from the Caps' season finale on April 11 against the Rangers. After a breakout led by Ovechkin, number eight carries in and makes a drop pass to Backstrom. Ovechkin continues on and pushes the Rangers defense deep, giving Backstrom room to operate. Dan Girardi is hanging out near the blue line because…he’s Girardi and he does other things besides riding Ryan McDonagh’s coattails, I guess?
Burakovsky has entered on the far side and Caps have numbers here. Backstrom has both Burakovsy and Mike Green as emerging options.
Backstrom waits as Burakovsky settles in a soft spot on the ice. Backstrom sends it across and the passive defense by the Rangers allows Burakovsy to one-time this puck. Look at how much of the net is open. Unfortunately, Burakovsky misfires and the chance goes begging.
This is from the Capitals January 17 game against the Dallas Stars. You’ll see Burakovsky take control of the puck in the neutral zone, carry in, then feed Backstrom with plenty of space. Backstrom will recover the blocked shot and Burakovsky is watching this entire time. He sees that Backstrom picks the puck up and then immediately turns and finds open ice, raising his stick for a pass. He has to settle the pass, so he can’t one-time it, but he gets a shot on goal anyway, using Alex Goligoski as a half-screen of sorts. It’s good off-the-puck movement.
The New Guys
As you all know, the Capitals basically traded Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward for Oshie and Justin Williams. While we had Jesse available to track all of the Capitals games last seasons, we only were able to gather about 200 minutes on most forwards for the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. With that acknowledged, let’s take a quick at how they compared from a passing standpoint.
It’s quite apparent that Williams and Oshie will have a significant impact in facilitating the Capitals offense. Oshie was especially productive when it came to generating scoring chances. The rate at which both of them generated shot attempts from passes doubles the rates that are leaving the team. As far as on-ice data, we actually didn’t get many Blues games over the second half of the season when we amended how we track games, as mentioned above. However, we did get the bulk of our Kings games during that period, so we can look at the passing possession with Williams on the ice and compare it to some of the better Caps players.
From a primary passing possession standpoint, Williams is slightly better than the top Capitals forwards. Of course, Williams did play with Anze Kopitar who could make me a positive possession player. Williams was part of a line that not only generated shot attempts from primary passes, but was able to sustain possession and complete multiple passes prior to shot attempts as well. This is evident by his nearly 70% secondary passing possession mark. In terms of Scoring Chance possession, Williams was a bit worse than the top Capitals forwards, so if you’re a Caps fan you’re hoping the Capitals system can boost Williams’ SC SAG% and Williams’ individual player can help create most successful passing plays.
Again, give plenty of thanks to Jesse Severe (@jessesevere) for his work with my group last season. None of this would have been possible without him.
If interested in volunteering to ensure we can get more Caps data this coming season, please send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m only asking people to do one game a week as it can take two to three hours to track a single game when you start out. Don’t be shy!