So the Washington Capitals are off to the best start to a season in the history of their franchise, and arguably in the history of the NHL. That's pretty awesome, but you'll forgive Caps fans for not ordering their commemorative DVDs and T-Shirts just yet. The history of postseason shortcomings is all too real, the most relevant to this season being 2010, when the runaway President's Trophy winning Capitals watched the final three rounds of the playoffs from home.
That particular playoff exit brewed up a real conversation in the Nation's Capital surrounding the types of team that see success in the playoffs. And even though we'll be six years removed from that persistent nightmare by the time April roles around, the conversation lives on.
Back in November, mathematician and curator of the superb www.hockeyviz.com, Micah Blake McCurdy, conducted an analysis on the types of regular season traits that foretell deep playoff runs. You should absolutely check out Micah's work in its published form (seriously, I'll wait), but in summary he crunched the numbers on every regular season performance from 2007-2015 and sought trends that indicated future deep postseason runs.
His findings essentially revealed that there are three regular season traits that correlate most strongly to playoff success: shot suppression (CA/60), shot generation (CF/60), and goaltending (5v5 Sv%).
Note that Micah defines "shots" as blocked, missed, saved shots, and goals, which is conventionally tracked as Corsi.
So, how do the Caps stand up in these categories? In order to see which teams look like they're made of the stuff of champions, I grabbed the rank of each team in each category, and summed them in order to determine what I called, off the cuff, Deep Playoff Potential Score, at which point we can then see their Deep Playoff Potential Rank.
The breakdown is below.
|CF/60||CA/60||Opp. 5v5 Sh%||CF Rank||CA Rank||Opp. Sh% Rank||Deep Playoff Potential Score||Deep Playoff Potential Ranking|
(data from hockeyanalysis.com)
Micah confirmed that he does score adjust all of his data, although the research didn't specify that, so I reran the logic using score adjusted data from War On Ice. Using this methodology, the Caps are the #2 Deep Playoff Potential Team.
|Team||OSv%||CF60||CA60||CF Rank||CA Rank||Sv% Rank||Deep Playoff Potential Score||Deep Playoff Potential Rank|
(data from war-on-ice.com)
Note that I used the ranking in each category instead of an equation comprised of the individual components because McCurdy makes no mention of whether each metric is of equal importance or stronger correlation than the next. As such, using the league ranking for each metric gives them equal weight.
Just to make sure this passes the sniff test, let's take a look at the four conference finalists, for each of the last four years, with the eventual Stanley Cup winner highlighted in green.
Edit: And here's a look at the same information using score-adjusted data.
Sure enough, each of the last two NHL Champions has finished the NHL 1st by this "deep playoff" predictor. Cup-winning Los Angeles finished 2nd in 2011-2012, and the Blackhawks 4th in 2012-2013.
Because you're curious, if we do this exercise for the 2010 season, the Caps have the League's second best Deep Potential Playoff score, behind only the Phoenix Coyotes, who lost in the first round in seven game to the Detroit Red Wings. The eventual Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks were 9th (where today's Caps are)
Ultimately there's no real reason to believe the Caps aren't built like a time that has historically gone deep in the playoffs, unlike the Islanders, Rangers, Bruins, or Avalanche, for instance.
It's important to note McCurdy's conclusion of his own research:
Looking at regular season results, the historical path to deep playoff runs has been good defence, better offence, and an above-average goaltender.
The Caps are 16th in the league in shot attempts against/60, but 11th in the league in shots against/60, and 4th in the league in goals against/60, all at 5v5. Given the full scope here, the Caps probably qualify as a "good" defensive team - especially considering how often they've played with the lead this year, and how that tends to tilt the ice.
In a similar pattern, the Caps are 16th in the league in shot attempts for/60, 12th in shots for/60, and 1st in goals for/60. Again, if rate shot attempts is the measure of "good offense" then the Caps are middle of the road, but their actual scoring (buoyed by the NHL's second best 5v5 shooting percentage - which McCurdy discovered had very little correlation to postseason success) paints a different picture.
And if you've got an argument that Braden Holtby isn't "above-average", I'd love to hear it.
Long story short, the Caps play their brand of hockey extremely well, and there's certainly nothing in the underlying numbers that hints towards that brand of hockey being deficient in the spring. And remember, some of the Caps' best weapons-- such as their lethal power play-- don't turn up in this particular equation, but that doesn't mean they aren't valuable. The entire game isn't played at fives.