The Washington Capitals are 11-5-2, playing at 109-point 82-game pace and sitting in third place in arguably hockey’s toughest Division, three-points back of the first-place Rangers with a game in hand. This, of course, on the heels of a Presidents’ Trophy 2015-16 season and sporting the most regular season wins on the circuit since Barry Trotz took over behind the bench.
So why does it feel as if this team is struggling?
Besides the recency bias-fueled concerns over a 3-3-1 last seven games (in which they’ve scored fewer than two goals four times), there are some larger-sample stats that should give Caps fans pause. Here are five of them, in no particular order.
1. The Caps have the fewest five-on-four power-play goals in the League.
We wrote about the power play a couple of weeks back, and the unit’s overall efficiency has edged up a bit since then. But that’s thanks, in large part, to the five-on-three and four-on-three goals they scored against Pittsburgh. In fact, prior to Sunday’s five-on-four marker against the Blue Jackets, the Caps’ hadn’t scored a five-on-four goal in November, a span of nine games and 26 five-on-four advantages.
The Caps’ five-on-four shot rate is still good (though, as we discussed two weeks ago, where those shots are coming from may not be quite as good), so there’s reason to believe that they are due for a positive regression pretty soon. But over the last 54 regular-season games, their power play is clicking at just 15.3% overall, and that number drops to and 12.9% against the Metro Division and 11.2% against the Eastern Conference on the whole.
2. Evgeny Kuznetsov has just three goals over his last 50 games.
A season after leading the Caps in scoring, Kuznetsov has managed just two goals and five assists in 18 games (a 31-point pace), and has just three goals and 18 assists in his last 50 (a 34-point pace). And while the “why” would be a blog post unto itself, the “what” is a brutally low point total that is doing nothing to ease the pressure for the team’s top guns (of which one could have reasonably included Kuznetsov through January) to produce. Kuznetsov is critically important to any success that the Caps might have (just take a look at last spring), and right now he’s simply not good enough.
Oh, and Andre Burakovsky’s identical 2-5-7 line this season (with both goals coming on Opening Night) and similarly unproductive end to 2015-16 ain’t helping either, strong underlying numbers notwithstanding. That the Caps have been able to post a decent record and push the eventual Stanley Cup Champs a bit in May despite getting so little from these two future stars may actually be encouraging... but only if they start to produce like we think they’re capable of producing.
3. The Caps are only getting 39.7% of the scoring chances that are occurring with Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner on the ice at five-on-five.
That number comes via Corsica, and almost reads as a typo (especially given that the Caps’ other two defensive pairings are comfortably in the 54-58% range, and Niskanen-Alzner is above 50 percent in shot attempts). Adjust for score and venue and that number ticks up very slightly, but the underlying point remains that the Caps’ top blueline duo is riding some pretty sweet goaltending (a .955 save percentage) that’s masking a somewhat tilted ice.
On the plus side, that low percentage accompanies low rates of shots against (and for, obviously) - as a point of comparison, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov have an on-ice SCF% of 54.8%, but a much higher expected goals-against rate (9.42 goals/60) than Niskanen and Alzner (7.99), so as far. (And it’s worth noting that both scoring chance and expected goals methodology are open to questioning.) But at some point, getting outchanced 60-40 (35-23 in raw numbers) will likely come back to bite a pair, especially when that pair is facing top competition. On the plus side - and this is a big plus side - of the 26 defensive pairings Corsica has as playing at least 200 minutes at five-on-five, Niskanen and Alzner have the lowest Corsi-against rate (and that comes despite the Caps playing a ton with the lead and, again, against top competition). Truth be told, this is probably the least concerning issue on the list, but worth keeping an eye on (as the duo’s expected goals-for percentage straddles 50% based on data adjustments).
4. The Caps’ record against the Metropolitan Division is 2-3-2.
Last week’s life-affirming win over the Pens aside, the Caps have struggled with the teams that know them best, dropping a pair of games they led in the third period to Columbus, getting pasted by Carolina, blowing leads against the Rangers and Penguins, and eking a win out over the lowly Isles. To wit, here (via NaturalStatTrick) is the Caps’ five-on-five score- and venue-adjusted scoring-chance percentages for each game so far this season:
The Caps were above 50% in ten of the games above, but just once in seven intradivisional games; six of the seven sub-50% games have come against Metro rivals. Hmm.
Each win and loss is its own set of circumstances, but with the current playoff format being what it is, teams that can’t win within their division don’t last too long in the postseason. This is an area where coaching, if it does play a significant role, could be the difference in the Caps’ season.
5. Alex Ovechkin is the Caps’ worst possession player.
Here’s how that looks:
Similar to how he stereo-typically plays defense, Ovechkin is on the wrong side of the red line here. In fact, he’s making every one of his teammates worse (as that imprecise language has come to mean) at five-on-five. (By contrast, here’s 2008-09 Ovi.) And this is the worst it’s been in a while:
Ovi's now at nearly his 18-game low in CF% under Trotz and is easily at his worst 18-game Rel. CF% for that span. Something ain't right. pic.twitter.com/a5sVFDIN7I— Japers' Rink (@JapersRink) November 21, 2016
What’s going on? World Cup injury? General malaise/disinterest? Who knows. But having your best player anchoring possession isn’t good (even if the Caps, due to Ovechkin’s skill and usual linemates, can probably be a net positive at around or just below 50 percent shot attempts with him on the ice).
In many ways, the Capitals are fortunate to be where they are in the standings. Then again, there are areas in which they’re under-producing what their underlying numbers imply they should be doing. Regardless, the stats and trends above bear watching... because it’s hard to imagine much success for a team that can’t win in the division, whose best player is its worst possession player, whose second-line center produces at a 35-point pace, whose power play is impotent and whose top defensive pair is getting caved-in on scoring chance share.