The Washington Capitals’ historic run of success this season has all-but-secured them the Presidents’ Trophy with nine games remaining in the season. This run of success has left pundits pondering their chances for playoff success. Given the Caps’ playoff history--of both recent and distant vintages--many commentators have opined that this season will be a long set-up to an excruciatingly un-funny punchline: heartbreaking playoff failure. Others have denounced the cynicism of these views, and encouraged fans to enjoy this season for what it is, regardless of the outcome this spring.
The manner in which fans choose to enjoy this season - or not -is up to them. With that being said, while our collective right brain is soaking in Kuznetsov’s latest masterpiece, our left brain is dissecting each game, analyzing each key statistic, and assessing alternative first-round opponents, all with the aim of gauging the potential for playoff success, or gut-wrenching heartache.
What follows is an attempt to remove the rose-colored glasses of Caps fandom, embrace our left brains and, to the extent possible, dispassionately assess this Capitals team as they roll into the playoffs. (All stats current as of Saturday, March 26).
Current thinking in advanced hockey metrics suggests that adjusted five-on-five Corsi metrics (i.e., score-adjusted) have the strongest correlation with long-term team success. Per War-on-Ice, the Caps’ score-adjusted five-on-five Corsi percentage is 51.4%, which is tied for 14th in the league. One can fiddle with the filters (close, score-adjusted, home games, score-adjusted home games played on the second Tuesday of the month) to make the numbers slightly better or slightly worse, but nevertheless they hover around 50%.
This isn’t awful, but nor is it great. If the Caps’ puck-possession were a (pre-grade inflation) student, they’d be a B-, i.e., slightly above average. To put this in context, among Stanley Cup-winners in the advanced puck-possession metrics era (aka the "Behindthenet era") from 2007-2008 until today, the Caps would rank second-to-last among Cup winners, beating out only the 08-09 Penguins. That team underwent a mid-season coaching change, however, after which its puck-possession metrics improved markedly.
This also isn’t necessarily an indication to panic about the Caps’ playoff chances. First, using Cup-winners since 2008 as a statistical sample is problematic, given that it’s a sample of eight. Statisticians generally consider thirty to be a statistically significant sample, so it’s safe to say that eight is a small sample. All we can say with confidence is that these puck-possession metrics are correlated with long-term success. Although it’s cliche, it bears repeating that correlation does not equal causation. Also, there are plenty of teams that out-perform their possession metrics over the course of 82 games (why hello there Semyon Varlamov and the 2013-2014 Avalanche), so given the small sample size of playoff hockey, anything can happen (why hello there Jaroslav Halak and the 2009-2010 Canadiens). Not surprisingly, teams that out-perform their puck-possession metrics often do so on the back of stellar goaltending. No pressure, Braden.
Although this isn’t time for panic, it’s definitely time for a Rorschach test. What do you see here?
Do you see a pony? Or a roller-coaster? Because I see the data flipping analysts the bird in the form of a rolling 20-game score-adjusted Corsi-for Percentage. Is this a good puck-possession team or a mediocre one? Looking at this chart can lead you to either conclusion, depending on your perspective. Regardless of perspective, however, it’s disconcerting to see the steep downward trendline as the Caps approach the playoffs.
This chart becomes additionally problematic if you try to ascertain the underlying reasons behind the oscillations. The injuries to Brooks Orpik and John Carlson forced all the other defensemen on the roster to shift up a pairing. This would presumably have negatively impacted the possession metrics of the remaining defensemen, but it’s difficult to draw direct correlations to the team-wide metrics, since the swings in the data don’t align well with the injuries. The swings are also disconnected to home/away splits, which suggests that road trips or home stands have had little impact.
One possible explanation for the first (November through early December) dip is the shift between the Caps’ system from late last season through this year. Toward the end of last season and through the playoffs, the Caps played a "heavy" game predicated on simple north-south puck movement through the defensive and neutral zones, often followed by a dump into the offensive zone and a strong forecheck. Teams that prepared for the Caps based on film from late in 2014-2015 were likely a bit surprised by the Caps’ breakouts, neutral-zone transition, and offensive-zone entries early this season, which included more short passes, more controlled zone-exits and entries, and fewer dump-ins. As teams adjusted (e.g., by taking away passing lanes), there was a notable drop-off in the Caps’ puck possession. While a similar move-countermove scenario may have played out from January through mid-February, it’s more difficult to identify.
This data is far from definitive, but it does suggest that the Caps aren’t an elite puck-possession team when viewed through the lens of their ability to generate shot attempts relative to their opponent. Furthermore, the trendline isn’t good. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Caps are bound for playoff failure, but it does imply that something is happening that may not be sustainable.
5v5 Shooting and Save Percentages
The Caps have overcome their middling shot-generation metrics to rise to the top of the NHL standings in no small part thanks to an outstanding 5v5 shooting percentage and a very good 5v5 save percentage. According to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, the Caps are second in the league in 5v5 shooting percentage at 8.65%, and tied for 12th in the league in 5v5 save percentage at 92.97%, for a combined PDO of 101.6.
One could infer from this that the Caps are getting lucky and are bound for a regression at some point. If we look back at last year’s results, however, they look awfully similar: the Caps 5v5 shooting percentage was 8.05, good for 10th in the league, and their 5v5 save percentage was 92.44, good for 14th in the league. The latter statistic was dragged down pretty substantially by the play of Justin Peters, who had an 88.7 5v5 save percentage compared to Holtby’s 92.99.
While generally PDO tends to regress toward 100, there are teams that appear to be able to sustain high PDOs over the course of several seasons, usually because of elite goaltending. The Rangers over the last two years, the Bruins from 2010-2011 through 2013-14 are two teams that immediately come to mind. With Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, the Caps may be such a team, although it’s questionable if they can sustain their current shooting percentage. Moreover, it appears that we’ve been seeing a regression in Holtby’s play of late.
The bottom line is that the Caps may be getting lucky, but they aren’t primed for a massive regression either. They may not be able to sustain their current 5v5 shooting percentage, but it’s also not likely to crater, as it’s not ludicrously high (e.g., Toronto’s 10.57% in 2012-2013), and the Caps have a legitimate claim to being an above-average team in terms of offensive skill. The last two years of data suggests that the Caps’ 5v5 save percentage is also unlikely to drop dramatically. On the other hand, Holtby’s recent play is cause for concern. If he can play at the level he’s capable of, this team could make a long playoff run. If he plays they way he’s played, in aggregate, since early January, the team will need its offense to carry the load if they hope to make it out of the second round.
5v5 Systems Play
Looking beyond the statistics, there are some worrying trends in the Caps’ underlying play. At even strength, the Caps like to break the puck out of their defensive zone quickly and with possession. This is vastly preferable to the Adam "throw it off the glass" Oates era. Nevertheless, this quick puck movement requires precision and cohesion to be successful. When these elements are missing or disrupted by quality opponents (e.g., the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings), bad defensive-zone turnovers are the result.
In the offensive zone, the Caps like to be patient; they’d rather curl at the blueline and wait for a teammate, or set up the cycle than simply dump the puck on net. While this generates a lot of high-quality scoring chances, it also can lead to turnovers and odd-man rushes against teams (Dallas and Los Angeles again, and the Pittsburgh Penguins if their recent play continues) that backcheck effectively.
The Caps have also displayed a tendency to seem disjointed for a period or two each game, usually early in games. It often seems like the team gets caught between the system they played last year, which was predicated on getting the puck deep in the offensive zone and playing a "heavy" dump-and-chase game, and the system they play this year, which focuses on quick passes through the defensive and neutral zones to gain the offensive zone with possession. The first half of the game against the New Jersey Devils on February 20th was a good example--there was little cohesion between the defense and the forwards. The game stagnated at center ice as the defense kept forcing passes that weren’t there.
It’s difficult to criticize this team for losing focus at times or not playing with consistent urgency, given the enormous standings cushion they’ve enjoyed since the winter holidays. At the same time, however, the 09-10 Caps also had a large lead in the standings for much of the season and didn’t see such wild fluctuations in 5v5 play. While a late-season dip isn’t unheard of for teams with large leads in the standings, it may be wishful thinking to simply write off a large chunk of the season from our analysis.
More optimistically, there is reason to think that the Caps are a better puck-possession team than their shot-based metrics might indicate. Some teams use systems that increase shot attempts by design; the Kings are a perfect example. They are perennially at the top of the league in shot-attempt metrics without playing what would be considered a traditional puck-possession system. Instead, they play an elite puck-retrieval game and, once they gain possession, they fire the puck on net quickly rather than work to get quality chances. As a result, despite their high Corsi-for percentages, the Kings rank near the bottom of the league in terms of their ratios of shots-for-per 60, scoring-chances-for per 60, high-danger-chances-for per 60, and goals-for per 60 relative to Corsi-for per 60. Put another way, the Kings generate a lot of shot attempts, but relatively few of those attempts are shots, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, or goals.
Dallas, by contrast, plays a system similar to the one the Caps played under Bruce Boudreau from 2007-2011. They stretch the ice vertically and forecheck aggressively once they gain the zone. They are willing to surrender chances because they believe (correctly) that they will get more chances overall and convert a higher percentage. Again, this is borne out by the metrics: the Stars have a strong Corsi percentage, but this is made even more impressive by the fact that almost 21% of their shot-attempts are high-danger scoring chances. On the flip side, the Stars’ firewagon hockey results in the same thing going the other way: almost 22% of the shot attempts surrendered by the Stars are high-danger chances.
The Caps, like the Chicago Blackhawks or Detroit Red Wings of yore, play a more prototypical puck-possession system. They move the puck out of their own end and through neutral ice using short passes, with the aim of gaining the offensive zone with possession. Once in the zone, they look to work a cycle or low-high game with the defensemen. They don’t force the puck on net like the Kings or seek out stretch passes like the Stars. Partly because the Caps have so many players that are comfortable with the puck on their stick they often have long shifts in the offensive zone that result in only a few shot attempts. The result is fewer shot attempts-for. When they play together, the line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and T.J. Oshie / Marcus Johansson is the most egregious example, but the Caps have players up and down the roster that like to be patient with the puck.
Defensively, the Caps’ system has made huge leaps since the Bruce Boudreau, and Adam Oates eras, but they don’t yet have the Kings’ ability to shut down passing lanes, deny time and space, and retrieve loose pucks. As a result, they do not excel at suppressing shot-attempts, being exactly middle of the road in 5v5 Corsi-against. Interestingly, however, their underlying stats suggest a system designed to block shots and deny scoring chances rather than choke off all shot attempts. The Caps are around league average in terms of Corsi-against per 60, but of those shot attempts per 60, only 51% are shots on goal (4th best in the league), 47.6% are scoring chances (11th best in the league), 18.8% are high-danger chances (tied for 2nd best in the league), and 3.5% are goals against (tied for 3rd best in the league). A skeptic may chalk up the Caps’ low ratio of goals-against per corsi-against to unsustainable goaltending or random chance, but that doesn’t explain away their ability to limit scoring chances and high-quality scoring chances.
While the Caps aren’t as dependent on their league-leading power play as in previous seasons (in 2013-2014, their 68 power play goals constituted 30% of their total), their 52 goals comprise 23% of their total offensive output, and, as we’ve seen in the past, it is a part of the offense that can’t always be relied on in the playoffs.
For all its success, the Caps’ power play has weaknesses, and teams have been able to stop it. The first step is denying a controlled zone entry and pressuring the puck. The best penalty kill against the Caps is to prevent them from setting up. The second step is forcing Nick Backstrom and John Carlson to shoot. Backstrom, for all his strengths, is a reluctant shooter. Carlson has a good shot, but point shots are relatively low-probability scoring chances, especially compared to Alex Ovechkin one-timers from the faceoff dots. The Caps’ coaching staff has adjusted to these tactics before, and likely will again, but it’s an area of concern, especially given that the Caps’ power play has gone dry in previous playoff years.
Ice quality, or lack thereof, may be another hurdle for the Caps’ power play in the playoffs. The 1-3-1 setup works best when it forces defenders to choose between collapsing around the slot or surrendering an Ovechkin one-timer from the faceoff dots. Getting the puck onto Ovi’s stick for a one-timer typically requires either a cross-ice pass from Backstrom at the half-boards, or a relay from Backstrom to Carlson or Matt Niskanen at the point to Ovechkin. Those are all long passes, and they will be difficult to make cleanly with the sloppy ice conditions that predominate from late April through June. Moreover, the 1-3-1 leaves Carlson or Niskanen alone at the point, which means the Caps are often one bad bounce of the puck from surrendering shorthanded breakaways.
The improvement in the Caps’ penalty kill this year, from 81.2% last year to 84.6% this year, has been significant. This leap is even more impressive given that it’s not buoyed by a large bump in shorthanded save percentage. In fact, the Caps’ shorthanded save percentage this year (88.35%) is nearly identical to last year (87.56%). The Caps have very slightly improved their shorthanded shot-suppression since last year, but only by three shot-attempts per 60 minutes, which likely isn’t enough to explain the PK’s improvement.
Similar to their even-strength play, the Caps are suppressing scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances while allowing a fairly high number of shot attempts. Relative to last year, the Caps are surrendering over five fewer high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time (18.4 versus 23.5). To put that in perspective, the Caps are 25th in the league in Corsi-against per 60 (104.2), but tied for 6th in the league in terms of high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes (18.4).
A difference in high-danger chances per 60 of 5.1 may seem small, given that the Caps only spend 5.12 minutes shorthanded per game (per War-on-Ice... NHL.com and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com sites use different measurements). This results in .4352 high-danger chances against per game for the Caps' PK. Given the ratio at which the Caps give up power-play goals per high-danger chance--3.23, roughly in-line with the league average of 3.12--that results in one additional goal every 7.42 games. Again, that doesn't sound huge, but over the course of a 74-game season, it's roughly 10 goals. Per NHL.com, the Caps have given up 36 power-play goals over 234 times shorthanded for their 84.6% rating. Holding all else equal, if the Caps' penalty kill surrendered high-danger chances at the same rate they did last year, they would have been scored on 46 times while shorthanded, which would be good for a PK percentage of 80.3%. Rather than being 4th-best in the league, the Caps would be 20th overall.
These statistics match up well with the Caps’ PK system. They seek to minimize chances from the high-danger areas, even if that means surrendering shot attempts from the point. If they can’t block the shot, they are generally effective at tying up sticks, clearing the crease, and allowing Holtby to do his thing.
Much like the other sections of this assessment, the Caps’ goaltending heading into the playoffs is subject to interpretation. A seeming lock for the Vezina Trophy earlier in the season, Braden Holtby has gone through a rough patch from January through March of 2016. His stats have ticked upward recently, as evidenced by his rolling adjusted 5v5 Save Percentage below:
This late-season resurgence is part of a trend for Holtby, as Tommy noted here recently:
Since Holtby became a full-time starter for the Washington Capitals in the 2013-14 season, Holtby has performed relatively average in January and February, only to ramp up his play in March and April. Prior to this season, Holtby had a .916 save percentage in 50 games in January and February in his entire career (that number sunk to .913 after this season with an additional 21 games on his resume). However, in both March and April, Holtby has managed to shoot his save percentage up to .930 in 65 career games.
Holtby and goalie coach Mitch Korn blame his stretch of poor play on the schedule disruption caused by the Snowzilla storm followed in quick succession by the All-Star break. Regardless of the cause, if the Caps are going to make it deep in the playoffs, they will need Holtby to perform at the level he reached in the 2012 and 2015 playoffs, rather than his poor showing against the Rangers in 2013.
The 2015-2016 Caps are a Rorschach test. One person can look at their even-strength possession stats and see a team primed for an early playoff exit. Another person could look at similar stats and see a team that’s capable of generating scoring-chances for and suppressing scoring-chances against. The same applies to their special teams and goaltending. For as dominant as they’ve been in the standings this season, nearly every aspect of this team can be broken down into an "on the one hand/on the other hand" argument.
For me, there seem to be three distinct layers to viewing this team. The first layer is superficial: standings points and goal differential. In this layer, the Caps appear dominant. The second layer is a collection of a handful of key metrics such as 5v5 Score-Adjusted Corsi Percentage and 5v5 Save and Shooting percentage. In this layer, the Caps appear to be a better than average team that owes its dominance in the standings to a fair amount of luck.
The third layer down is where things get interesting. This is where the analysis delves into why and how the Caps have performed as well as they have. No objective observer could deny that the Caps have benefited from good fortune this season, but the same could be said of nearly any team that puts up this number of points. What is fascinating about this team is the degree to which some of the deeper numbers align with what can be observed in watching the team over the course of the season. By the eye test, the Caps have an offensive system that prioritizes generating high-quality scoring chances over throwing high volumes of pucks on net. The same applies in the defensive zone - the Caps appear willing to surrender shot-attempts from the perimeter, but work hard to deny high-danger chances from in close. In both cases, the data bears this out. It’s therefore difficult to wholly attribute the Caps’ success to luck.
So what does this mean for the Caps’ playoff chances? This team is capable of winning the Cup. Their possession stats, while not dominant, also do not disqualify them from Cup contention. The roster is deep and will create advantageous matchups with most teams. Opponents will no longer be able to focus all their attention on stopping Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. They have strong special teams. The coaching staff is talented and experienced. The team also (finally) has veterans in Justin Williams, Brooks Orpik, and Mike Richards that have led teams to Stanley Cups. John Carlson is back and, for the first time in 2016, actually looks healthy. The Eastern Conference won’t be a cakewalk, but it looks to be an easier path than the murderer’s row out west.
There are two caveats to this assessment. The first is that the Caps could be in trouble if they keep sleepwalking into the playoffs and run into a team that’s been playing for its life over the last month. It’s difficult for teams to simply flip the switch to playoff mode. Second, this team will go as far as Braden Holtby takes them. Their system is going to cede shots, so they can’t mirror the 2013-2014 Kings, who won the Cup behind Jonathan Quick’s .911 save percentage. Holtby doesn’t necessarily have to be dominant from start to finish, but he’ll need to be better than average throughout, and he’ll need to come up with big saves and big games when it matters.