There's a general consensus out there that the current incarnation of the Washington Capitals is the best team the franchise has ever iced. Former coaches think so, former players think so, columnists think so, stats guys think so... these, dear reader, are not your next-of-kin's Capitals.
But we're not the types to blindly accept the latest proclamations of greatness without a little further inspection. So here's the question, Rob - just how confident are you that this is actually the best Caps team of the Ovechkin Era?
Rob: Oh, this isn't rhetorical. Of course this is the best Caps team of the Ovi Era. I get the regular season dominance of the 2009-10 team, and without the apparent bump in the road that the current iteration is experiencing, but let's be real. Where do you need me to start?
Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov put together a competent platoon, and despite much of the criticism of that season I don't think goaltending was the Achilles' heel of the team. But Braden Holtby is a cut above. Granted, he could always lay an egg in the playoffs and he's clearly not right on top of his game at the moment (though maybe he uses the Ducks game to launch him back in to form), but the guy has sterling playoff numbers and is in the front of the pack of the Vezina race. Advantage: 2015-16 Capitals.
It says I'm correct right here, Rob
It says I'm correct right here, Rob
Working our way out, Tom effing Poti was the tough minutes defender on the 2009-10 team. Tom Poti. Let that sink in. I'm not Brooks Orpik 's biggest fan, but if you ask me who I want taking the tough first line opponents and PK minutes, there's no way it's Tom Poti. John Carlson and Karl Alzner were rookies that spent most of the year in Hershey. I'll take their current veteran iterations, Carlson's injury notwithstanding. Then you look at a whole bunch of minutes from Jeff Schultz, Shaone Morrisonn, and Milan Jurcina, two of whom were virtually always in the top four. Matt Niskanen is obviously an upgrade, but I think you could argue that Nate Schmidt is better than any of those three, and Dmitry Orlov is at least close, even with his defensive adventures. Granted, Mike Green was baller back then (until he started cross checking guys in the face in the playoffs), but Joe Corvo was the deadline acquisition and dear god I'll never stop hating him for that Game One cross ice pass, among a long list of other reasons to dislike the guy. Advantage: 2015-16 Capitals.
And while the 2009-10 team was lighting up the league up front, the reliance on scoring on the rush was apparent from early in the season (just listen to Dan Bylsma in 24/7). Further, the secondary scoring was predicated on Alex Semin, with nothing in the way of center depth. Who knows if this is a unicorn season for Evgeny Kuznetsov (I tend to think it's not), but either way he's clearly a better second line center than whatever the Caps were working with throughout 2009-10. With Marcus Johansson being bumped to the third line, the addition of Justin Williams, and now Andre Burakovsky finally finding his game, this is a much better and deeper forward corps. This is clearly the closest position-to-position comparison, but give me Barry Trotz's heavy game with talent over the high-flying, rush-based Bruce Boudreau crew. Advantage: I'll be generous and call it a push.
At the end of the day, I don't see any way the 2009-10 team beats the 2015-16 team, and not just because the laws of time-space prevent the realization of this hypothetical.
J.P.: Hey, I asked whether or not this was the best team of the Ovi Era, not whether it's better than the 2009-10 club - you've got 2015-16, I've got the field. And I've got three teams that could challenge. Here's a quick glance at some of the five-on-five particulars for each (via war-on-ice.com):
So take your pick of past squads that badly outpossessed this year's team by generating more shot attempts-for and surrendering fewer against (and note that those 2007-08 numbers include 21 games with Glen Hanlon behind the bench; after Boudreau took over, they had a score-adjusted Corsi-For percentage of 56.5). But let's address your points one-by-one, starting in net. You're correct to acknowledge that goaltending wasn't the 2009-10 team's weakness, but I'm not sure how much of a "cut above" Holtby is than Varlamov and Theodore. In fact, if we take a look at five-on-five numbers for each of the netminders who got more than 500 minutes in those situations in each of the years referenced above, it's a tough argument to make:
I won't go as far as to suggest that Holtby might not even be the best goalie on the 2015-16 team, but in 2009-10, both Varlamov and Theodore stopped a higher percentage of medium-danger and high-danger shots at five-a-side than Holtby has this year (hence the better adjusted numbers), and Varlamov had better raw numbers as well. Holtby's past two months have brought his numbers down quite a bit and it's just not clear that he's been better this year than those guys were during the regular season in 2009-10. What comes next is anyone's guess, but this is a push until Holtby can show that he's the goalie he was through December and not the one we've seen since.
There's no question this year's Caps have a better blueline... on paper. But there's no question that Mike Green in any of those three seasons was worlds better than any current Caps blueliner - over that three-year span he had the highest 5v5 CF% of any non-Red Wing blueliner and notched 15% more points than his nearest competition among defenseman (despite playing fewer games), while placing seventh, second and second in Norris voting. The 2009-10 team had four defensemen north of 53.8% CF (Green, Schultz and your pals Poti and Corvo) and a quartet above 62.7 goals-for percentage. And at a team level, they allowed fewer adjusted shot attempts (as did the two teams that preceded them) than this year's team. Say what you want about the names, but those teams played more and better defense than they were ever credited with and had an absolute monster leading the way. Meanwhile, the top half of this year's Caps' top-six (Carlson, Niskanen and Alzner) are all at break-even or below in CF% and the other three top out with Orlov's 53.5%. Is this year's blueline better-suited for "playoff hockey"? We certainly hope so. But the numbers don't necessarily tell us that. Advantage: 2015-16... but maybe only on paper.
Still Good, Sure... But "The Best?"
Still Good, Sure... But "The Best?"
Up front, I should just take your "push" and move on, but let's acknowledge how much more dominant Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were back then versus now. Over that three-year span, the Caps took 58.8 percent of the shots and scored 63.7 percent of the goals when the duo was on the ice together at fives. This year? 50.5 and 63.6. Perhaps more impressively, this year the duo is creating 59.7 shot attempts per sixty minutes of ice time, down more than 15% from the three-year rate of 70.8. Oh, and lest we misremember the "run-and-gun" Boudreau era as something it wasn't, their shot-rate against was 49.6 per sixty back then... and 58.5 today. The 2009-10 numbers are even more jaw-dropping, but you get the point. As to depth, that 2009-10 team boasted seven 20-goal scorers (including that enigmatic 40-goal guy on the second line) and a 19-goal defenseman, and even had double-digit tallies from Matt Bradley. Obviously there was a gaping hole in the middle of the second line (but if we want to look back to the two years prior, they had a still-terrific Sergei Fedorov there), but they had plenty of depth of scoring, generating more offense and allowing less... which is pretty much the name of the game.
So what do you want to talk about next? Special teams? Coaching? Travel schedule and fog delays?
Rob: Hey, I like you, you tolerate me, so let's not insult anyone's intelligence by pretending this is more than a two-horse race. It's this year or 2009-10, and when we talk about horses and 2010, we can't ignore the golden horse shoe those guys were riding. Nice forwards, but no chance in hell that 10.4% shooting was anything close to sustainable or representative, as history has shown. Meanwhile, this year the team is still dominant in goal differential (which a pretty smart guy just said is pretty much the name of the game) with a reasonable 8.7% shooting. The 2010 team led the league in shooting percentage by over a full percentage point. This year's team doesn't even lead the league in shooting percentage, and yet they are dominating the League in goal differential (though a large part of that is special teams). The save percentages among the two teams are much closer, with an advantage to this year's team by .16%, though that gap was probably higher before Holtby was overcome by general malaise.
I get that this team's possession numbers don't look as beautiful as years past, but let's not get distracted. They're still very good and up near the League leaders. The 2.7% difference between this year and 2009-10 represents, what, around three shot attempts going the other way in one game? One more shot attempt against per period? And yet this year the team is still blowing away the field in goal differential without the aid of an unsustainable PDO. This team, frankly, doesn't need as many looks or as much luck to be deadly.
Consider further that at least one, if not both, of the top pair defenders have been hurt for most of the year. Consider further still that Kuznetsov started the year with mediocre possession, but has started to bring that aspect of his game up as well. I think there are some mitigating circumstances, as if this team even needs them, that did not exist in 2010 when everything broke just right for the team... until they were laid low by a merciless fog delay.
J.P.: Well, let's just hope this coronation isn't derailed by mother nature forcing these guys to spend an extra hour or two on their charter jet - that sure would be an inhumane way to go.
Look, the 2009-10 Caps had a 2.2 goal differential per sixty minutes of five-on-five hockey, versus the 2015-16 team's 0.7; they had a 9.0 differential on the power play versus the current team's 8.1; and they were... well, worse on the penalty kill (and less disciplined, for what it's worth). Unsustainable percentages? I think that's been pretty clearly borne out, but we know that shot metrics are better at predicting future goals than past/current goals are, so if you've got two teams with reasonably similar special teams, goaltending and finishing talent - as I think we've shown to be the case here, more or less - give me the one that's going to control more of the run of play.
But we both know the reality, don't we? In three months, there's going to be a clear answer to this question: either 2015-16 will have been the best team of the Ovechkin Era or... who cares?
Rob: I get the predictive value of shot generation, but I think it assumes some things that don't necessarily hold when considering these two teams. Not to go all R.J. Umberger on you, but does the 2010 team really look more playoff-ready than the current team? Let's cut to the chase, who you got in a best-of-seven head to head?
J.P.: You know who doesn't look playoff-ready? You and me. Let's work on our shot generation - starting with some tequila - and try to prepare ourselves for the Caps' current best chance at a Cup, shall we?