With the Caps on the verge of capturing a second-consecutive Presidents’ Trophy and carrying with them the heightened expectations that come along with such regular-season accomplishments, let’s take a 30,000-foot look at how they stack up against the rest of the League.
You know how this works (here’s late February’s update), so we’ll dive right in on this one. Here's a League-wide ranking in 21 metrics (data via NHL.com, Corsica.Hockey and Puck On Net; click to enlarge all charts in this post):
As has consistently been the case, the Caps still look like a very good team whose results may well outpace some of their underlying numbers, thanks to strong special teams, finishing talent and goaltending. If there’s anything that gives you pause here, it’s the Scoring-Chance For percentage (SCF%) which obviously informs Expected Goals-For percentage (xGF%) - if you’re basically trading scoring chances one-for-one, the rest of those shot metrics aren’t necessarily going to be hugely impactful, and the result is middling numbers in both. Of course, your mileage may vary on how much faith you put in these two metrics. But here, via HockeyViz (with sloppily overlaid “home plates”), is a visualization that gets at that scoring-chance exchange:
That’s a lot of red in the heart of the “Against” heat map. If not for Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer and one of the highest five-on-five shooting percentages in the advanced stats era, this could be a very different Caps season.
What’s particularly encouraging about the Caps as they head into the playoffs is that the things that tend to matter are both a) really good and b) actually trending in the right direction. Take a look:
Shot metrics? All up. To Corsica, for a viz:
#DCRising and such.
And with the Caps sitting in third in Score-Adjusted Corsi For percentage (SACF%), fans might be feeling pretty good...
Past five Cup champions' rankings in score-adjusted Corsi: 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd. Tough for even greatest skeptics not to see correlation.— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) June 13, 2016
But let’s pump the brakes for a moment and note that top-three in SACF% doesn’t necessarily represent the distinction in team quality that it used to. As teams have wised up on the importance of shot metrics and their general predictive value, the high-end Corsi outliers are less frequent. Via Puck On Net, you can see what I mean with three seasons over the past decade:
Those are, left-to-right, 2007-08, 2011-12 and 2016-17. In 2007-08, there are four teams above 54%, and five such squads in 2011-12. In 2016-17? One. A 59% team is unheard of now. In 2007-08, the 15th-ranked Blackhawks were at 49.9%; in 2016-17, the 15th-ranked Oilers are at 50.5%. In 2007-08, there were four teams below 46%; in 2016-17, just one.
You get the point - SACF% has leveled off quite a bit, and teams aren’t able to find the advantages there that they were even five years ago. All of that isn’t to say it’s not good that the Caps are “top-three in SACF%”... but it’s simply not as much of a differentiating factor as it was in years past.
Back to the task at hand, the Caps’ power play is up as well, thanks to the current 8-for-17/11-for 44 run. Think Kevin Shattenkirk is fitting in?
Anyway, the Caps will enter the playoffs, likely with home-ice advantage for as long as they can stay alive. And based on the way they’ve played over the course of this season (and, really, longer than that), that could be a while.
Yes, we may quibble over how Barry Trotz deploys his defensemen or his bottom-six forwards, and those aren’t trivial concerns - in playoff series that are decided by the narrowest of margins, a failure to optimize the roster you’ve got can be the difference between winning and losing your last game of the season. As Trotz himself is quick to note, one mistake can cost you a series, and that mistake may be as likely to occur behind the bench as on the ice.
But this Caps team is arguably both the best the franchise has ever iced and, more importantly, the best in the NHL today. No one knows what’s going to come next, but the Caps have done all that they can to date: they’ve put themselves in a position to win.