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Unexpected Improvement to Expected Stats

The Capitals have been using their defenseman differently recently, it may lead to some dividends down the road

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NHL: Washington Capitals at Florida Panthers Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s not kid ourselves; the Capitals have a good record this year because of timely shooting, strong goaltending, and the greatest goal scorer of all time. As Neil Greenberg put it, the Capitals have been sitting on a throne of lies... but that might be changing.

Check out this chart of the Capitals’ 5-game rolling average expected goal differential:

Sean Tierney

The data on the graph above doesn’t include the impact of Monday night’s tilt against the Jets, which was one of the Capitals’ best played games of the year (59.6% xG). Let’s be clear here: the sample size is small and even during this stretch the Capitals still only have an expected goal percentage hovering around 50%...but it’s an improvement.

On Japers’ Rink Radio we’ve talked frequently about how the Capitals have historically outperformed their “expected” statistics, and how the team actually had a bigger gap between their actual and expected results last year than this one. That being said, it’s fair to expect a team will have a better chance of making a dent in the postseason playing at a break-even xGF% than a sub 50% one.

Much has been made, rightly so, about the Capitals defensive issues. Prior to the trade deadline the Capitals were having a lot of trouble getting the puck out of their own zone smoothly and with control. While the forwards aren’t without fault, Brian MacLellan zeroed in on improving the puck moving capability of his defense corps at the trade deadline.

Madison Bowey has been paired with Brooks Orpik for the majority of the season and, given his struggles, it isn’t surprising that he’s been bumped to the bottom of the depth chart following the Capitals acquisitions of Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek. Bowey hasn’t played a game in March. Let’s take a look at how the Capitals have allocated their 5v5 minutes among defenseman this year:

Capitals Defense 5v5 TOI% by Month

*Data from NaturalStatTrick - 5v5 TOI% Calculation: (Player Average 5v5 TOI/GP) divided by (Team 5v5 TOI/GP) - Data pulled individually for each month.

Everything looks relatively as expected, Niskanen’s TOI increased following his injury which resulted in less time for Orpik...and

Orpik’s 5v5 TOI% has really dropped off recently. Now, it’s possible that Orpik is getting less ice time because the Capitals are resting him for the playoffs...but it could also be because they’ve properly identified a weakness in their lineup.

Trotz likes having Orpik to throw over the boards and explained his rationale to Isabelle Khurshudyan during the Capitals’ recent West Coast trip:

We don’t have a lot of size on the back end, a lot of physical attributes,” Trotz said. “We’re playing teams that go to the net real hard. L.A. does it really, really well. The [Anaheim] Ducks are a real strong team down low. Columbus is that way. I would say we don’t have a lot of those guys, and Brooks is one of those guys that he just plays defense.

Would the Capitals have a better on-ice product if Brooks Orpik received zero minutes of five-on-five ice time? Probably, but that isn’t likely while Trotz is the head coach...and, frankly, we don’t really know if the next guy will be any different. So let’s enjoy what we’ve seen from the Capitals so far in March. Orpik getting less ice time is a good sign, and it might even be playing a part in the Capitals’ recently improved xG numbers.