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Who Are This Year’s Capitals?

Comparing this season’s squad to those of seasons’ past

NHL: DEC 31 Predators at Capitals

The most important answer to the question presented in this article’s headline is this: The Capitals are the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Now while that answer satisfies almost every question we have about the team, we are still in the business of peeling back the onion a bit. A while back we researched when performance metrics begin to resemble end-of-season results, and came up with 38 games as a tentpole. To date, the Capitals have played 39 games, so we should feel pretty good about having a grip on the character of this team.

Let’s start with a time-honored plot of possession and production.

The short story is the Caps are sub-50 possession team, but are more than making up for it in the number that ultimately decides games. Their even-strength shot-share numbers resemble the Adam Oates years, but their even-strength goal-share numbers resemble the President’s Trophy winning campaigns of 2009-10 and 2016-17. While certainly not ideal, both metrics are better than what the team posted last season, and you know how that turned out. Beyond that, it’s not like this particular trend should come as a surprise to Caps fans.

Let’s dig a little deeper, this time into shot rates and shooting percentages, which underpin the numbers we see above.

Intercepts are defined by League average from 2007-2018

We see here that the Caps are doing a fine job generating shot attempts. In fact, they’re doing so at a better clip than they did during any full season under Barry Trotz (although the flipside of that is they’re relinquishing shot attempts at a faster rate than at any time since 2007, which is the extent to which this data is available). They’re also shooting successfully at a rate that exceeds even that high-octane 2009-2010 season, when the Caps scored 209 five-on-five goals. For some context, that’s more than any team has scored in the BtN era.

It’s difficult to imagine the Caps sustaining a 10.77% shooting percentage at five on five; if they did so it would be, again, the best such mark since 2007, with the next best showing, performed by Toronto, coming in an abbreviated season.

Now let’s shift our focus over to the other end of the rink, and examine shots-allowed and goaltending.

Intercepts are defined by League average from 2007-2018

So, as mentioned before, the shot attempts the Caps are allowing are a problem and, frankly, are at the root of their possession problems. However, they’re getting goaltending that exceeds League average (as usual), and is certainly in a sustainable neighborhood. As you might expect, the nearest neighbor to this year’s defense (insofar as we’re defining defense by shot suppression and goaltending) was last year’s defense.

But the game isn’t played entirely at five on five... and don’t the Caps know it.

Currently at -24 penalty differential and only 39 games played, the Capitals are well on their way to their worst PenDiff of the last 12 years. Despite a tough go of things lately, the power play has generally been good, and despite a better run of things lately, the penalty kill has been as bad as we’ve seen it in a long long time.

So all in all, the Caps are a high-event team, whose strong shooting and goaltending more than make up for a deficit in shot-share, while regression seems a likelihood for the shooting percentages, and a strong possibility for their shots-against rates. Meanwhile, their good power play isn’t good enough to account for their terrible penalty kill, and the rate at which they’re being sent to the box is magnifying that impact.

In short, they resemble last years’ team quite a bit, and have put themselves in fine position through the first half-or-so of the season. There’s a lot of hockey left to play, including a potentially important deadline in February, but it sure looks like the Caps are cooking with a similar recipe to the one that did the trick a season ago.