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So Far, So Good: The First Eight Games

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Digging into the stats - and outcomes - through the first 10%(ish) of the season

Toronto Maple Leafs v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

We are officially 10% through the 2019-20 season (well, 9.75% for you super detailed people)! The Capitals have a 4-2-2 record with a lot of ups and downs, and plenty of storylines to talk about.

But before we get into it, there are two big caveats that must be addressed:

  1. Something is up with the NHL and their shot tracking this season that is causing the analytic world rushing to figure out what exactly is happening. So any number related to shot location like Scoring Chances (SCF%), High Danger Chances (HDCF%), and Expected Goals (xGF%) isn’t 100% reliable. But it’s all we have right now so deal with it. What we know that is accurate is any stat that involves shot counts like Shot Attempts (CF%) and Shot For/Against (SF%). Essentially, we’re back in the stone ages of hockey analytics.
  2. Eight games is not the biggest sample size, usually 15-20 is what you would want to start making judgements on a players’ or team play. And these eight games aren’t just any eight games, they’re the first eight games of the season which are the wild West. Teams are trying new systems, new players adapting to new teams, everyone is trying to find their legs, etc. So whatever a team shows now shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

With those two grains of salt taken, let’s just jump into the nitty gritty of it and see where the Capitals stand among the league.

(Note: All stats are 5v5 Adjusted and provided by Natural Stat Trick.}

Shots%: 52.34% (9th)
Shot Attempts%: 53.60% (6th)
Expected Goals%: 55.77% (4th)
Scoring Chances%: 55.02% (5th)
High Danger Chances%: 51.41% (15th)
PDO (Luck): 0.975 PDO (25th)

By the numbers, the Capitals have played some really good hockey at five on five — and this is against top teams, as all eight of their opponents so far were playoff teams last season. The only smudge mark is the HDCF%, which is in the middle of the pack, but as all the other numbers are so good it’s okay if one aspect isn’t quite as strong.

Looking at the Caps’ .975 PDO, it’s interesting to see how unlucky they’ve been so far; this is a team that usually hovers around 101-103. Yes, they lost some good shooting talent in Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, and their team shooting percentage of 7.6% sits at 19th overall... but what’s really hurting them is the save percentage of 89.88%, which ranks 26th.

What do these numbers tell us about the team’s performance overall? Well, when given the option between good news or bad news first I always go bad news. It’s better to end up with the good stuff. Like eating your peas first then finishing your meal on the mashed potatoes.

So let’s start with some peas.

Hands down the worst part about the Capitals this season has been the play of Braden Holtby. If he’d been giving his team even average goaltending so far this season they’d probably have four to six more points in the bag right now. As noted yesterday, expectations of a bounceback to elite levels should be tempered because history says it’s very unlikely — but he should be much better than he is right now.

Outside of the goaltending, the Caps still seem to be having power play issues, as they rank just 16th in the league at 21.9%. Granted, the absence of Evgeny Kuznetsov for the first three games of the season certainly didn’t help those numbers. In those first three games, the Caps went 2-for-11 (18.1%); since Kuznetsov’s return, they’ve gone 5-for-21 (23.8%). That’s a positive sign, but given the talent they can send out on the power play, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be consistently at or above 25%. And once they get set up in the offensive zone, it’s easy to see why - they just need to get there first, and that’s not happening as often as it should.

Another issue to keep an eye on is the play of recently acquired forward Richard Panik, who was penciled in to replace Connolly and should be capable of putting up 15-15-30... and yet through eight games Panik has zero points and just seven shots on goal (and is now on LTIR after colliding with Jonas Siegenthaler in the Leafs game).

Not great, Bob.

That said, it’s important to remember that sometimes it just takes time for new guys to learn systems, develop chemistry with linemates, etc. Remember that when Connolly first joined the Capitals he had all of one point and 12 shots in the first 11 games. Panik isn’t too far off from those stellar landmarks, and he’s doing a lot of good things (albeit quietly). It’s early yet, and given his newness and his previous body of work, it’s worth practicing a little patience.

And then there’s the ongoing absence of Michal Kempny, one of the Caps’ best defensemen, which is a bit worrisome. Injured in March, he was expected to be ready for the start of the season but after eight games he still hasn’t played. Signs do seem to point to a return at some point over the weekend, which is great news — but Kempny is 29 years old and hasn’t played hockey in seven months. Can he return to his old self? The Caps will need him to do so sooner rather than later, especially if Siegenthaler is out for an extended period of time.

...okay, now some good stuff.

The Caps’ defense has overall been really good, which sounds odd considering they’re giving up over three goals a game, have blown three third-period leads and ceded six goals in the first period of their last two games alone... but really, the underlying numbers are quite impressive (and a good sign that things should even out eventually).

Current adjusted five-on-five stats:

Shot Attempts Against/60: 49.52 (4th)
Shots Against/60: 26.52 (1st)
Expected Goals Against/60: 1.75 (4th)
Scoring Chances Against/60: 21.75 (3rd)
High Danger Chances Against/60: 8.69 (18th)

Defensively those are some strong numbers, with the HDCA serving as a bit of an outlier. It seems like the Capitals do a very good job at limiting shots and scoring chances overall — it’s just that when they do let a team take a shot, it’s from a dangerous area. If they clean that up they’ll be sitting pretty, and will drastically help Holtby get his numbers up (although they also just need Holtby to bail them out on occasion because the system in front of him should be making his life pretty darn easy).

That strength defensively has extended, as expected, into the penalty kill. Last year it was a mess, ranked 24th at just a shade under 79%; this season, they’re in the top ten with a steady 84.6% rate. They are also second in the League with a 3.97xGA/60, improving over last year’s 6.17xGA/60, and have cut way back on shot attempts against, ranking seventh this year with 82.94CA/60 compared to last year’s 90.24/60.

The system probably hasn’t changed too much (although it does seem more aggressive) but adding Garnett Hathaway and Brendan Liepsic, having a full training camp of Carl Hagelin, benefiting from the ongoing evolution of Jonas Siegnethaler, and just overall having better personnel for the system in place has really helped the PK.

Now let’s take a quick look at some standout players through the team’s first eight games:

  • Ilya Samsonov, the presumptive future of Caps’ netminding, has proven to be quite a goalie in his four-game, 208-minute run, with a goals-against average under two and an impressive .933 sv%.
  • Lars Eller has been an absolute stud, stepping up during Kuznetsov’s absence and putting up five points while driving play.
  • The Leipsic-Hathaway fourth line duo was exactly what the doctor (Brian MacLellan) ordered as they have been dominant nearly every game.
  • Carlson has been on an absolute tear with 14 points in eight games. The second closest defensemen has nine points.
  • Siegenthaler has taken on more important minutes and is proving to be a legit top four defensemen.
  • Fehervary, though limited to three games, was impressive as hell as a kid who just turned 20 years old less than two weeks ago.
  • Dmitry Orlov has been what everyone expects of him after last years down season.

Again, it’s just the first eight games of the season and the shot location stats could be skewed, but from what’s been shown, the Capitals are in a pretty good spot — especially considering their opponents through a tough first half of the month. The defense and penalty killing (two pain points last year) have improved immensely and h. The Capitals defense has been much better compared to last season, which is a big sigh of relief, they just need to tighten up around the net a bit more. Maybe getting Kempny back will help with that. Their PK is humming along and their goalie of the future is looking good.

So far so good for the boys in red.