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Something’s Up with the Caps’ Power Play

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Taking a deep dive into the Capitals’ power play struggles and successes.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Over the vast majority of Alex Ovechkin’s tenure in Washington D.C., the Capitals’ power play has been a calling card of sorts. And no surprise, given the way the organization has been able to attract and keep high-end scoring talent over the years. They boast three of the ten best powerplay units the League has seen since the 2009-2010 season, and until this season hadn’t finished outside the top-seven in any given year since 2011-2012.

But this season is what we’re here to unpack. The team’s 20.8% power play conversion rate finished 12th in the NHL, and was the worst mark put up by a Capitals club since 2010-2011. Let’s have a peek at how things matured over time.

The team got off to a scorching start on the power play, which didn’t seem like much of a surprise given their history of success, but it steadily dwindled for the duration of the season’s first half, before settling in at around 21%. Zooming in on the second half of the season, we can extract a little bit more information.

In this view it becomes evident that the Caps put together a nice push on the powerplay in games 60 thru 65, to the point they were able to move the needle a bit, before floundering away all that progress (and then some) by the time the season had concluded.

So what gives? One place to look is shot rates, where some indicators about a unit’s quality of play can be deciphered independent from conversion rate.

Remember how the Caps’ conversion rate had sort of flatlined at 21%? That’s especially interesting with the additional knowledge that the Caps’ shot rates on the power play steadily increased for almost the entire second half of the season, before dipping a bit as the season concluded. Put another way, as the season wore on, the relationship between shot rates and power play success became less and less meaningful.

What’s interesting here is that the correlation between shot rates and power play seemed to level out at around a .75 correlation coefficient, which indicates a strong relationship between the two variables. But then, after a period of 25 games or so where that relationship remained consistent, the correlation begins to deteriorated. Based on what is laid out above, we understand that is because shot rates increased but conversion rate did not.

What could explain something like this? Examining any changes in personnel seems like a good place to start; not all shots are created equal. Thanks to the work of Micah Blake McCurdy over at HockeyViz, it’s easy to check to see if there were any notable changes around the time this change began to manifest.

Our point is interest is right around the point where Ovechkin’s TOI literally goes off the chart. That’s the primary takeaway here — at this point Ovechkin started staying out for close to 100% of his available minutes, and both Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov saw a modest diminishing of their minutes. In the case of Backstrom and Kuznetsov, the difference is negligible compared to what they were receiving earlier in the season, and in both cases it’s difficult to think either one of these would explain why shot rates went up.

What might be more interesting are any changes to who has been taking what percentage of shots.

Eyeballing this, it looks like Ovechkin’s share ticked up a bit during the final third of the year, while Kuznetsov and Oshie’s share dipped, with Carlson or Backstrom’s share appear to remain relatively flat. We can verify that by zooming in on the latter stages of the season and adding linear trend lines for each player.

Suspicions confirmed — the share that Ovechkin is gaining is being plucked from the pockets of Kuznetsov an Oshie. Anecdotally, teams have seemed to modify their approach on the penalty kill against the Capitals, choosing to apply immediate pressure to whoever is carrying the puck, rather than shading certain plays and allowing the Caps to utilize whatever poison is uncompensated for. Ostensibly, teams are allowing Ovechkin more shots, but with those plays easier to read, goaltenders are having an easier (but still not easy) time getting over to make the stop on The Great Eight. Would the Caps power play be better served seeing a greater share of shots come from Kuzy’s side of the ice, or is something else going on? Let us know in the comments below.