Two of the biggest questions going into the offseason were whether the Capitals were going to make adjustments to their bottom 6 forward group, and whether they would trade Matt Niskanen, who had declined precipitously in the last year. Unsurprisingly, the Capitals took aggressive action to address both by extending Carl Hagelin, signing Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway & Brendan Leipsic, and trading Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas.
So, what did the Capitals gain from this flurry of action? What did they lose?
The Capitals desperately needed to improve defensively.
In order to really get at what the Capitals are doing, the first thing to understand is exactly how bad the Capitals were defensively over the last two years over the regular season. You can see this in the percentage of high danger chances (at five-on-five) that the Capitals had over the last five years (and particularly in the steep decline over the last two years):
Further, this decline led to the Capitals seeing both their expected and actual goals-against totals spike, particularly over the last two years:
Let’s just say that the next time you happen to see Phillip Grubauer or Braden Holtby on the street (maybe at the Pride parade, for instance!), you might want to suggest thanking them for keeping the Capitals above water in recent seasons.
Diving into the causes of the spike, explanations abound. Perhaps the Capitals were having systemic defensive issues, or maybe there was a bit of a hangover from the disappointing loss in 2016-17 & from winning in 2017-18.
There was one big problem, and it particularly showed up last year: the decline of Matt Niskanen. This came up when breaking down the Niskanen for Gudas trade, but the Niskanen-Orlov pair last year was particularly dire in these regards. In fact, Niskanen had the second-worst high-danger percent chance among all defensemen who played over 1,000 minutes last season. The only player worse? His partner, Dmitry Orlov.
Still, while the Niskanen-Orlov pairing is an easy target, they were not the only ones responsible for the lack of defense — some of the blame lies with the forwards. In fact, no one let up more high-danger chances against than Evgeny Kuznetov (his linemate, Alex Ovechkin, was second-worst), something noted last February and which didn’t really improve down the stretch.
Ultimately, we get the picture: the Capitals were BAD defensively over the last two years. It was clearly something that GM Brian MacLellan needed to fix during the offseason.
The Capitals picked up players that will make them better defensively.
The team’s overall defense wasn’t good, and so the Capitals took aggressive action in fixing this problem. Indeed, every player that the Capitals either traded for, signed, or re-signed is better than average at shot suppression. We’ve already gotten into Radko Gudas and his ability to suppress shots (particularly of the high-danger variety), but this extends to the 3 forwards the Capitals signed yesterday too.
Don’t believe me? The Capitals PR twitter account was, well, bragging about it. Take a look at the tweets that they sent after every single one of their moves:
With Richard Panik on the ice at five-on-five last season, the Arizona Coyotes saw an increase in shot attempts within 10 feet of the net relative to the NHL average. Graphics provided by @IneffectiveMath at https://t.co/fxR3jUTvi5 pic.twitter.com/cxAx817M1g— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) July 1, 2019
With Garnet Hathaway on the ice at five-on-five, the Calgary Flames saw a decrease in shot attempts against within 10 feet of their net relative to the NHL average. Graphics provided by @IneffectiveMath at https://t.co/fxR3jUTvi5 pic.twitter.com/OtXZUvED5H— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) July 1, 2019
With Brendan Leipsic on the ice at five-on-five, the Los Angeles Kings saw a decrease in shot attempts against within 10 feet of their net relative to the NHL average. Graphics provided by @IneffectiveMath at https://t.co/fxR3jUTvi5 pic.twitter.com/rGIrkDV5nZ— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) July 2, 2019
Indeed, after this, it probably won’t surprise you to know that Carl Hagelin is particularly good at suppressing shots too:
Although the Caps PR folks aren’t going to win any awards for subtlety, they might just be onto something. After a couple of seasons where the Caps were among the worst teams in hockey in terms of allowing high danger chances, they may have just gone a long way towards mitigating this weakness.
Further, aside from just addressing defensive woes, the Capitals might’ve even come out ahead just in terms of player value. Although hockey WAR is still developing, the Evolving Hockey WAR model can still provide a decent single-metric view of player value. Here are the Capitals players that they gained in free agency, according to their WAR values last year:
And here’s a view of the players the Caps lost:
So clearly, the Capitals got players that’ll help suppress shots, and there’s even an argument that they improved their team as a whole.
...but will the Capitals be able to score enough?
Although the Capitals are probably going to give up fewer goals, they can’t win games 0 to -1 (thanks to site founder J.P. for that insight). From that perspective, the loss of goal-scoring talent that departed this summer could be a concern.
The one that might hurt the most is the loss of Brett Connolly. Although Connolly wasn’t particularly great at creating tons of chances, he was very, very good at finishing them. Indeed, despite signs that his shooting percentage would regress, Brett Connolly has finished with an above-average shooting percentage for three straight years, and set a career high with 22 goals last season.
Although Andre Burakovsky has struggled in recent years, the talent is undeniable and the Caps will also have to make up the 10-15 goals that he regularly contributes. Additionally, despite Niskanen’s struggles, he’s typically good for 5-10 goals a year, and added 8 last year.
Comparatively, the players the Caps acquired and extended aren’t ones to light the lamp regularly. As discussed on a recent episode of Japers’ Rink Radio, Hagelin isn’t exactly setting the world on fire with his scoring touch. Panik also won’t make up that gap, as he hasn’t eclipsed the 20 goal mark since 2016-17, and has been stuck around 14-15 goals per season on average for most of his career. Hathaway also won’t make up that gap in 4th line minutes, and he’s never scored more than 11 goals in a season in his (albeit brief) NHL career. Finally, the less that can be said about Gudas & scoring ability...the better (though at least he gets bounces once in awhile.)
Inherent in all of this analysis is another problem: the Capitals scoring talent isn’t exactly getting younger, and may enter the decline phase soon. Of the Capitals top-five point scorers, only one (Kuznetsov) is younger than 28, which is right around when players start seeing their scoring totals decline. Now no one would be so stupid as to predict the decline of Ovechkin, but the bottom line is that the Capitals are not exactly replete in scoring depth, and probably will struggle to overcome losing one of their key pieces (i.e. Oshie or Backstrom) for any extended period of time.
Ultimately, GM Brian MacLellan took a calculated & defensible gamble. He saw a Capitals team that struggled to consistently keep the puck out of the net, a bottom-six forward group that needed reinforcements, and defensemen that struggled after the loss of Michal Kempny. Yet without a ton of cap space, they couldn’t exactly go out an acquire a high-price blue-liner (though in the case of Tyler Myers, maybe that’s for the best.)
Instead, MacLellan went after complementary players that were affordable and perhaps undervalued in their ability to suppress shots (and many of these new contracts are likely easy to move if for some reason they don’t pan out).
Although the Capitals have less of a margin for error after losing scorers like Connolly & Burakovsky, they may well make up that margin in the defensive improvements that players like Hagelin, Panik, Hathaway & Gudas can bring.