Is this upcoming season’s roster better than the Stanley Cup winning team in 2018? It’s hard to predict without seeing what the current team can do on the ice, but in trying to answer the question we can find out what this team might bring to the table.
First, let’s take a look at the teams over the last two seasons.
It’s odd to look back on that Cup-winning team and realize that they really weren’t that good, at least as the season began - but it’s worth remembering they made a full 180 once Michal Kempny was acquired. With him in the lineup, the Caps’ 5v5 xGF/60 jumped 9 spots to 2.29, their xGA/60 17 spots to 2.17, and their xGF% 15 spots to 51.28%. So that team wasn’t as bad as their overall numbers might have made them seen (obviously proven by winning the Cup).
Last year’s team was the same during the regular season, though they improved offensively but got worse defensively. This is probably why General Manager Brian MacLellan went out and bolstered their defensive play by adding many defensively reliable players (which you can read more about here).
All of that is to say that the Capitals over the last two seasons have not been particularly great to start with. So will the new team be better? There’s two ways to compare the teams: by looking at the lines and then digging into the underlying numbers. Let’s start with what we can see on the surface.
First, let’s go line by line and rank who is better: the Cup-winning team or the team in place for the upcoming season.
Note: These are just a cursory guess at what opening-night lines might look like, subject to change.
Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson vs. Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson
This line, and actually the whole Capitals team, relies heavily on what kind of Kuznetsov the Caps will be getting this season. Vintage 2018 Kuznetsov was an absolute elite beast, but the Kuznetsov of last season was empty after his concussion. Ovechkin will be 34 so expect a worse season from him… or not… really, who knows? Every year you think he’s going to start slowing down and he ends up leading the league in goals. And Wilson is Wilson: over the last two seasons he’s become a top-tier power forward in the league. As long as he stays away from the dirty stuff, which he did after that lengthy suspension last season, he should have a full season of top-six results.
Verdict: These lines are probably a draw as long as Kuznetsov returns to form... if not, the Cup-winning top line has the edge.
Vrana-Backstrom-Oshie vs. Vrana-Backstrom-Oshie
Nicklas Backstrom will be turning 32 this November, but he’s still an elite center with amazing passing abilities. He’s been healthy for seven years and doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. On the flip side, while TJ Oshie is a huge part of the Caps’ identity, it’s hard to ignore his health issues. He’ll be 33 in December and with a handful of concussion issues there’s always a chance that one more heavy hit puts him on the sidelines for a lengthy amount of time. But if he can stay healthy he should be an effective top six winger. Rounding out the trio, Jakub Vrana is poised for a huge breakout season. He’s a speed demon with a snipe of a shot that suppresses opponents’ scoring chances and creates a lot of them for his team. If he ever got any sort of big power play time he’d be a sure thing for 30 goals.
Verdict: Backstrom and Oshie might “decline” but that will be more than picked up by Vrana who is set for a monster year. For now they’ll be marked a tie, but if Oshie can stay healthy and Vrana goes off than this year’s line will be better.
Burakovsky-Eller-Connolly vs. Hagelin-Eller-Panik
Lars Eller is what he has been since arriving in DC — a solid third-line center that can step up in the second line as needed. He had a tough start to last season but picked it up in the back half, and should have his usual 35+ point season. Where it gets interesting is comparing Andre Burakovsky and Carl Hagelin. Burakovsky far and away has the better ceiling and legit top-six skill; he just never found it here. Hagelin on the other hand is a more definite thing, and while he doesn’t have the offensive skill of Burakovsky, he makes up for it with his speed and elite defensive play. He should be able to hit 30 points with the Caps in sort of a “jack of all trades” role. Connolly vs. Panik also gets interesting, because comparing last season’s Connolly to Panik would put the decision squarely on Connolly’s side... but he wasn’t nearly as prolific during the Cup season (albeit still decent for the Caps overall in 2017-18). Panik gets the win because he’s a more versatile player that has 20+ goal capability and can drive play better.
Verdict: If strictly comparing the 2017-18 to the 2019-20 team, than the latter takes the prize. Eller will be the same. Burakovsky was good but didn’t hit his ceiling, while Hagelin will bring way more consistency. Panik is a better version of Connolly of two years ago. So the 2019-20 third line wins.
Stephenson-Beagle-Devante Smith-Pelly vs. Boyd/Leipsic-Dowd-Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson has had his ups and downs for the Caps of late, and didn’t really bring much to the table last year outside of some penalty-killing ability and his speed — and while he was better for the Cup-winning team, it was still nothing that isn’t replaceable. Travis Boyd on the other hand has been very underrated for the Capitals. Playing mainly bottom-six minutes, Boyd was on pace for 31 points last season, which is extremely impressive. He’s a hard working player with above average vision and passing skill; having him on the fourth line is a luxury.
Nic Dowd was seen as a lesser replacement for Jay Beagle last season and expectations were low, but Dowd ended up being a true steal for league minimum. After putting up 30 points in his previous 187 NHL games, Dowd put up 22 points in 64 games for the Capitals last season. Among NHL players who played at least 500 minutes, Dowd was 51st in 5v5 points per 60 and 33rd in 5v5 primary points per 60. Extremely impressive. Beagle on the other hand ranked 483rd and 441st in those stats respectfully. Devante Smith-Pelly will always have a place in Capital fans hearts for his clutch goals during the Cup run, but the bottom line is he was never really all that good. Garnett Hathaway is a big, pretty quick, elite penalty killing player with some offensive upside. He’s a very big upgrade over DSP.
Verdict: The fourth line is a lot more definite than the previous three lines. Unless something crazy happens, this years fourth line will be far and away better than what the Capitals had on their Cup run. And this didn’t even include Brendan Leipsic who is also a great fourth line addition that will get some time.
Kempny-Carlson vs. Kempny-Carlson
This should be fairly quick. Kempny is still a great top four speedy defensemen, he just has to hope his torn hamstring is fully healed up and doesn’t hinder him. John Carlson is still an elite defensemen that will put up major points this season.
Verdict: This is a tie. Nothing crazy has changed except age, and if Kempny is 100% healed this pairing should still be very good.
Orlov-Niskanen vs. Orlov-Jensen
Dmitry Orlov has been one of the more underrated defensemen in the league, and he should continue to be the player he has been as not much has changed from two years ago, — though it would be nice to see him step up his offensive game. Matt Niskanen on the other hand has been declining dramatically over the last couple of years, and replacing him with Nick Jensen should be a huge upgrade. Jensen certainly struggled last season when he first got to the Capitals but with a full offseason and training camp he should be ready to start in top four in Washington.
Verdict: This upcoming season’s second pair should be a decent improvement to the Cup-winning teams second pair. Nothing against Niskanen, but he just isn’t a minute-munching, heavy defensive starting defensemen anymore. Jensen has less wear and tear on him and is ready to make statement in Washington.
Djoos-Orpik vs. Djoos/Siegenthaler-Gudas
Many believed Brooks Orpik was huge in the Cup run for the Capitals, but the fact is he was more lucky than good. During the playoffs he had the second best offensive zone start among Capitals defensemen, but had the worst Relative Expected Goals Percentage. Why did people think he did well? Because he had a PDO of over 106, which means he was extremely lucky. He was getting an insane .958sv% from Holtby while he was on the ice. The truth is he really wasn’t good. Replacing him with a Radko Gudas is a huge upgrade. Gudas will bring the physically that Orpik brought but he is also great at moving the puck up the ice. He just needs to keep his hits clean. As for Christian Djoos, he’s still great, though an injury last season certainly didn’t help him. And if for some reason he isn’t able to stick in the lineup, Jonas Siegenthaler is available. Seigenthaler had an amazing freshman season where he showed he positively impacted the defensive and offensive ends of the ice all while getting less than 46% offensive zone starts. The kid looks like a stud.
Verdict: Like the fourth line, this bottom pairing is a clear upgrade over the Cup winning’s third pair. And honestly, between Djoos, Siegenthaler, and Gudas, this bottom pairing could very well put up second pairing results. It’s very, very strong.
Holtby-Grubauer vs. Holtby-Copley
As we all remember, Braden Holtby really wasn’t himself for much of the 2017-18 season, leading to Philipp Grubauer actually starting the first two games of the playoffs. But after getting back into the starting role in Game 3, Holtby turned it on and backed the team to their first Cup. It shouldn’t be hard for this season’s Holtby to be better than himself two years ago, especially with a much better defensive team in front of him. Meanwhile Pheonix Copley has proven to be a reliable backup. His stats aren’t mind-blowing but they look better if you remove the three outlier games in which he got blown out playing behind a tired, defensively porous Caps team. Still, he’s no Philipp Grubauer, who has proven to be a legit number one goalie in the NHL.
Verdict: This is probably the only area in which the Cup team is better than the current team. Thanks to Grubauer’s emergence, the Cup team essentially had two number ones, which is not the case with this year’s goaltending tandem (although bringing in Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov could improve things a bit).
So by the eye test and on paper, this upcoming Caps’ team should be better than what the Cup team brought - during the regular season, at least. So what do the numbers say?
There’s a great tool that Charting Hockey (Sean Tierney) put together. It’s called the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) Lineup Creator. Basically, you put a team together and it will show you the WAR that an offensive line, defensive pairing, and goalie duos will provide. It uses ProjFSW (Project Full-Season WAR) to determine the 2019-2020 WAR of the offense, defense, goalies, and how many standing points a team will create. It is far from perfect but it’s an interesting look at what teams are putting together.
This is how the 2018 Stanley Cup winning team looked by using this tool:
And this is how this upcoming season’s team will look.
According to this tool, the team that the Capitals are going to ice this season is far and away better than what the Stanley Cup winning team provided. A whole 16 standing points better. That’s huge.
Now, it’s really important to remember that the 2017-18 team was created with THIS year’s ProjFSW in mind. There’s no way to select their WAR during the 2018 season before creating a team, meaning older players are more likely to be projected worse than they were. For instance, Matt Niskanen is for sure projected to be worse than he was two years ago. Other players like TJ Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, and maybe Alexander Ovechkin could be projected worse than they were in 2018 as well.
But on the flip side, players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov might be projected worse this upcoming season because they had down seasons last year and are due for a big bounce back. This is assuming the creation of the ProjFSW process involves previous seasons WAR, which it most likely does.
The process on how ProjFSW was created isn’t public yet (Sean said he’s writing up an explanation) so we don’t know what’s being taken into consideration when it is created. This just goes to the point that this tool isn’t perfect. In fact, we know the 2017-2018 team posted 105 points by seasons end not 91. Though it would certainly predict higher than 91 if it was made two years ago.
Thanks to Evolving Wild, we can also add up all the Cup winning players WAR/60 from the 2017-18 season and compare them to the WAR/60 of the players that are replacing them (from 2018-19) — so for example looking at 2017-18 Jay Beagle vs. 2018-19 Nic Dowd.
The result? The 2017-18 players that have departed DC gave a grand total of 0.003 WAR/60; the players replacing them put up a 0.568 WAR/60 in 2018-2019.
It’s important to note the WAR stat isn’t perfected in hockey. It’s still quite new and raw, so trying to make determinations from it isn’t easy. It isn’t really a predictive model, meaning it isn’t really there to say “this player should do this in the upcoming season”. It’s made to tell you what the player HAS done not what they WILL do. But for now it’s really what we have and the major difference between the WAR of what is going out and what is coming in for the Capitals is too large to ignore.
In both the paper and numbers test, it looks like the 2019-20 roster should be better than the Cup winning team. At the very least, they should be better than last season’s team, which is a move in the right direction, and it’s hard to imagine this team being ranked in the bottom half of most major stats like the Cup team was.
But again, that team turned it on when it mattered and won a Cup because of it — a reminder that what a team looks like on paper is only part of the equation. What we can draw from that paper team is that they should be able to play better during the regular season than they did two years ago.
What they do after that is up to them.