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Could This Skater Spark the Caps’ Power Play?

The Caps’ power play has been on the struggle bus for some time now, and maybe it’s time for a new spark plug.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Caps power play was bad two nights ago Philadelphia. Not just a little bad, but 0-5, and yielding the gamewinning shorthanded goal bad. And while Wednesday night’s game is perhaps an extreme example, it was emblematic of how things have been going for the Caps’ normally fearsome power play unit for over a month now.

As the Post’s beat reporter Samantha Pell highlights, since December 1st the Caps’ power play unit is clicking at a paltry 13.7% rate, which is good for third-worst in the NHL. It’s also worth noting that the seven goals that have gone into that rate have been largely equalized by the three-shorthanded goals. The stretch has dropped the Caps power play unit down to 11th in the league in overall efficiency.

So what gives? Well here seems like a good place to disclaim that we won’t be offering any diagnoses of the cause for the Caps’ struggles, but instead offering a potential bandaid.

Let’s start by establishing an interesting truth about the Capitals power play preferences: they rely on their top unit to a far greater degree than what is normal around the league. This is a difficult measurement to make across the league, but by looking at the second-leading defenseman in 5v4 ice time on each team, we can establish a directional understanding of how the league distributes.

In evidence in the above plot is that there are only two teams in the NHL who lean on their top powerplay unit more than the Capitals: the Edmonton Oilers and the Vegas Golden Knights. In and of itself that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as within this year’s sample of data, there does seem to be a negative relationship between second unit ice time and 5v4 goal scoring rates. Put another way, the larger the share of PP ice time given to the first powerplay unit, the better that team’s power play has been overall, generally speaking.

Micah Blake McCurdy does a fine job confirming what we know about the Capitals power play unit: it’s Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie, and then it’s everybody else (with “everybody else” being largely defined as Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov, and Lars Eller).

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Travis Boyd, Richard Panik, and Brendan Leipsic have all slotted in for a few odd minutes here or there, but the personnel hierarchy on the Caps’ power play has been consistent so far this season. Which brings us to the question: should it continue to be?

Let’s talk about Jakub Vrana, who you might know as the Caps’ leader in 5v5 goal scoring rates and 5v5 points rates. Vrana’s production at evens has been so electric in fact, that it pops when compared to the entire league.

If you’re reading that correctly, you’ll have gleaned that Jakub Vrana scores at a greater clip when at 5v5 than any other forward in the NHL who has skated more than 300 minutes. If you expand the scope of this analysis to points/60 as opposed to just goals/60, there are only a handful of players who have Jakub beat, and they’ve got names like Evgeni Malkin, Brad Marchand, Artemi Panarin, Nathan MacKinnon and David Pastrnak. These are all household names for hockey fans, and inarguably some of the top offensive talent the League has to boast. Yet,as measured by ice time Jakub is barely cresting the median. To say he’s not getting the same type of opportunity as other skaters who produce at a similar rate is understating the case.

Now, the Caps are tops in the League, and we’re sitting in mid-January with the team still having not lost more than two consecutive games, so it’s difficult to get too bent out of shape about much that’s going on with the squad. However, when you’ve got one of the most dynamic young forwards in the League in your reserves, and your power play has been sputtering for going on seven weeks now, it’s hard to ignore the notion that the answer might be staring you in the face: throw the young gun up with the heavy artillery and see if it knocks some grit out of the gears.

This isn’t idle speculation either — Vrana hasn’t exactly been fed minutes on the power play, but he’s made a mark in the 69:40 of the ice time he’s had a man to the good; number 13 leads the Caps in 5v4 on-ice shot rate and goal rate. Also interesting are Vrana’s shot maps at 5v4. We know Carlson, Ovechkin, and Oshie all have pretty centralized areas from which they operate. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov roam a little bit more, so let’s look at Vrana’s 5v4 shooting tendences in comparison to those two.

Whether it’s something Vrana is wittingly doing, or a consequence of structure unraveling towards the end of the powerplay, which is where the second unit tends to pick up its minutes, it’s clear that Vrana has been distributing his shooting activity around the ice in a way that his comrades on the first unit aren’t.

Whether the root cause of the Caps’ power play woes are about zone entries, puck decisions, or shooting luck, the Caps have an obvious test-case in Vrana’s speed, his proven ability to produce, and his hot hand. Choose Kuznetsov or Backstrom to give a run on the second unit, throw your most productive forward on top, and see what happens. After all, it can hardly get worse, can it?