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Are the Caps as Bad Defensively as They Seem?

Although they’ve had some high-profile glitches, things may not be as bad as you may think

Buffalo Sabres v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

So far in this young and weird season, the Caps have played five games and have yet to lose in regulation. They’re first in the East (yet again). They’ve only played one game at home, where they played without four of their most important players and still won.

Yet the focus has been, fairly or not, on the Caps lackluster defensive play to start the year. Admittedly, when you give up a goal while up on a two-man advantage, there’s going to be some focus on the defense. Further, there has been some… adventurous defending at times, particularly by certain young Caps forwards:

Even worse, the Caps have given up 2.28 goals per 60 at five-on-five (19the in the NHL) and 3.08 goals per 60 (20th).

Yet here’s the thing: once you look under the hood a bit, the Caps don’t actually look that bad defensively. Below is a list of the various Caps defensive stats, adjusted for score and venue:

Caps Defensive Metrics

Metric Rate NHL Ranking
Metric Rate NHL Ranking
Corsi-Against/60 43.69 5th
Shots on Goal Against/60 23.58 4th
High Danger Chances Against/60 9.03 13th
Expected Goals Against/60 1.76 9th

(Necessary caveat: it’s still early, and a lot of these statistics have yet to fully stabilize yet)

So what’s going on so far? There are three reasons why the Caps’ defense seems worse than it actually is.

1. They can’t buy a save

One of the big questions this year after losing Henrik Lundqvist was whether the goaltending combination of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek was ready for prime time or not. Although the Caps proclaimed confidence in the pair of young goalies, they did acquire Craig Anderson as some veteran insurance.

So far, the pair hasn’t been great. The Caps goalies have only saved 90.35% of chances at five on five, which ranks 25th in the NHL. They have not been much better on the penalty kill, only hitting a save percentage of 86.36%, which is ranked 17th in the NHL.

Moneypuck also hasn’t ranked their first five games positively, finding that both the Caps’ goalies have save percentages below what you’d expect.

The good news? It’s early. Samsonov has only started in two games, Vanecek in three (and those three the first of his NHL career). We’re at a far-too-small sample size to determine anything useful about the two, aside from saying they haven’t been good so far.

2. They’ve given up a lot of power play chances and haven’t gotten many themselves

Another frustration this year has been the vast disparity in powerplay chances that the Caps have had this year. The Caps have been shorthanded 20 times, while only receiving 11 opportunities themselves. This has resulted in a net penalties/60 of -1.74, which is the worst in the NHL.

This isn’t to say the Caps penalty kill has been bad. In fact, their goals against/60 on the PK is in the top-half of the league, and their rank well-above average in shot prevention in the 5v4 as well. However, the reality is that when you’re defending a lot a man down, the defense is going to look suboptimal.

But there’s another, simpler piece of context as to why the Caps haven’t looked great defensively..

3. It’s early in the year, when defenses aren’t as sharp

Following a trend of the last few years, scoring is again up this year league-wide, albeit slightly:

NHL League-Wide Stats

1 2020-21 NHL 60 3.03 0.78 3.75 20.89 79.11 30.2 27.4 0.905 2.85
2 2019-20 NHL 1082 3.02 0.6 2.97 20.03 79.97 31.3 28.4 0.91 2.82
3 2018-19 NHL 1271 3.01 0.58 2.92 19.78 80.22 31.3 28.5 0.91 2.81
4 2017-18 NHL 1271 2.97 0.61 3.04 20.18 79.82 31.8 29 0.912 2.78
5 2016-17 NHL 1230 2.77 0.57 2.99 19.1 80.9 30.1 27.5 0.913 2.59
6 2015-16 NHL 1230 2.71 0.58 3.11 18.66 81.34 29.6 27.1 0.915 2.51

In fact, as has been noticed by Andrew Berkshire, we should expect this trend to continue, particularly as NHL save percentages continue to decrease. Berkshire has also noted in the past that scoring in October can be particularly high, as NHL defenses adjust to the regular season.

Bottom line

Ultimately, although the Caps haven’t looked great defensively, the sky is not falling. They still rank above-average in the NHL in most defensive metrics, and we’ve still got a while before we can fully pass judgment on the Samsonov/Vanecek combination.

Further, although they haven’t looked great yet: they’re still in first in the East, have only played 1 home game, and have yet to lose a game in regulation. If they’re going to work out some kinks in the system, that’s the way to do it.