Over the past month, no team in the NHL has had a less-effective power play than the Washington Capitals, who have gone 1-for-27 (3.7%) over that span.
Some of that is bad “luck” (the Caps’ xGF - expected goals for - over the 10 games is 4.96), and the Caps have been missing key power play contributors for long stretches all season long, a season in which the Caps have the worst power-play percentage in the League since a three-goal outburst on opening night.
So what gives? How does the same unit that has been the most feared in the League for the better part of a decade get this bad this fast? Let’s look at some of the possible answers.
Not Enough Alex Ovechkin
After years of fishing unstoppable one-timers out of their nets and heading back to center ice somewhere shy of two minutes after going shorthanded, teams have finally started to defend Alex Ovechkin on the power play, limiting his shot attempts and thus his goals... right?
Well, maybe. Here are his shot rates at five-on-four since 2007-08:
Some of the numbers are down a bit, but the most noticeable number is that 8.8 shooting percentage (scoring chances are off, too, but that’s always been a tricky stat with Ovi, given that shots from “his office” don’t necessarily register as scoring chances). Compare a heat map of the Caps’ power play this year to 2014-15 (Ovi’s most dangerous campaign, per the above metrics), and you can see that he’s been pushed a bit further out:
Maybe pushing that dark brown blob out beyond the faceoff dot makes all the difference, and 8.8 is a sustainable shooting percentage based on the shots he’s taking now. Or maybe that number will regress upwards (of note, his five power-play goals this year are a tick above the 4.75 “expected”).
But the problem almost certainly isn’t “not enough Ovi” (in fact, it may be too much Ovi - he’s played 95% of Caps’ power-play minutes this season, an NHL high since it’s been tracked), but rather where he’s shooting from.
Too Much John Carlson
A common complaint is that the Caps’ top power-play unit is taking too many low-percentage shots from the point. As the heat maps above show, that’s not really the case, and John Carlson’s individual rates echo that point:
Carlson’s shot rates are way down across the board. Carlson’s involvement in lugging the puck up ice and getting it into the zone under control may be a bit much, but he’s not hogging opportunities once there.
Not Enough Nick Backstrom
Backstrom makes the Caps’ power play go, and last year’s heat maps with and without the sublime Swedish center make that painfully clear:
With Backstrom, the Caps’ power play had an expected goal rate that was 17 percent above average; without Backstrom, 19 percent below.
“Ah,” you’re quick to point out, “those ‘with’ minutes are also with Ovechkin et. al., and the ‘without’ was the second unit.” This is, of course, true. But Ovechkin’s splits there were +8%/-2%, Carlson’s were +11%/-7%, and, as a representative of the second unit, Tom Wilson’s were -11%/+12%.
Backstrom is the straw that stirs the drink on the Caps’ power play, and getting (and keeping) him healthy may be the biggest improvement the unit could make.
Not Enough T.J. Oshie
With Oshie, it’s actually “all of the above” - he’s missed a lot of time (more than half of the games so far) and, when he’s played, he hasn’t gotten his shots:
Those shot rates are all lows since Oshie’s arrival in D.C., and his shooting percentage on the power play is “only” 20 percent... one goal on five shots in 15 games, which, of course, hammers home that “not getting his shots” point.
We’ve talked a lot over the years about how that “bumper” position in the middle of the Caps’ power-play diamond is a money-maker (just ask Troy Brouwer), and Oshie has done well for himself in that spot in the past (13 goals last year, a couple of nine-goal seasons, etc.). But he hasn’t gotten it going there yet this year, and that circles back to Backstrom - with Backstrom out, the Caps typically have played Evgeny Kuznetsov in the former’s usual position on the half-boards, and slotted someone like Conor Sheary on the goal line in the feeder position. And, well, the drop off from Kuznetsov to Sheary in terms of playmaking ability is not small (which is part of why Tom Wilson hasn’t found much more success in the center of the diamond this year than Oshie has).
The trickle-down effect of a healthy Backstrom can’t be overstated. Just think about where Oshie is positioned on the power play and look at last year with Backstrom and this year without:
So that’s the good news - the Caps’ power play has been unlucky, both in terms of actual versus expected goals and the health of key contributors. And hopefully their luck will change on both fronts. It’s easy to convince yourself that a healthy Backstrom allows Kuznetsov to move down to the goal line, which produces more opportunity for Oshie which, in turn, forces defenses to sag a bit and allows Ovechkin and Carlson to get a bit closer and/or open for shots. After all, it has worked, to varying degrees, for years.
But it’s also easy to convince yourself that it’s not just a matter of personnel, that the Caps’ power play (especially the zone entries) are stale and flat-out bad, and that even a team of AHLers should be able to score more than a single power-play goal in a month. The bad news, in other words, is that whole “slow decline” thing.
The reality is, as it usually is, probably somewhere in between. The Caps’ power play isn’t as bad as it’s been, but its days of dominating the League are probably over without some sort of refresh. To wit, last year they finished 14th in expected goal rate, and fourth in actual goal rate. Good, not great.
But right now there isn’t a Caps fan (or, I’m guessing, employee) who wouldn’t gladly settle for “good”... because the Caps’ power play hasn’t been anywhere close to that for a while now.