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What Lies Beneath: Known Unknowns Edition

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In part 1 of a recurring series, Greg breaks down some of the interesting Caps and NHL-wide trends.

New York Islanders v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

We’re currently 9 games into the NHL season and the Caps are one of only two teams who have yet to lose a regulation game. They have the second highest points percentage in the NHL, and they’ve seen their playoff odds rise from around 50% to 70%:

Washington Capitals playoff odds according to Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic.

Frankly it’s hard to tell if the Caps are any good, and their underlying stats don’t exactly support their current results. That said, they’ve just finished a four-game stretch with four of their best players on the COVID list, and been without Lars Eller, Justin Schultz, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson for various stretches. They went 3-0-1 during that stretch, and added another win against Boston on Friday.

Because the results in the standings and on TV are never the full story, we’re going to do an occasional look into the Caps underlying stats to see what they say about the team’s play. Let’s dive in:

Caps Forwards Shot Metrics

Player GP Shot Attempts For % Shots on Goal For % Goals For % Expected Goals For %
Player GP Shot Attempts For % Shots on Goal For % Goals For % Expected Goals For %
Alex Ovechkin 5 47.64 47.4 57.28 43.63
Brian Pinho 2 51.75 49.37 0 48.71
Carl Hagelin 9 43.96 40.72 64.89 43.64
Connor McMichael 1 38.48 44.53 N/A 50.52
Conor Sheary 7 49.34 47.48 42.07 45.81
Daniel Carr 2 44.11 39.95 64.42 36.31
Daniel Sprong 7 50.61 51.46 37.33 46.79
Evgeny Kuznetsov 4 57.07 62.23 82.2 65.66
Garnet Hathaway 9 44.15 42.25 84.95 45.36
Jakub Vrana 9 50.14 50.09 80.06 52.12
Lars Eller 7 52.62 55.53 51.27 54.67
Michael Sgarbossa 3 44.98 37.63 48.01 27.3
Nic Dowd 9 46.28 45.45 82.49 45.51
Nicklas Backstrom 9 44.89 43.06 63.02 40.79
Richard Panik 9 55.36 53.37 48.9 56.16
T.J. Oshie 9 50.29 46.97 58.78 44.45
Tom Wilson 7 41.71 42.87 74.95 41.92

Caps Defensemen Shot Metrics

Player CF% SF% GF% xGF%
Player CF% SF% GF% xGF%
Brenden Dillon 47.47 46.35 73.85 46.31
Dmitry Orlov 49.45 50.46 40.73 37.53
John Carlson 43.7 43.17 50.6 42.49
Jonas Siegenthaler 47.31 48.32 0 47.29
Justin Schultz 54.55 54.15 80.77 52.76
Nick Jensen 45.58 46.11 39.35 44.97
Trevor van Riemsdyk 49.3 45.55 64.65 46.93
Zdeno Chara 47.9 45.67 75.88 49.14

Some Caps notes:

  • As has become a recurring theme, the Caps are again outperforming their shot-attempt metrics at five on five. The last few games, though, have taken that to a new extreme:
Capitals net shot attempts and goals per game at 5v5
  • With Kutznetsov and Eller out for different stretches, the Caps have had to rely on Nicklas Backstrom to an unprecedented degree. He’s averaging a career-high 15:16 a game at five on five and seemingly doing well with that extra ice time:
  • That said, there are reasons to have concerns about Backstrom. He’s currently rocking a 40% expected-goals percentage, which is the third-lowest on the Caps (behind only Daniel Carr and Michael Sgarbossa). Instead, what is fueling Backstrom’s points increase is a 15% shooting percentage, which would easily be the highest of his career. Come back soon, Kuznetsov and Eller!
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the Caps injuries have given an unprecedented opportunity to elite winger Jakub Vrana, who has skated a career-high 13:15 a game at five on five and delivered so far this year:
Jakub Vrana’s HBFAnalytics Chart
  • The Caps $3.35 million winger is easily doubling his contract value. Vrana is going to be an RFA next year, and it is going to be interesting to see what his number comes in at this offseason.
  • Speaking of Vrana, his addition to the Caps power play seems to be paying dividends. The power play is converting at an incredible 44% rate this year, tops in the NHL. What’s interesting is that the Caps aren’t leading in any one category, but instead are just pretty good in a whole bunch of areas:

Caps 5v4 Statistics

Statistic (at 5v4) Caps Rate NHL Ranking
Statistic (at 5v4) Caps Rate NHL Ranking
Shot Attempts/60 102.09 9th
Shots on Goal/60 75.35 2nd
High Danger Chances/60 14.58 22nd
Shooting Percent 19.35% 8th
  • Worth taking the high danger rate with a pretty big grain of salt too: the Caps are known for doing the kinds of cross-ice passes that can be difficult to categorize. I wouldn’t expect the Caps to lead the NHL in the power play all year if they can’t generate a bit more volume, but getting Ovechkin back to add a spark with the extra man will probably help.
  • Finally, let’s talk penalty killing. The Caps’ kill hasn’t been particularly great this year, only stopping opponents at a 75% rate (22nd in the NHL). Even worse, the Caps haven’t taken particularly good penalties either. I’ll let our own Alex Ervin take it from here:

Out of the 33 two-minute minor penalties the Caps have taken so far (excluding a too much man bench minor and one that resulted in a penalty shot): 13 have been in the defensive zone, seven in the neutral zone, 13 in the offensive zone. They’ve also had two games (home opener and tonight) in which they’ve taken three penalties and none of them were in the defensive zone.

  • Given the Caps struggles while down a man, you’d like them to take less offensive-zone penalties. That said, they only have a 83.33% save percentage (22nd in the NHL) while on the penalty kill, which won’t help things either.

Some NHL-wide notes:

  • The Caps out-performing their expected goals and shot attempts isn’t exactly a league-wide trend. Here’s the top teams in expected goals percent at five on five and where they rank NHL-wide in points percentage:

NHL expected goals & points percentage

Team xGF% NHL Rank in Points Percent
Team xGF% NHL Rank in Points Percent
Montreal Canadiens 59.66 8th
Carolina Hurricanes 59.65 4th
Minnesota Wild 57.59 17th
Boston Bruins 57.25 7th
Colorado Avalanche 55.48 12th
Vegas Golden Knights 54.99 5th
Tampa Bay Lightning 54.98 9th
Florida Panthers 53.68 1st
St Louis Blues 53.66 11th
New York Islanders 52.71 24th
  • Nothing too unexpected, aside from perhaps the Islanders and the Wild being a touch unlucky. Again, it’s early, and I’d expect these stats to shift around quite a bit throughout the first few weeks.
  • The Montreal Canadiens have been the buzz of the league, and deservedly so. Interestingly, they were also strong analytically last year (ranking 3rd in expected goals behind only Vegas and Tampa Bay) but had the 6th-worst shooting percentage in the NHL at even strength. This offseason they added some stronger forwards, have seen Nick Suzuki take a giant step forward, and have seen their shooting percentage jump 2% to become fifth in the NHL. They’re legit, and while it’s early, it could end up being the Habs and Maple Leafs in a battle for the top of the North Division.
  • Finally, this year, Connor McDavid has entered yet another stratosphere. He’s now over 65% expected goals percent and the Oilers own 71% (!!) of chances at high danger chances at 5v5 when he’s on the ice. Oh yeah, and he’s doing things like this:
  • Watch out, North division.