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What Lies Beneath: Lines in a Blender Edition

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In part 2 of a recurring series, Greg breaks down some of the interesting Caps and NHL-wide trends.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We’re about 30% of the way done with the season, and the Caps remain an enigma wrapped in a mystery. They’ve been at a full lineup for five games, where they’ve gone 3-2-0 and had some dramatic highs, some serious lows, and some games with both.

Overall, the Caps have seen their playoff odds dip a bit in the past couple of weeks, and find themselves in a precarious playoff position:

Playoff odds from The Athletic

Will the Caps continue to perch precariously on the bubble, or are better things to come? Frankly, I’m not sure, and there’s plenty of evidence both ways. 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 %
Conor Sheary 14 57.09 58.09 53.85 58.45
Evgeny Kuznetsov 9 56.86 60.36 85.71 62.51
Richard Panik 17 56.68 56.99 35.29 56.52
Jakub Vrana 16 55.46 53.81 66.67 56.45
Lars Eller 13 52.43 57.14 42.86 54.07
T.J. Oshie 16 51.52 49.26 47.37 52.33
Daniel Sprong 10 49.67 51.09 44.44 48.34
Nicklas Backstrom 17 46.48 46.69 60.87 45.46
Tom Wilson 15 44.78 46.43 65 43.62
Garnet Hathaway 17 43.94 44.57 52.94 47.62
Carl Hagelin 17 43.45 42.93 46.67 46.93
Alex Ovechkin 13 43.39 44.44 52.38 40.91
Nic Dowd 17 43.35 43.32 46.67 46.25

Caps Defensemen 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 %
Nick Jensen 14 51.53 56.57 53.33 56.72
Dmitry Orlov 12 50.77 55.43 50 50.53
Justin Schultz 13 50.14 49.03 70 50.45
Zdeno Chara 17 49.7 47.33 56 50.79
Trevor van Riemsdyk 7 48.39 47.15 33.33 49.47
John Carlson 17 46.97 47.39 48.28 45.65
Brenden Dillon 17 46.79 47.19 55.56 46.71
Jonas Siegenthaler 6 46.53 44.93 0 45.83
  • Although Vitek Vanecek has performed admirably given his large workload, he’s had some rough performances recently and his Goals Saved Above Expected % now places him amongst the worst goalies in the East:
Goals Saved Above Replacement (from Jfresh)
  • That chart comes via Jfresh (who has a Patreon that everyone should subscribe to) and it’s a perfect illustration of why, although we can get frustrated by various skaters’ performances, it’s worth filtering all of that through the substandard goaltending the Caps have gotten this year. We’ll see if that changes with the imminent return of Ilya Samsonov, though he wasn’t particularly strong during his first two games.
  • Overall, as detailed in NoVa Caps recently, the Caps have seen their advanced metrics rise over the last few games and have made some serious progress in their net shot attempts (expected goals tell a similar story):
Rolling net shot attempts by game
  • Results-aside, one of the big questions around here is whether Alexander Ovechkin can pass Wayne Gretzky’s goal records. I’ve got some concerns, as his shot attempts metrics are at a career low across the board at 5v5:

Ovechkin shot metrics by year

Season Shots/60 Individual Expected Goals/60 Individual Corsi For/60 Individual Scoring Changes For/60 Individual High Danger Chances/60
Season Shots/60 Individual Expected Goals/60 Individual Corsi For/60 Individual Scoring Changes For/60 Individual High Danger Chances/60
2007-2008 13.06 1.12 26.35 15.33 4.54
2008-2009 15.14 1.14 30.39 15.88 4.59
2009-2010 13.05 0.98 27.8 13.1 3.57
2010-2011 11.26 0.84 23.3 12.04 3.59
2011-2012 10.35 0.87 21.25 10.95 3.5
2012-2013 11.01 0.86 21.77 10.44 3.59
2013-2014 11.98 0.84 24.18 10.97 3
2014-2015 10.79 0.87 23.16 11.38 3.73
2015-2016 11.7 0.9 22.89 10.99 3.95
2016-2017 10.19 0.78 19.59 9.19 3.54
2017-2018 10.74 0.97 20.65 11.68 4.61
2018-2019 9.76 0.81 18.64 9.51 3.51
2019-2020 11.45 0.94 21.24 12.18 4.96
2020-2021 8.01 0.59 15.73 7.42 2.67
  • Ovechkin’s been able to mitigate some of that decline on the power play, but he’s going to have a hard time catching Gretzky if he sees his individual shots start to dip. Again, he’s 35, so you’d expect these declines to have happened far earlier. However, Father Time comes for us all, including to the greatest goal scorer in NHL history.
  • On the other side of the ice, the Caps’ defensive pairs have gotten quite a bit of attention, including around here. One thing that Peter Laviolette seems committed to is splitting up the ice time between defensemen evenly. A quick glance of the Caps defensive chart shows that—but with one giant exception:
Caps defensemen icetime chart via HockeyViz
  • Unsurprisingly, with Orlov out and the Caps cycling through bottom-pairing defensemen, Laviolette has relied on John Carlson to an unparalleled degree. He’s averaging 17:45 of 5v5 ice time (a career high) and 24:37 per game (second-highest in his career). To Carlson’s immense credit, the Caps have only been outscored by 1 since he’s been on the ice, and he’s been able to ride a 7% shooting percentage to see his counting stats remain strong. That said, Carlson’s been below-water in almost every major shot share metric, and the Caps have been shooting an unsustainably high 10% while he’s been on the ice. I’d expect to see Laviolette reduce his usage relatively soon, partially because of…
  • Dmitry Orlov might be back, folks. His pairing with Carlson to start the year might not have worked as well as expected, but Orlov has been ramping it up since been on the COVID absences list. Over the last 5 games Orlov has a 61% expected goals rate at 5v5, has outscored opponents 4-2 while on the ice, and had a particularly gorgeous goal against the Rangers on Saturday:
  • I present to you Lars Eller, Offensive Monster (show chart):
Lars Eller heatmaps by year from HockeyViz
  • Although Eller’s offense has cooled the last couple of games, his much-heralded line with Conor Sheary and Richard Panik dominated play to a genuinely impressive degree. I wouldn’t expect him to play much with Ovechkin going forward, you can see what Laviolette was thinking by trying it out.
  • Slightly less of a counterintuitive take, but I present Richard Panik, one of the better defensive forwards in hockey this year so far. Panik is at or above the 90th percentile in almost every defensive metric amongst forwards, and his heat chart shows a giant blue blob right near the center of the ice:
Richard Panik heat map from HockeyViz.
  • Jakub Vrana’s ice time continues to be curious. After a bit of a lull, he’s right back to producing offense at levels near where he was last year at 5v5, and his shot and goal rates per 60 are all in the top 50 of NHL forwards (for instance, he’s generating more shots on goal at 5v5 than Auston Matthews). That said, despite multiple injuries and COVID absences in the forward group, Vrana is only skating 12:22 a night at 5v5. This is lowest among the Caps top 6 forwards and only 40 seconds more a night than Nic Dowd. I’m not the only one calling for more ice time for Vrana, and it’d be interesting to see what he’d do with some more time at 5v5.

Some NHL-wide notes: