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What Lies Beneath: The Postmodern Capitals Edition

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In Part 3 of a recurring series, Greg breaks down some of the interesting Caps and NHL-wide trends.

NHL: New York Islanders at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s now been about a month since we checked in on the Caps, and their playoff odds have improved dramatically since:

Playoff probabilities chart from The Athletic.

Somehow, this team that lots of people had on the playoff bubble has started to pull away from the mushy middle of the Eastern division. They recently went 7-0-0 without the presence of one of their top wingers, lost only twice in regulation over the last month, and are now 10 points clear of the Flyers for a playoff spot (albeit the Flyers have a game in hand).

So, how did this happen? 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 27 47.68 48.79 53.49 48.23
Carl Hagelin 31 46.57 47.91 53.85 52.65
Conor Sheary 28 52.19 51.82 53.57 53.92
Daniel Sprong 20 48.6 45.5 63.64 47.48
Evgeny Kuznetsov 21 53.71 52.14 69.57 58.84
Garnet Hathaway 31 47.64 49.06 59.26 52.47
Jakub Vrana 30 51.48 48.42 69.7 51.58
Lars Eller 22 52.38 56.15 47.83 54.69
Nic Dowd 31 45.87 46.71 52 49.83
Nicklas Backstrom 31 47.17 47.45 63.41 46.28
Richard Panik 31 53.77 53.57 44.44 53.84
T.J. Oshie 30 52.32 50 54.29 52.88
Tom Wilson 22 46.56 47.97 66.67 48.41

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 %
Brenden Dillon 31 47.51 47.72 57.14 47.7
Dmitry Orlov 26 51.6 53.16 55.56 51.62
John Carlson 31 48.31 48.75 53.85 48.4
Justin Schultz 27 51.19 50 66.67 51.66
Nick Jensen 28 49.24 51.51 59.38 56.45
Trevor van Riemsdyk 9 46.96 45.38 33.33 46.34
Zdeno Chara 31 49.46 47.4 61.36 53.98
  • One of the most dramatic turnarounds amongst Caps skaters at five-on-five is Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose 58.8% xGF% is 10th in the NHL amongst all centers. One such theory about how Kuznetsov turned it around was recently posited by frequent Japers’ Rink Radio guest and Russian Machine Never Breaks co-founder Peter Hassett, who wrote:

But Laviolette has not rebuilt Kuznetsov’s game, nor has he given him more line support. Instead, Laviolette’s solution to the Kuzy problem is shelter the living hell out of him. Kuznetsov is now the most offensively deployed player in the NHL (89.5 percent of his non-neutral starts are in the offensive zone, about twenty per hour). Despite that cushy context, one of every four opponent shot attempts comes from a high-danger area. For comparison, for Backstrom it’s one of every nine.

However, I have my doubts. For one, as Micah Blake McCurdy has found, zone starts tend to lose all effectiveness after 20 seconds, and they aren’t predictive in terms of predicting shot share. The reason for this is relatively simple: a significant portion of a forward’s shift comes on the fly, when the play is still fluid. Instead, as Matt Cane has found, zone starts can show you a lot in an individual game (and may show you quite a bit about how a coach views a player), but aren’t as predictive once aggregated.

All this being said, 89.5% of non-neutral starts in the offensive zone is quite a bit, and it may be impacting Kuznetsov’s stats at the margins. However, I think there is a simpler explanation for what is going on. To start, here’s Kuznetsov’s xGF & xGA charted by year:

And here’s the chart for the Caps over the same stretch:

This trend extends to high danger chances allowed, where Kuznetsov’s 8.29 high danger chances allowed per 60 is easily the lowest of his career. Ultimately, I think the story is simple: Kuznetsov is emblematic of a Caps stinger defense at 5v5 under head coach Peter Laviolette.

  • The Caps playing tighter defense under Laviolette has been a season-wide trend and has led to the team posting their highest expected goals for percent since the 2015-16 Caps. Ultimately, the Caps have not just been lucky during this recent stretch: they have been good, particularly at even strength defense.
  • It’s worth noting that although the Caps expected goals percent fits with some of the great Caps teams of yore, the way they’re doing it is almost totally different. What I discussed during the first WLB remains true, the Caps are winning the 5v5 possession battle almost entirely by shutting down the opponent at 5v5, perhaps at the expense of their own offensive output. This low-event hockey results in the Caps being, well, a bit duller than they were during the early and mid-2010’s Caps:
Moneypuck plot chart for expected goals.
  • However, despite the lower offensive output from an expected goals standpoint, the Caps remain the top scoring team at 5v5, averaging a remarkable 2.96 goals per 60. Unsurprisingly, the Caps shooting percentage is also tops in the NHL at 10.81%. The Caps with the highest shooting percentages aren’t particularly surprising, though it’s perhaps interesting that Alex Ovechkin isn’t in the top 5:

Capitals Shooting Percentage Leaders

Player Shooting %
Player Shooting %
Daniel Sprong 27.27
Nicklas Backstrom 23.53
Conor Sheary 20.69
Lars Eller 17.39
Jakub Vrana 17.02
Tom Wilson 16.67
Nic Dowd 14.29
Alex Ovechkin 12.86
Trevor van Riemsdyk 12.5
Garnet Hathaway 10.71

However, you probably wouldn’t expect Nic Dowd, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Garnet Hathaway to all shoot above 10% at 5v5…so there might be some regression coming.

  • When you look at the Caps expected goals differential by game, February 1 seems to be a date where the Caps hit their nadir and turned things around(from an expected goals standpoint):
Capitals rolling 5v5 expected goals chart

What happened on February 1, you might ask? Well…

I will not argue that Dmitry Orlov is responsible for the Caps turnaround. However, since Orlov and Justin Schultz’s return (which happened 2 games after Orlov), here’s been the Caps defensemen in terms of ice time at 5v5:

Caps Defensemen Ice Time since 2/14

Dmitry Orlov 19 328.38 17.28
Nick Jensen 19 266.13 14.01
John Carlson 19 326.67 17.19
Justin Schultz 19 316.45 16.66
Zdeno Chara 19 270.95 14.26
Brenden Dillon 19 311.38 16.39
Trevor van Riemsdyk 2 6.72 3.36

That’s quite a bit of consistency! The Caps main 6 defensemen have started all 19 games in that stretch, and all averaged somewhere between 14 and 17 minutes of ice time per game. Further, this has allowed the Caps to ease off of Zdeno Chara’s ice time, as he’s averaging almost 2 min per game lower since Schultz & Orlov returned to the lineup. Further, as you may have noticed above, Chara and Jensen consistently rank among top Capitals in terms of shot share metrics.

  • I have a third piece of good news to report: since J.P.’s piece outlining legitimate concerns about Alex Ovechkin’s diminished offensive rates at 5v5, he’s seen his offensive output dramatically rise in March. As a result, his offensive rate stats at 5v5 are now comfortably in range with his career averages:
Ovechkin offensive outputs at 5v5 from Natural Stat Trick.

It is worth noting how remarkable this is. Alex Ovechkin, at age 35 (!!), is somehow keeping up his offensive output. Greatest goal scorer in NHL history, indeed.

Capitals faceoff win percentage by date.

Some NHL-wide notes:

  • It’s worth noting just how dominant the Colorado Avalanche have been lately. They are at 59% expected goals for %, which is the highest in the NHL by almost 4%! Even crazier, the Avs have been beset by injuries, including to Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar. Colorado meets up with the West-leading Vegas Golden Knights for a pair of games this week, which ought to be appointment viewing for any NHL fan.
  • Since we last checked in on the Philadelphia Flyers, they’ve seen a small uptick in their advanced stats, and now out of the bottom 10 in terms of expected goals. However, despite the second-best shooting percentage in hockey, they’re still only getting around 45% of goals at even strength. Unsurprisingly, their culprit has been NHL-worst goaltending. Franchise goaltender Carter Hart has somehow saved 17.6 goals below expected…which isn’t great.