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How Good (or Bad) is the Caps Power Play?

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Another story of process versus results

NHL: Washington Capitals at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Through 21 games, the Washington Capitals’ power play has scored on a gaudy 29.1 percent of its opportunities, good for fourth in the NHL at an efficiency rate that would put them in historical company (think Canadiens/Oilers/Islanders of the late-70s/early-80s and last year’s Oilers) if they were to finish the season there.

But they won’t.

They won’t because, you see, the Washington Capitals’ power play is actually not very good (at least not consistently so).

It seems strange to say that, given their nearly three-in-ten conversion rate, but a closer look at the stats (or at some recent shot-less power plays during which they had a harder time entering the opponents zone than Americans trying to get into New Zealand in January) reveals the truth: this Caps power play ain’t what it used to be.

To wit, the Caps are creating scoring chances at five-on-four at the League’s fourth-worst rate and high-danger chances at the fifth-worst pace, resulting in the 19th-best expected goal rate on the circuit.

Now, this is the point of the post at which you say, “Yeah, but shots from ‘Alex Ovechkin’s office’ probably aren’t considered ‘scoring chances,’ and, well, ask any of a couple hundred current and former goalies whether they agree.” And you’re right. But Ovechkin’s individual shot attempts and scoring chances at 5v4 are down a tick, continuing a recent trend:

Maybe teams finally got the message that giving him one-timers wasn’t a super idea.
via NatStatTrick

That decline in iSCF/60 over the past couple of seasons is concerning, and reflects (and/or is reflected by) the team’s decrease in scoring chances and high-danger chances with Ovechkin on the ice:

via NatStatTrick

Those dips from last season to this one are much more precipitous, and represent the lowest of Ovechkin’s career for which we have the data (the team’s overall shot rate at 5v4 is actually up a tiny bit this season). But if Ovechkin’s drop-off is small relative to the team’s, with the overall shot generation the same, you’d fairly assume two things: 1) more shot attempts are coming from lower-danger areas, and 2) a much bigger drop-off in chances from other high-danger shooters.

On the former, here’s John Carlson’s career at five-on-four:

via NatStatTrick

That’s a huge increase shot attempts coming from the top of the diamond. That’s not necessarily bad in and of itself - Carlson’s individual scoring chance and high-danger chance numbers are also up. In fact, they’re up more than the drop-off in Ovechkin’s numbers. So that must mean that...

via NatStatTrick

Yep. That’s T.J. Oshie, and those numbers are way down (and because of where Oshie plays on the power play, nearly all of his shot attempts are scoring chances). It’s funny, because Oshie already has four five-on-four goals this season... but his expected goals are just 1.04, and his expected goal rate per sixty of 1.1 is less than half of last season’s 2.3 and his lowest mark since coming to Washington.

So what does all of that look like on the ice? Here’s how the Caps’ power-play has gone from a plus-8 percent to a minus-8 percent (again, in terms of expected goal rate relative to League average) over the course of the last year:

Brown = good, blue = bad
Images via HockeyViz

What we see is Ovechkin getting pushed back a bit, a lot more shots coming from Carlson, and an absolute blackhole (or, in this case, a bluehole) around and in front of the net in the Oshie/Kuznetsov/Vrana spots. And, bad news - it’s not getting any better:

via MoneyPuck

That’s the what. So how about the why? Anecdotally, we’ve seen the Caps have a lot of trouble on power-play zone entries lately (and, really, for a while now). When they have been successful recently, it’s often been off a faceoff win (i.e. no entry needed)...

...which brings up another (lesser) problem - the Caps are currently 26th in the League in five-on-four faceoff percentage in the offensive zone (at 47.9 percent), with Nick Backstrom clocking in at a woeful 26.7 percent (4-for-15; Oshie’s 23-for-44 is much more palatable). Those numbers are small, but so are the Caps’ power play opportunities, so every bit of offense squandered is, well, exactly that.

The bottom line here is that if the Caps’ power play is going to stay hot, they would be well-served to improve the underlying numbers that support such success. That might be particularly challenging during this season of extreme intra-divisional familiarity, but the Caps need to win more draws and get better at entering the zone on the power play, and, most importantly, they need to create chances for their most dangerous scorers with the extra man. If they can do that, with the talent they have, they just may hang around the top of the League in power-play efficiency after all... and actually be very good.