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The Missing Piece: Net Positive

Taking a look at the single most important area of needed improvement for a possible Cup run.

Buffalo Sabres v Washington Capitals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

It’s that time of year again. The NHL’s second season is less than a month away, and the Caps have more or less punched a ticket to take their best crack at another frozen moment of hockey immortality.

Not only are the Capitals a shoo-in to make the playoffs, but they also truly look the part of a contender. They score five-on-five goals at the fastest clip in the League, while sitting in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing them. They have the second-most effective power play in the NHL, and a top-10 penalty kill to boot. You can split hairs on the underlying numbers 'til the cows come home, but make no mistake, this team is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

At least... they should be. There remains one small wrinkle to be ironed out: the play of their goaltenders. The back-and-forth, will-he-win-the-job-or-won’t-he-win-the-job that both Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have participated in this season needs no detailed recounting. The summary is that both goaltenders have played well enough to rack up wins on the season, but neither has outperfomed the other to a clear enough degree that the team has a surefire number one guy in net down the stretch.

The reality is that an NHL team’s goaltender can be a single point of failure, or a single point of success. On the latter, just ask Jaroslav Halak. While the goaltending hasn’t been a point of failure so far from the Washington Capitals, it definitely looks like a weak link, or at least a potential weak link.

To wit, the Capitals are 17th in the NHL when it comes to five-on-five save percentage and 20th in all-situations save percentage. When the Caps are in the lead, however, those ranks both plummet to an alarming 29th. That’s not going to get it done in the NHL playoffs, where it’s damn near a prerequisite to up your game in net as compared to the regular season.

Let’s demonstrate with a couple of plots, which look at the regular season and playoff goaltending performance (all situations save percentage) for the last 20 Cup winners.

As you can see, of the last 20 Cup winners, only three of them saw overall save percentage take a hit compared to the regular season, and really only one of those teams did so by any real margin. It’s worth noting that the standalone team was the 2014 Los Angeles Kings, who were coming from a baseline 92.2% all-situations save percentage, which was good enough for second highest in the League that year.

So, let’s take a look at this year’s Caps next to the goaltending picture for all of this century’s Cup winners. Regular season performance is in grey, with the attendant playoff performance in green...ish.

Alright, so this view isn’t exactly an injection of optimism to the veins. After all, no team this century has won the Stanley Cup with a team-level save percentage sitting as low as where the Caps’ is now. Anything can happen, but the bottom line is the Caps need a material improvement in net or another team that’s getting it will see them excused from the playoffs. To wit, goals allowed like the one Ilya Samsonov allowed Tuesday against the Flyers, or the fourth goal given up by Vitek Vanecek last night against the Sabres that drew the hook from the bench boss, have been far too commonplace.

There are a few models for the type of improvement that the Caps need actually coming to pass, and one of those was with Peter Laviolette behind the bench watching it happen, when in 2006 his rookie netminder Cam Ward, who had posted a regular season save percentage of .882, posted a playoff percentage of .920 en route to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.

A decade and a half later, and it’s close to time for Peter Laviolette to make a big decision: which of his young goaltenders is most likely to be his next Cam Ward?