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Net Presents: On Expectations and “Expectations”

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A look at where the Caps do and don’t have reason to be concerned

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

If you want a snapshot of where the Caps are right now that goes a bit deeper than the standings page on NHL.com, the inimitable JFresh has you covered with his team cards:

No, you can’t really argue with the results. But, as we’re fond of noting around here, results are descriptive of events that have already happened... and the Caps’ remaining games - including the playoffs - take place in the future.

So what should concern us right now? As JFresh notes, the Caps’ expected five-on-five goals-for and goaltending don’t look like those of a contender (as a point of reference, here’s what Tampa looks like). The former shouldn’t really worry Caps fans. The latter, on the other hand...

But first things first - expected goals-for (xGF). Per Natural Stat Trick, the Caps’ xGF rate (2.03 per 60 minutes of five-on-five play) is seventh-worst in the League, trailing Buffalo, among others. Needless to say, you don’t want to be behind the Sabres in anything in 2021. But their actual goals-for (the ones that go on the scoreboard) has the second-best in the League, behind only the juggernaut that is the Colorado Avalanche, and no team has scored more goals at five-aside than the Caps (96).

That difference is staggering. Like, double- and triple-check your math staggering. The Caps have outperformed their expected goals (63.1) by more than 50 percent. Since the start of the 2015-16 season (and likely further back), only one team has even topped a 30 percent difference in actual versus expected goals... the 2018-19 Caps (31.4 percent). That was also the only team for which we have the data (i.e. since 2007-08) to shoot better than 10 percent at fives (10.1); the 2021 incarnation currently sits at a cool 11.4 percent (and 12.3 percent overall, which would be the highest mark for a team over the course of a season since the Sabres were a few thousandths of a point higher in 2006-07). For you visual learners:

via HockeyViz

So, yeah, we should probably expect a bit of a regression at some point. But we probably should not necessarily expect a regression at or to the League average - this is a Caps team that has consistently beaten expected goals models in this area. Since 2015-16, the Caps have outpaced their five-on-five xGF with actual GF by 184 (in 435 games), most in the League by far (Tampa is second at +143; Winnipeg’s +101 is the only other total over the century mark). Their 5v5 shooting percentage of 9.4 is tops on the circuit by more than half a percentage point, and in each of the seasons in the six-year span (including this one), they’ve placed in the top-six in actual versus expected goal differential and top-three in shooting percentage.

Simply put, this is what they do - the Capitals aren’t lucky, they’re just consistently better than you think.

But maybe not quite “one five-on-five goal more per game” better.

Of course the offense could go ice cold at any time - just ask anyone other than the three guys who managed to score over the course of an entire playoff series last spring (err, summer... whatever). But it’s pretty safe to say that expected goals models consistently understate the Caps’ actual expected goals (why that is is a topic for another day).

On the other hand... the goaltending.

For a stretch, the story was actually similar. In 2015-16, the Caps’ expected goals-allowed at five-on-five was 135; they allowed 128. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but that was eighth-best in the League. A year later, they allowed 25 fewer goals than the model would’ve expected, a League-low 112, thanks to an NHL-best .937 save percentage (miss you, Mitch Korn). They finished fourth in the Cup year and eighth the year after that. Last year, however, things went sideways and the Caps allowed 18 more goals than expected at fives. So far this year, they’re already minus-14 against expectations, 27th in the League (and minus-20 in all-situations), and it’s truly been a tandem effort:

xFSv% represents expected save percentage on unblocked shots, FSv% represents actual save percentage on unblocked shots, dFSv% represents the difference between the two and xGAR/FA is... y’know what? You can read all about it here.
via Evolving-Hockey
via MoneyPuck

You don’t need to be an advanced stats disciple to see what’s going on here: both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have turned in below-expected performances at five-on-five so far this season (and, as we’ve noted before, this has been particularly true with the Caps holding a lead, and has continued to contribute to the rapid disappearance of some of those leads).

To be sure, there have been egregious defensive breakdowns that only show up on the goalie’s stat line. To wit, perhaps, the areas in which the Caps goalies have struggled the most relative to the rest of the League have come in tight (note: this chart is all-situations):

via HockeyViz

But, in aggregate, the Caps have been terrific defensively. At some point, your goalies need to give you at least replacement-level netminding (only Philadelphia and St. Louis have gotten a lower save percentage on high-danger 5v5 shots than the Caps’ .794 and only those two, Calgary and Ottawa have been worst on scoring chances than the Caps’ .846). Can Samsonov and Vanecek be “good enough” for a this team? With the trade deadline looming, that certainly seems to be The Big Question.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, no team in the League has outperformed their expected goals-for percentage at five-on-five moreso than the Caps, who have scored 55.4 percent of the goals at fives, despite models saying that number “should” be more like 49.6 percent (that differential is more than twice the second-place Islanders’ 2.9 percent). No team has had a higher shooting percentage at five-on-five, and their save percentage is top-10; no team has posted a higher PDO than the Caps’ 1.018.

And it isn’t luck. At least, it isn’t all luck. But with the goaltending the team has gotten this year, it feels as if that luck could run out sooner than later. And it’s the team’s biggest reason for concern right now.