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When the Defense Rests

A look at a Caps defense that has sprung holes in the worst places

Washington Capitals v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Twelve feet. Nine feet. Fifteen feet.

Those are the distances from goal of the Florida Panthers’ middle three goals in Tuesday night’s 5-2 win over the Caps.

High-danger shots happen, of course, and the Caps are middle-of-the-pack at limiting them, ranking 15th in the League in fewest high-danger shots against per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time. For Washington, however, it’s not so much the quantity of those shots as the quality - not all high-danger chances are created equal, especially with defense like this:

Or this:

Or even on Sam Reinhart’s impressive display of hand-eye coordination:

Three goals a combined 36 feet from the net, and only one of the three had a defenseman within a stick’s length (and that one featured an unfortunate bounce and/or a total inability to tie up Florida attackers in front, depending on your level of generosity).

Anecdotal focus on The Big Mistake? Sure. So let’s get back to our look at overall volume, with a focus on the team’s top blueliner:

via HockeyViz

That is, in a word, horrific. The Caps are bleeding high-danger chances with Carlson on the ice, though it’s very much worth noting that the worst of it is coming from the left side (i.e. Carlson’s partner’s side), where...

via HockeyViz

Gustafsson and Carlson (who have inexplicably partnered together for the past three games since the latter’s return from injury) have rolled out the welcome mat for opponents in front of the Caps’ cage:

Granted, that’s a tiny sample. Here’s a slightly larger (and somehow worse) one:

via HockeyViz

Among defensive pairings that have played at least 64 five-on-five minutes together this fall, none has a higher expected goals-against rate than Dmitri Orlov and John Carlson, and it’s not really even close:

via MoneyPuck

At this point your confirmation bias is kicking in and you’re pointing to the obvious common denominator. And you’re not wrong - John Carlson has been brutal so far this year (and, yes, that “so far this year” qualifier is important - he’s been a better defender than you think in the past). But he’s not alone (as the clips above show). Since last year the Caps have gone from good defensively (including in front of their own net) to average overall (and bad in in tight):

via HockeyViz

Eighteen games is a small sample, but it’s not nothing. And the team’s well-documented injury woes have certainly played a roll. But the bottom line here is that the Caps’ goalies have been good at making the saves they’re supposed to make (ninth in all-situation low-danger save percentage, seventh in medium-danger), but are 27th in all-situation high-danger save percentage (24th at five-on-five), and a lot of that is on the defense (which, to be sure, includes the forwards).

As undermanned as the Caps are, they need to play much better defense in the most dangerous area of the ice, or they’re going to find themselves in too deep a hole to dig out of by the time they get healthy.