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Rink Roundtable: Room for Improvement

The crew checks in with thoughts on what the team needs to fix down the stretch

Washington Capitals v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Caps are back! As the bye week wraps up and the team heads into the stretch run starting tomorrow, we have one final thing in our minds: ways to be better.

(The team, not us. We’re perfection.)

What is the one area the Caps need to improve upon the most down the stretch?

Rob: JP did a great job diagnosing the problems with the team’s scoring the other day, and an optimist might be tempted to find the silver lining in strong high danger scoring chances combined with low shooting percentages—hey, they’re making things happen and if they bounces start going the way they usually do for these players they’ll be really dangerous. Maybe. But I’m afraid the checking players are getting a higher share of the high danger chances, which isn’t where you want those chances coming from, and JP also demonstrated pretty clearly that the top six (surely the top paid) forwards aren’t pulling their weight. Until the top six starts looking like a dangerous 1-2 punch routinely this team cannot fancy themselves contenders. Maybe some of the injured guys heal during the break and others knock off the rust, but the difference in top six performance between the Caps and the elite teams is glaring.

J.P.: Spot on, Rob. To wit, check out this visualization from Dom Luszczsyzn a couple of weeks back that shows just how much more the Caps are getting out of their bottom forwards (relative to contenders) and how little they’re getting from the top guys (explainer here):

You look at underlying numbers and nothing really jumps out, in aggregate. Yes, the offense is a little bit below expected, but the goalies are performing above expectations to offset it. The defense is above average, the offense around average. The power play is ice cold (feels like we’ve been saying that for a while now), but the PK is offsetting it (and a great penalty differential helps). The Caps are just aggressively average. And I think they lack a bit of identity right now. They’re clearly not a threatening offense (with one notable exception) until the top-six gets on track. They’re not a lock-down defensive team. They’re not a physically intimidating team to face, especially with Tom Wilson out. So what are they? Figure that out and maybe they’re onto something. But until then, they’re just sorta... there.

The Peerless: Consistent and balanced scoring. In their last 12 games, over which they are 5-7-0, they have been held to two or fewer goals (not including shootouts) seven times (they are 2-5 in those games, one of the wins coming in a 3-2 shootout over Pittsburgh) and rank 30th in scoring offense overall (2.33 goals per game). The scoring has been balanced (15 of 22 skaters with at least one goal), but weak (none with more than three). And nine players with at least ten shots over that span have shooting percentages of five percent or less. A 29th-ranked power play is not helping that scoring, either (10.0 percent), nor is their 26th-ranked power play chances per game (2.50 per game). Only the New York Islanders have scored fewer third period goals over that span (one in 14 games) than the Caps (seven in 12 games). One hopes that having ten days off will recharge the batteries among the players, but also that it gives the coaching staff a chance to add some wrinkles to what has become a predictable and unproductive offense over the last dozen games.

Luke: I think the fellows above got it right about fixing the scoring issue so I’ll just go with staying healthy. The hope is Tom Wilson and Nic Dowd are healthy and ready to go out of the break, meaning all the Caps are waiting on is John Carlson. According to reports, it sounds like the defensemen won’t be back until close to the end of the season. If they can stay healthy down this stretch they should be able to take hold of a playoff spot until Carlson returns. If they get battered up again there’s a real chance the Caps miss the playoffs.