Sunday, September 11, 2011

Young Guns, One and All -- Part 5: Wins and Scoring in the Playoff Era

In the first four installments of this series we took a look at the individuals who comprise the group of Caps known as the Young Guns and their scoring trends in the four-year playoff era of the Capitals. Now, we turn to the relationship of their individual scoring production and wins. Does it matter when the Young Guns score? When they are successful, are the Caps?  Common sense says this should be so, but is it?

The Straw

Alex Ovechkin is a goal scorer. In the four years of the Capitals playoff era there have been a total of eight 50-goal seasons in the NHL. Ovechkin has three of them and has averaged almost 51 goals a season in that span. But has that prolific goal output corresponded with wins for the Caps over that time?

It certainly has. In the 328 regular season games played by the Caps over the past four years – 312 of which Ovechkin played in – he scored at least one goal in 148 of them. And the Caps compiled a record of 106-28-14 in those games, a points percentage of .764. Over the same period the team compiled a points percentage of .655 on a record of 195-93-40. Here is how Ovechkin’s goals and points production by season compares for wins and losses:

Even as his goal production dropped last season from 50 in 2009-2010 to 32 in 2010-2011, the effect of his goal scoring was undiminished. The Caps were 19-5-2 in games in which he scored at least one goal (.769). But one can take this relationship too far. In 2007-2008, the first season in this series and the one in which the Caps had their worst record (43-31-8) Ovechkin scored at least one goal in 47 games (his highest number of goal-scoring games of the four seasons). The Caps had a record of 28-15-4 in those games (the worst in this four-game period for Ovechkin goal-scoring games).

Then there is the consistency. In 28 months of hockey over this period the Caps’ standings points record when Ovechkin scores at least one goal was over .500 24 times and .500 twice. There were two losing months – October (3-4-0) and November (2-7-0) of 2007 in the first season of this series.

There is perhaps an odd result in Ovechkin’s production, though. In each year in the series, the Caps’ winning percentage when Ovechkin records a point is lower overall than that in which he scores a goal. But there is an exception. Last season – the one in which Ovechkin recorded a career low of 32 goals – the Caps were 19-5-2 in games in which he recorded a goal (.769). In games in which he registered a point but was held without a goal, 29-18-9 (.808). Ovechkin is the straw that stirs the drink, perhaps, but it has become a strong drink to be stirred.

The Glue

Nicklas Backstrom might have the reputation in some quarters as a traditional centerman, the sort of player who dishes to scoring wingers and perhaps contributes the occasional goal. There might be something to that (he has 236 assists over this four year period), but Backstrom also has 87 goals scored in 77 different games. Even with his goal total dropping from 33 in 2009-2010 to 18 last season, Backstrom has established himself as a goal-scoring threat, not just a pretty passer.

And like Alex Ovechkin, when Backstrom produces the Caps generally succeed. Even though he does not score goals with the same frequency as does Ovechkin, wins have generally followed when he does score. Here are his numbers and those of the Caps when he scores:

If the Caps are more successful than normal when Alex Ovechkin scores a goal, they are even more so when Backstrom lights the lamp. In those 77 games in which Backstrom has recorded a goal over the past four years, the Caps have posted a record of 60-11-6, an .818 points percentage. And in the last two seasons the Caps are 33-3-5 when Backstrom notches a goal (.866). The Caps have not been below .500 in games Backstrom scored in any month over the last four seasons.

The success enjoyed by the Caps when Backstrom scores a goal does not occur quite as often as when he registers a point (a .772 points percentage versus .655 for the team as a whole over the four year period). But it is worth noting that when Backstrom has not recorded a point in games (whether being held off the score sheet or missing the contest), the Caps have a sub-.500 record over the past four years – 59-61-17.

None of this is to suggest that Backstrom try to remake himself into a sniper. It is just to point out that Alex Ovechkin is not the only productive goal scorer on the club. That the Caps are even more successful when Backstrom scores underlines the fact that he is the somewhat underrated glue that binds the team in its success.

The Artist

Alexander Semin is among the most skilled performers in the game. Whether handling the puck, shooting it, or passing it, there are few who can compare with Semin when he is on his game…and healthy. But for our purposes here, we wonder how his ability to work wonders with stick and puck translate to wins and points.

In the last four seasons Semin has played in 263 games. He has scored a goal in 103 of them. And in those games the Caps have posted a record of 68-19-16. That is a respectable .738 points percentage, again higher than the club as a whole over the past four years (.655). But what distinguishes Semin’s record in this respect over the past four years is the improvement of the club’s record in games in which he records a goal. From a 12-8-5 record in 2007-2008 – a .580 winning percentage – the Caps were then .683, .768, and finally .975 (on a record of 19-0-1) in games in which Semin scored at least one goal. Here are the details…

You would have to go back to Game 61 of the 2009-2010 season – a 6-5 loss to the Ottawa Senators – to find a game in which Semin scored a goal and the Caps lost in regulation time (25-0-5 since then). But he has missed 17 of the 103 games played since then.

His points totals and their relationship to Caps wins has followed a similar course. From a .657 points percentage in games in which he scored a goal to almost identical .787 and .786 points percentages in the past two years, Semin has mirrored the general improvement of the team and improved in his ability to marry scoring to wins. The points are not meaningless. What is a bit different in his results, though, is that over the past four seasons the Caps winning percentage in which he registers a point is slightly better (.743) than when he scores a goal (.738).

As we noted in a previous entry, when Semin is healthy and can sustain a spot in the lineup, he is a formidable offensive force. That such talent has become more closely associated with Caps wins over time is a matter of record. It seems unlikely that he can repeat a season in which the Caps do not lose a game in regulation when he scores a goal, but Semin has the talent to be a game-changer. And in 2011-2012 the trick will be in getting him to display that unique brand of artistry more often by keeping him in the lineup.

The Free Spirit

Mike Green is a defenseman with uncommon offensive talents. Starting with the ascension of Bruce Boudreau to the Capitals head coaching position in November 2007, Green played in 204 games through the 2009-2010 season, going 65-133-198, an 82-game pace of 26-53-79. Last season, injury and a change in team philosophy resulted in his appearing in only 49 games and in those contests posting a disappointing (for him) 8-16-24 scoring line.

But whether he was struggling under former coach Glen Hanlon, flourishing under Bruce Boudreau for 200 games, or dealing with injuries and a new approach in the last two-thirds of last season, Green has, like his Young Gun cohorts, married production to winning. In the 66 games in which Green scored at least one goal over the past four seasons, the Caps are 47-11-8, a .773 points percentage., better than that of either Alex Ovechkin (.764) or Alexander Semin (.738):

The odd part of Green’s progress in matching goals to wins is that in the Caps best season in franchise history – 121 points in 2009-2010 – Green had his worst season of the four-year playoff era in terms of points percentage in 16 games in which he scored a goal (.719). In fact, he underperformed relative to the 66 games in which he did not score a goal (a .742 points percentage in those games). It was the only season in the 16 combined seasons among the Young Guns in which a player underperformed when scoring goals versus those games in which he did not.

Even though Green has shown himself a talented goal scorer from the blue line over the past four years, the Caps have done better when he registers a point as opposed to scoring a goal (.781 points percentage to .773). In fact, this has been true for three of the past four years. Only in 2010-2011 did the team’s points percentage when Green scored a goal (.938) surpass that when he registered a point (.750). Perhaps it was a case of the relatively small number of goals Green scored this past season (eight in eight games with goals scored) – a small population size that can accommodate such unexpected results (a 7-0-1 record in those eight games).

Green remains an offensive force from the blue line. One abbreviated season does not detract significantly from the previous 204 games he played in which he was almost a point-a-game player. And like his Young Gun cohorts, Green’s production has been associated with Caps wins over the past four seasons.

Individually, almost without exception – by season, by month – each of the four players comprising the group that has become known to Caps fans as the “Young Guns” has married production to wins. The Caps have taken several actions this past summer to shore up the bottom half of the forward lines, and add depth and experience to the blue line. These have been the soft underbelly of the Caps over the past few years. But if you think it is important to get production out of the third and fourth lines of forwards, or to get some balanced production from the defense, it is because you are probably assuming that the core – the Young Guns – will produce.

It is in this respect that the best players for the Caps do have to be the best players. When they are successful, the Caps are successful. When they are not, even though the Caps are generally a stronger team than they were four years ago, the team is not quite as successful. And since the relationship examined here is offensive production to team wins – one that appears quite strong – it seems to be common sense that these players be put in those situations that allow them to flourish as much as possible, thus contributing to wins.

And that is where the analysis such as that undertaken by Neil Greenberg here permits one to marry productivity to outcomes. If these players’ offensive productivity is associated with wins, then they need to be placed in as many situations as possible that would enable that productivity. Getting more of those offensive zone starts for these players, for instance. Young guns can’t hit their targets with their weapons holstered in the defensive zone.

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