Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Death of a Narrative

"The Capitals win games by sheer tour de force, overpowering their opponents with offense and, more often than not, hoping their defense and goaltending is just good enough to keep the other team from scoring five goals."

Ladies and Gentlemen, the early leader in the “Strangest Statements Made About a Hockey Team” for 2010. This one is courtesy of Ken Campbell, of “The Hockey News.”

This is merely the latest in a continuing narrative about the Capitals, that they are the 2000’s reincarnation of the 1930’s “Gashouse Gang” of major league baseball. Like those 1930’s St. Louis Cardinals squads, these Caps are little more (so the narrative goes) than a fun-loving, devil-may-care bunch who plays with wild abandon… and no discipline. The only difference seems to be that the Caps have their uniforms laundered regularly (the name “Gashouse Gang” stems from the foul odor of the unwashed uniforms the players preferred that called to mind the plants that manufactured gas for lighting and heating of the period).

Extend the narrative, and the Caps are too undisciplined, too immature, too offense-oriented, insufficiently hard-working to ever realize their dream of a Stanley Cup.

The trouble with narratives such as this is that what often happens is if a thing is spoken often enough and long enough, it takes on the character of truth. What it doesn’t do – and what it doesn’t do in this case – is take on the substance of truth. And here is why…

The Caps are a prodigious, prolific, and precocious offensive team. For that there is no debate. They average 3.90 goals per game through 59 games this year. This might not sound like a lot when you compare it to the offensive powerhouses of the 1980’s, but consider that that 3.90 goals-per game the Caps are on a pace to score is more goals per game than any team since the 1995-1996 Pittsburgh Penguins, which averaged 4.41 goals-per-game in that season. But even here the Caps’ unfolding season might be more impressive. In that 1995-1996 season the Penguins’ output was 10.8 percent higher than that of the second-highest scoring team, the Colorado Avalanche (3.98 goals/game). The Caps 0.60 goals-per-game lead over the San Jose Sharks is an 18.2 percent gap in offensive output.

While impressive, the offensive production of the Caps overshadows what is becoming a very solid season at the other end of the ice.

This morning finds the Caps in 13th place in the NHL in goals-against average (2.70/game). Among the 16 “top-eight” teams of each conference, this is not especially impressive – the Caps rank 11th among those 16 teams, 5th in the Eastern Conference. But it is a figure that is…

-- better than that of the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins (2.90)
-- better than that of the New York Rangers, who employ a three-time Vezina finalist at goaltender (2.71)
-- better than teams such as the Florida Panthers (2.76) or the Minnesota Wild (2.86) that employ more defense-oriented systems.

We are not going to argue that the Caps are the New Jersey Devils, who regularly reside in the low 2’s in goals allowed-per-game. But to hint – or to state outright – that the Caps are either incapable of playing or ignorant to the need for good defense is simply wrong.

In fact, the season cleaves rather nicely at the Thanksgiving point of the season. Up to that point the Caps played 25 games. Here is how their defense looked at that point…

Record: 14-5-6
Goals against/game: 2.84
Penalty killing: 76/97 (78.4%)
Shots against/game: 30.3

Since then the Caps have played 34 games, and here is how those numbers shake out…

Record: 27-7-0
Goals against/game: 2.41
Penalty killing: 112/139 (80.6%)
Shots against/game: 31.7

Shaving almost half a goal a game off your numbers in almost half a season’s worth of games is not a streak, it is not an anomaly. In fact it is rather amazing given that the Caps have done it with their number one goalie (or “co-number one” if you prefer) Semyon Varlamov having played in only three of those 34 games, none of them after December 7th (he had two shutouts in four games before going out with injuries).

But let’s delve further into that statement by Campbell, specifically with respect to this “hope” that “their defense and goaltending is just good enough to keep the other team from scoring five goals.” First, let’s recognize that comment as engaging in just a touch of hyperbole. Five goals is a lot, even for an allegedly defense-challenged team such as the Caps. But four isn’t. In 25 games before Thanksgiving the Caps allowed four or more goals a whopping ten times. By comparison, the Devils allowed that many three times in 22 games before Thanksgiving.

But in 34 games since Thanksgiving, the Caps have allowed four or more goals in a game only six times. You might be interested to know that the Devils have allowed that many or more on nine occasions in 36 games since Thanksgiving.

Let’s flip that around. Before Thanksgiving the Caps allowed two or fewer goals in a game ten times, which frankly is rather respectable (the Devils did it 14 times in 22 games). Since Thanksgiving the Caps have turned the trick 21 times in 34 games (the Devils have done it 16 times in 36 games).

Then there is the discrete…

-- Alex Ovechkin, seen in some quarters as something of a “125-foot” player who is inconsistent at best and a loafer at worst in his own end, has not had consecutive “minus” games this season (in fact has only ten minus games this year and only six in 32 games since Thanksgiving, during which he is plus-30).

-- Mike Green is seen as lackadaisical with the puck at best, a turnover machine at worst. So far this year, though, he has a total of 52 giveaways in 54 games. That would rank him in a tie for tenth for most giveaways by defensemen in the NHL. But it would be fewer than Chris Phillips, fewer than Brian Rafalski. And, if you look at the top-30 (or “bottom-30” if you are so inclined) defensemen in giveaways, Green averages more ice time than 24 of the other 29. His goals-against/on-ice-per-60 minutes is better than the likes of Canadian Olympians Dan Boyle and Scott Niedermayer. Green won’t win the mythical “Langway” Award for top defensive defenseman in the NHL, but neither is he the liability he has been assumed to be.

-- Nicklas Backstrom can’t win faceoffs… or so the story goes. Well, Backstrom is in his third year in the NHL and it bears noting that while he is not yet a David Steckel in the circle, he has improved each year (46.3 percent in his rookie year, 48.7 percent last year, 49.3 percent so far this year). Sidney Crosby improved in this facet of the game in each of his first three seasons, too.

-- Alexander Semin is too inconsistent, too immature a player to be counted upon to deliver in his own end when need be. Well, Semin is also a plus-48 in his last 112 games. Compare that to Alex Ovechkin being +49 in his last 130 games… or Henrik Zetterberg being plus-49 in his last 172 games.

-- Jose Theodore is too inconsistent to win in the spring. Theodore has had consistency issues since his Vezina/Hart Trophy year with Montreal. But, to ask the question one usually asks at this point, what have you done for me lately? Well, if we define “lately” as we did above – that being after Thanksgiving – Theodore is 15-4-0, 2.62, .917. He has allowed more than three goals three times in those 19 appearances (disclosure – two of them have come in his last two appearances). Are those Vezina numbers? Not really, but over a full year it would put him in a neighborhood that includes Tim Thomas (2.52/.915), Marc-Andre Fleury (2.68/.906), Jonas Hiller (2.70/.919), or Cam Ward (2.74, .913).

Then there are the improvements. Jeff Schultz is showing signs of growing into his frame and becoming a solid defensive defenseman. He is a plus-37 in 52 games and has had only seven “minus” games this year (two of those coming in his first four contests). And although it doesn’t bear on this discussion, Schultz is on the brink of setting a career high in points (he has 16 and needs three to set a new mark).

Brian Pothier has already matched the number of games he played in 2007-2008 (38) and has played more than four times the number of regular season games he played in last season (nine). For the Caps, that has been almost like a free agent signing for the second pair. On a per-82 game basis he is on a pace equivalent to his best year in Ottawa regarding his plus/minus numbers. He hasn’t had a minus game since November 14th (20 games) and has had only one since October 17th (31 games).

The Caps are not the New Jersey Devils. They are not built that way, they are not coached that way. They are in fact, as Campbell states, “fun to watch” with their solid-fuel booster offense. But they are not an incompetent defensive team and far from the inept label that seems to persist in attaching itself to any discussion involving the words “Capitals,” “defense,” and “goaltending.” The Caps are not as good as their goals against in this 14-game winning streak (2.36/game). They might be, though, a 2.5-2.6 goals allowed sort of team. If so, that mark would be better than two of the Stanley Cup winners since the lockout (Pittsburgh at 2.84 last year and Carolina at 3.15 in 2006). It would be worse than the 2.18 posted by the champion Red Wings in 2008 or the Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks’ 2.42 in 2007.

Two observations would be fair to make at this point. First, the playoffs are a different animal, and Campbell alludes to this in his critique of the Caps’ defense. The other is that 14 games, or 34 (since Thanksgiving) for that matter, isn’t a full season. But what we are seeing here is not unlike what happened last year to the Penguins. The Penguins were not an especially good defensive team for the first half of the season, but then the light went on over their heads after a coaching change. They didn’t become a great defensive team (2.52 goals against/game after Dan Bylsma took over), but they became good enough, and it carried over into the post-season, where they also were “good enough” – 2.62 goals-against/game.

The Caps have been a better team on their own end of the ice since Thanksgiving, but they might have had their “come to Jesus” moment when Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina were traded to Columbus. Since Alex Ovechkin was named captain, the Caps are 17-1-0 and have allowed 45 goals in the process (2.50/game). Ovechkin seems to have bought into the “responsibility” that goes with the job – he has been on the ice for only seven of the 45 goals scored against the Caps since he donned the “C” and only once has been on the ice for two goals against in a game. The rest of the team seems to have jumped aboard – forwards, defensemen, goaltenders – to play a much better 200-foot game.

And that is a formula for winning a championship.

Thus, we hope, endeth the narrative.