Monday, May 16, 2011

Questions: Who Are They?

Last year, we asked “now what?”

This year, we are left to ask “who are they?”

In 2010, the Washington Capitals lost in the first round of the playoffs to a club that finished 33 points behind them in the standings. This year, they lost to an upstart that had not made the playoffs since 2007 and that they defeated four times in six tries in the regular season. In any one year you might say that a playoff loss is a product of slumps at the wrong time, hot goaltenders, injuries, or blind luck. If, over four years, you last one, two, one, and two rounds of the playoffs, we are of a mind bad “luck” isn’t the problem.

This was the year that the Capitals were righting the wrongs of their three previous playoff failures, eschewing the offense-oriented style in favor of playing the “right way,” of using a defense-first philosophy to advance deep into the playoffs. Well, that didn’t work, either.

Or did it?

The Caps started the 2010-2011 season pretty much where they left off in the 2009-2010 regular season, slicing through opponents’ defenses like hot knives through butter. In their first 26 games they averaged 3.38 goals per game. Not quite the offensive juggernaut that they were in 2009-2010 (3.82 goals per game), but certainly capable of giving goaltenders nightmares. In those first 26 games the Caps scored more than four goals seven times.

Trouble was, the defense was pretty much where they left it in 2009-2010, too. In that season the Caps allowed an average of 2.77 goals per game. The started the 2010-2011 season allowing an average of 2.62 goals a game in those first 26 contests. An improvement, but no one was going to confuse them with being the New Jersey Devils (when they were still the New Jersey Devils).

Then came that eight game losing streak in December and the famous makeover in which the Caps did a 180 and became a defense-first club that shut down opponents instead of rolling over them with offense. In the last 56 games of the season (including the losing streak), the Caps scored an average of only 2.34 goals per game, more than a goal-a-game drop off from their average before the makeover.

But the turnaround did have the desired effect on defense, the Caps allowing an average of only 2.20 goals per game in the last 56 contests of the regular season. So, this was a success, right? Well, not if you look at the playoffs, and not when you drill a little bit into those before and after numbers.

The Caps rode this pinball offense sort of theme for the 2009-2010 season and the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season. In those 108 games they scored 274 goals at even strength. That average of 2.54 goals per game at even strength needs some perspective. For the entire 2010-2011 season, the Devils scored an average of 2.08 total goals per game. The Boston Bruins averaged only 2.39 total goals per game in 2009-2010. After having transitioned to a defense first philosophy, the Caps averaged 1.79 even strength goals per game. It was a significant drop off from what they posted in the year-plus preceding it (0.79 goal per game reduction). One might expect that the even strength offense would be less prolific, but a 31 percent drop in production from the previous 108 games?

If you are going to rationalize this away, you might do it by thinking it is the price one pays for tearing out one system and installing a new one more or less on the fly. That the players would adopt it and achieve the results they did (a drop from 2.73 goals allowed per game in the year-plus leading up to the changeover to 2.20 after) is a reflection of the players’ talent and their coachability. But there are limits. And the drop in even strength scoring might be a reflection of them.

But the power play…ugh.

It’s hard to see a way toward an clear explanation of how the power play disintegrated in the last 56 games of the season. In the 108 games covering the 2009-2010 season and the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season the Capitals averaged 0.94 power play goals per game (on a 25.1 percent conversion rate). Even in the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season they averaged 0.85 power play goals per game (24.4 percent conversion). Not a bad drop off considering that the Caps led the NHL in power play conversions in 2009-2010.

But in those last 56 games the Caps scored a total of 24 power play goals – 0.43 per game (13.9 percent). That was more than a 50 percent drop off from their power play goals scored per game in the year-plus before that. Part of the problem was getting opportunities in the first place. In the 108-game block the Caps averaged 3.73 power play opportunities a game. In the last 56 games of the regular season, when the Caps transitioned to that more defensive style, they averaged only 3.09 power play chances a game. A product of playing safer in the offensive end?

But safe as a team might play in the offensive end at even strength, even if in doing so they end up with fewer penalties drawn, that 13.9 percent conversion rate on the power play in the last 56 games sticks out. That and the fact that the Caps went 43 consecutive games without registering more than one power play goal in a game and only had four multi-power play goal games in the last 56 of the season (they had 20 such games in the 2009-2010 season).

Adopting a more defensive posture resulted in the Caps dropping their even strength goals allowed per game from 1.82 a game in the 108 games (the 2009-2010 season plus the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season) to 1.64 a game. On the other hand, the offense took a bigger dip, from 2.54 even strength goals per game to 1.75. That might have been a good tradeoff; certainly the Caps’ regular season record after the transition (30-11-7 after the eight-game losing streak) suggests it was. But that was the regular season, and what was perhaps an unexpected result was that the power play went almost silent. And even if it improved late in the season, it let the Caps down in the playoffs (2-for-19 against Tampa Bay).

So it begs the question, “who are they?” Are the Caps an “either-or” team that can do the offense or the defense (but not both with consistency), or was 2010-2011 something of a learning year, where a team that steamrolled teams with offense almost since this coaching staff took over had to learn to play a different game at the other end of the ice. The hopeful fan will be thinking the latter. After all, a high-octane offense and a stingy defense are not mutually exclusive styles. They certainly were not in Vancouver, where the Canucks led the NHL in offense in 2010-2011 (3.15 goals-per-game) and in defense (2.20 goals-per-game).

But there remains the mystery of the power play and how a team with as much offensive talent to deploy on the man advantage that the Capitals had could be frustrated so often. In the end, despite the improvements in defense the Caps made, despite their ability to win close games (26 one-goal wins, second in the league), despite their ability to come from behind (second in wins when trailing after two periods, first in wins when allowing the first goal), the power play and its troubles was the weak link during the latter two-thirds of the regular season, and it never really did come around in the playoffs.

Perhaps “who they are” next year will be a team that learned its lessons in defensive hockey and can apply them without sacrificing so much offense. But if “who they are” is a team that plays a style closer to the margin – a lot of one-goal games and a defense-first philosophy, then that power play is going to have to be more effective than it was this season. Or you can count on the same kind of finish.