Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Washington Capitals -- Fan Trek: The Next Generation

As we settle in for a day of snow and breathless commentary from the Weather Channel about...snow, maybe it's time to think of the children.  No, not the little ankle-biters who will be home from school driving their parents bonkers.  No, we mean the next generation of Caps fans.  How might the recent troubles be seen through their eyes?  Let's take a look...

Oh my GOD!!!  Joe B.!  What's with that TIE?!?!?!

Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer...on the same line... AGAIN?


 ugh... another offensive zone penalty...this won't end well.

yup...that didn't end well...only thing these PK'ers are killing is my will to live.

Hey, even John Walton sounds sad... :(

but...but...but... I wanted NACHOS!

Geez, these guys couldn't get the puck out of their own zone with a map and a flashlight...

Tom Wilson...you da MAN! 

Another disallowed goal!  F%$#in' refs!

(sigh)...there goes another power play down the drain...

yeesh...what was Erskine doing on THAT play?

I hate it when Sidney Crosby scores...I think a puppy dies every time he does.


Yikes!...Look at those Fenwick-for percentages!!

This team is going to drive me to the juice box yet...

Washington Capitals: 48 Games Then and Now, Comparing the Depths of the Pair

The Washington Capitals played their 48th game of the season on Friday, a 5-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  This is the same number of games as they played in the entire abbreviated 2012-2013 season.  It is a useful point at which last year's team and this can be compared.

The Record
2012-2013: 27-18-3
2013-2014: 22-18-8

The first thing we notice here is that the Caps have traded wins for extra-time losses (ETLs).  This gets to the overall problem, an inability to put teams away in the regulation part of the game.  And they had their chances.  In four of the eight games lost in extra time the Caps had a lead.  Twice (against Phoenix and New Jersey) they had a two goal lead in the third period.

2012-2013 was a bit different. First, there were just the three ETLs.  Only two teams had fewer.  The flip side of that is the Caps' record in games in which they trailed at the second intermission.  Coming back to earn points in such games is just about the hardest thing to do in the NHL, but the Caps did it seven times in 16 games in which they trailed after 40 minutes, posting the league's fourth best record at 5-11-2.  And, in the three ETLs they sustained, Washington came back from a two-goal deficit in the third period against New Jersey and allowed the first goal in an extra-time loss to Ottawa, tying the game in the third period.

Compare that to this year's team.  The Caps still have that capacity to earn points when trailing after 40 minutes, holding the league's fifth-best record at 5-13-2.  The problem is when they are leading, as noted in the previous paragraph.  They have plainly given points away in this year's 48-game block.  It matters.  The five points won in regulation last year that they have not in extra time so far this season (the difference between three ETL's last year and eight so far this season) is the difference between being a wild card team hanging on by a thread to a playoff spot and being comfortably in second place in the Metropolitan Division, four points ahead of Philadelphia and the New York Rangers in the division and six points ahead of the ninth place team in the conference (Ottawa).

The Consistency

In this sense the teams are not all that different.  The difference is that this year's Capitals have not had the sort of sustained winning streak that reflected a consistently high level of play over a significant block of games.  Their longest winning streak to date is four games, those being the first four games of November.  On the other side, their longest losing streak is four, but ominously, they have had two such streaks in their last ten games, and it is a four game losing streak on which they find themselves as the 48-game mark is reached.

Last year the Caps had higher highs and not so low the lows.  They had a single four-game losing streak to open the season (0-3-1) that would be their longest of the year.  On the other side, there was an eight-game winning streak they enjoyed to start April that marked their sixth consecutive season with a winning streak of at least seven games.  When that streak started the Caps were stuck in third place in the Southeast Division and 11th place in the Eastern Conference, a point out of a playoff spot and three behind division leader Winnipeg.  When Caps won their eighth straight game the Caps vaulted to the top spot in the Division and had the number three spot in the playoff seeding, a position they would maintain over their last five games of the season.

 The Top End Numbers

Here is how the Capitals compare with themselves from last year's 48-game season to this year's first 48 games:


Down in goals per game, up in goals allowed.  Down in 5-on-5 goal ratios, down on the power play.  The penalty kill looks better, but that difference might be explained away by the Caps having what now looks like an aberrant 34-for-34 penalty kill streak from Game 6 into Game 14.  Take that away and the Caps are killing penalties at a 75.2 percent clip.

What the Caps have suffered from in no small part is a drop in effectiveness at home.  Down about a quarter of a goal per game in scoring offense, up almost that much in scoring defense.  Both the power play and penalty kill have gone in the wrong direction from last year to this.  The result is a drop in standings points earned per home game from 1.29 last season to 1.23 this season.  Not a large drop, but a drop nonetheless.

On the other hand, there are the road games.  There again, though, seeing is not necessarily believing.  Last year's club gives the impression of being better, but there is the noise around that eight-game winning streak that contributes to that.  That streak came as the Caps closed the season with a rush, going 15-2-2 in their last 19 games (if this is a "closing" effect, Caps fans might yet hold out hope of a similar result down the road this year).  In that season-ending rush, the Caps went 8-1-1 in their last ten road games.

In the preponderance of comparisons of rankings from last season to this, the Caps have slipped - scoring offense, scoring defense, 5-on-5 play, power play (slightly), road power play. home penalty killing.  At the top end of the numbers pyramid, the best one can say about this team is that it has not improved.  One might try to explain that away with realignment effects, the Caps moving from the allegedly weaker Southeast to the new Metropolitan Division.

There could be something to that.  The Metro is 57-36-17 against the other Eastern Conference division this season, the Atlantic, while last year's Southeast Division was 58-80-12 against other Eastern Conference teams (the difference in games played being last year's restriction to intra-conference play).  Still, a team can only play the games in front of it, and the Caps have not done as well in those games this season, at least as their top-end numbers are concerned.

The Carryover Pieces

This is where things start to get a bit strange.  There are ten skaters for the Caps this season who appeared in at least 30 games both last season and this one to date.  Here they are:
  • Alex Ovechkin
  • Eric Fehr
  • Jason Chimera
  • Joel Ward
  • John Carlson
  • Karl Alzner
  • Marcus Johansson
  • Mike Green
  • Nicklas Backstrom
  • Troy Brouwer
As a group, these players might be thought of as the core contributors in the Adam Oates era.  And, as a group, they compiled 466 man-games this season through 48 games, 435 man-games last season.  The question is, have they improved, individually and/or together?  Let's look first at the core of the core - Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Ovechkin's goal totals are virtually unchanged (32 goals in 48 goals last season, 34 in 46 games through 48 games this season).  His assist total, though, has tumbled, from 24 last season to 14 so far this season.  Backstrom, on the other hand, is almost a metronome - 48 points in 48 games last season, 48 points in 48 games so far this season.  The mix is a bit different (up three in goals, down three in assists), but the beat goes on.

If you are looking for improvement, look to the third line.  Jason Chimera is up six goals and nine points from last season to this, while Joel Ward is up five goals and seven points.  You can also see a progression for Marcus Johansson.  He has just one more goal this season than last, but he is up by ten assists from last year's 48-game total.  Part of that might be explained by Johansson appearing in only 34 games last season, compared to his appearance in all 48 games to date for the Caps this season.  Nonetheless, this is a player whose performance numbers are improving.  As for regression, look at the blue line, at least as far as offense is concerned.  John Carlson's assists are down seven and his points five, while Mike Green has seen his goal total drop by seven from the 12 he had last season in ten fewer games.

The whole crowd seems to have regressed - heavily - in that most-hated of numbers, the plus-minus statistic. Six of the ten players have seen their plus-minus drop by double digits (Ovechkin Fehr, Ward, Carlson, Johansson, and Backstrom).  Only three players - Chimera, Alzner, and Brouwer - have seen their corresponding numbers increase, Chimera seeing the biggest jump (from minus-5 to even).  The disturbing thing about this number is that each and every one of these ten players are "minus" players for the season, with the exception of Chimera's "even" result.

Here is where things start to get strange.  If you look at these ten players as a group, their aggregate per-82 game performance rates are almost identical from season to season.  In 2013 they had an 18-28-46 scoring rate per 82 games, while this season they have an 18-29-47 per-82 game scoring rate over the first 48 games.  Power play goals?  Six per 82-games in both 48-game segments.

What the 1013-2014 group does more than their 2012-2013 version is shoot the puck more often, about 20 percent more from season to season.  And, the shooting is up almost across the board.  Only Jason Chimera is down in shots on goal from last season to this.  The result is a lower shooting percentage for the group this season, down from 11.5 percent to 9.7 percent.

If there is a difference in these two editions of the Caps, it is not to be found in the performance of players who played significant minutes in both last season and this one.

The Replacement Pieces

There were six players from the 2012-2013 squad that played in 30 or more games who are no longer with the team.  There are six players who did not appear in 30 or more games with the club last year, either by failing to meet the threshold or by not being with the club last season, who have appeared in 30 or more games this season.  These are the replacement pieces for that first group.  Have they, individually and/or as a group, improved on the performance of the players they replaced from last season?

On an individual basis there is no clean one-for-one replacement, player-for-player in a given role.  There is, however, precisely one such instance.  When Mike Ribeiro left Washington to sign a free agent deal with the Phoenix Coyotes, it left a hole (again) in the middle of the second line of forwards.  Mikhail Grabovski was signed to fill that void.  On a pure goals-assists-points basis, the Caps lost some production in the transfer.  Mike Ribeiro finished the 2012-2013 season 13-36-49, while Grabovski is 12-21-33 to date with this year's Caps.  There is more to it than that, though.  Grabvovski has a better faceoff percentage than the center he replaced (53.7 to 44.8), fewer goals against on ice (29 to 32), and a better possession profile (52.5 to 45.6 percent in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 close score situations, 50.6 to 44.5 percent in Fenwick-for) .  Grabovski also has barely one quarter of the penalty minutes accumulated by Ribeiro (14 to 53).

One of the things that might be affecting Grabovski's offensive numbers, and not in a good way, is that he has played more than 200 minutes at 5-on-5 with four different forwards (Eric Fehr, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Joel Ward), the equivalent of splitting time between two different lines.  He has spent another 100-plus minutes at 5-on-5 with two other forwards (Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich).    Last season, Ribeiro spent more than 250 minutes at 5-on-5 with two forwards (Ovechkin, Brouwer).  He spent more than 100 minutes with only one other forward (Jason Chimera).

Looking at the rest of the replacements, the players departed in this argument include:
  • Jay Beagle (who played 48 games last year but has been held to 28 in the first 48 games of the season)
  • John Erskine (30 games last year, held to 23 so far this season)
  • Mathieu Perreault
  • Matt Hendricks
The replacements, even if only in terms of level of effort, include:
  • Aaron Volpatti (17 games last season, 37 through 48 games this season)
  • Brooks Laich (9 games last season, 34 games to date this season)
  • Martin Erat (9 games with the Caps last season, 40 to date this season)
  • Steve Oleksy (28 games last season, 33 to date this season)
  • Tom Wilson
The other replacements are more players who had lesser roles last season or were in-season acquisitions whose profiles were elevated this season.  And it is an odd sort of turnover in terms of performance.  The five replacements have 40 points compared to the 39 for the four players they replaced in terms of level of effort.  But what jumps out from the old and the new are two players, not necessarily one replaced by the other since they play different positions (and, in some imaginings, might have been linemates).

Mathieu Perreault was 6-11-17 in 39 games last season.  This season, it became apparent before the season started that Perreault was not going to be in the Caps' plans.  His center position was being occupied on an experimental basis in the preseason by Martin Erat and Eric Fehr.  He was traded to Anaheim for John Mitchell and a 2014 fourth round draft pick at the end of September.

On the flip side, there is Martin Erat, who might have been a decent linemate for Perreault on the left side.  He came to the Caps late in the 2012-2013 season with forward Michael Latta in a trade with Nashville for prospect Filip Forsberg.  Erat played in only nine regular season games last season and was injured in the playoffs, but one might have envisioned a more involved role for the versatile forward.

That has not happened.  Erat has been circulating among the forward lines, spending much more time on the fourth line than anyone might have anticipated, and he has divided his 5-on-5 time with a lot of Caps forwards, more than 100 minutes in 40 games with: Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, and Nicklas Backstrom.  He has spent just under 100 minutes with Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin.

Despite the fruit salad of forwards, Erat has 16 assists.  What he does not have in his 40 games through the 48 played by the Caps is a goal.  In fact, the five replacements in this group have only 10 goals, compared to the 16 for the four players they replaced in level of effort.  They are, as a group a minus-19 compared to the players they replaced from last season.

The Defense

If you look at the defense the Caps iced in their last game of the 2012-2013 season, Game 7 against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in last season's playoffs, it looks familiar:
  • Karl Alzner
  • John Carlson
  • Mike Green
  • Steve Oleksy
  • Jack Hillen
  • John Erskine
All six of those defensemen are on the roster this season.  It would not be what the Caps iced to start the season, though.  Connor Carrick, a fifth-round draft pick in 2012, surprised first by making the opening night roster, then surprised some more when he was in the opening night starting lineup, replacing Oleksy.

With all due respect to Carrick, it would be a hint of things to come.  And, they would be familiar things.  Last season the Caps dressed 12 defensemen in the regular season, only four of them playing in 30 or more games: John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and John Erskine.  Here, the Caps fought an injury bug.  Green and Erskine lost large chunks of the year to injuries.  That forced the club to see what they had in the system before they perhaps wanted to make that evaluation at the NHL level.  Steve Oleksy and Tomas Kundratek both played more than 25 games and, all things considered, played decently.  What weighed them down more than anything was the long injury history of Tom Poti that limited him to 16 games, an injury to Jack Hillen that limited him to 23 games, and the ineffectiveness of Roman Hamrlik that resulted in his being waived by the club (claimed by the New York Rangers) and Jeff Schultz, who played in only 26 games.

This year it is a touch of injury, the annual (it seems) injury to Jack Hillen and after effects Erskine has had to endure from a shoulder injury from the 2012-2013 season.  But there has been a fair amount of trial and error, and mad scientist experimenting, too.  Eight Capital defensemen dressed for 20 or more games out of the first 48, only three of them for more than 40 (Carlson, Alzner, Green).  Of the others, Steve Oleksy (33 games) found himself benched for the last six games of the 48-game opening to the season, while Nate Schmidt played in 28 games before being sent down to Hershey.  Dmitry Orlov couldn't get a roster spot for the first month and didn't crack the lineup for the first time until November 30, ending the 48-game start to the season with 22 games played.  Alexander Urbom was claimed on waivers, played in 20 games, and then was waived.

This year, the lack of depth has been laid bare, and the team has had no answer, either from in the system or from without, to fill in the 4/5/6 spots dependably.  The team is left flailing - a weak hand personnel-wise and constant lineup and pairs changing.


The team has had a lot of head-scratching moments this season, but perhaps none have caused quite an itch as the goaltending situation.  Last season the roles were well defined.  Braden Holtby was the number one goaltender.  He appeared in 36 of the 48 games and was tied for 14th among qualifying NHL goalies in save percentage.  Michal Neuvirth was the backup, and frankly, he struggled with it.  Neuvirth posted a 4-5-2 record, but his .910 save percentage would barely have cracked the top 25 goalies in the league, had he qualified.  Still, it was a stable and dependable relationship.  The Caps had a number one goalie on which they could rely night-in and night-out.

Forward to this season.  The appearances split through 48 games looks somewhat similar to last year's split.  One goalie has 29 appearances, another has 15, and a third has a handful.  What no one anticipated was that the number one goalie would end up with two appearances - neither a full 60-minute effort - over the last 12 games of the first 48 contests, last year's backup would get the handful of games (Neuvirth with nine appearances), and a rookie - Philipp Grubauer - would join the team in late November and appear in 15 of 22 games (13 of them starts) to close the first 48-game block of the seaaon.

More head-scratching... the ascension of Grubauer was not accompanied by reciprocating roster move involving a goalie.  The Caps kept all three on the roster.  That situation was necessitated for a time by an injury to Neuvirth in late November that kept him incapacitated for six games, but after returning to Washington after a conditioning assignment in Hershey, the club kept three goaltenders.

What they could not do was settle on a number one netminder.  Grubauer received the biggest share of starts, but with three goalies on the roster to end the 48-game opening to the season, and last year's number one goalie the third man in that situation, the most important position on a hockey roster was far more unsettled as they finished their first 48 games that it was in an entire 48-game season last year.


The fancystats crowd will tell you that possession is a key indicator and predictor of success on the ice.  And, there is a growing body of data to support this view.  If it is true, have the Caps had success in getting and maintaining possession, and if not, have they at least improved in a second 48-games under Adam Oates?

The compilation of statistics at extraskater.com is invaluable in looking at these numbers.  What is first among the things to note looking at the possession number is the basis - time.  The Caps have spent approximately equal amounts of time at 5-on-5 overall this year (2281 minutes) as last year (2290 minutes).  Break it down, though, and things change.  In 5-on-5 close score situations, those in which the score is tied in any period or within one goal in the first or second periods, the Caps have spent much more time in those situations this season (1,506 minutes) than last (1,313 minutes).  The same is true for 5-on-5 tied situations (961 minutes versus 701 minutes).  The Caps have spent less time in 5-on-5 situations in tight games this year than last, which seems a bit counterintuitive, since the Caps had 25 games decided by two or more goals last season (a 14-11 record) and only 21 such games through 48 games this season (9-12 record).

Moving into the possession numbers themselves, there is an unsettling sameness about them.  First, look at the 5-on-5 Corsi and Fenwick numbers.  In 2002-2013 the Caps had a Corsi-for percentage overall of 48.7 percent, while this year it is 49.3 percent.  The Fenwick-for percentage was 48.6 last season, 48.5 through 48 games this season.  The changes are insignificant.

Drilling down into the situations, at 5-on-5 close score situations, the Corsi-for values are 47.9 percent last year, 48.9 percent through 48 games this season.  Fenwick-for looks much the same, 47.6 percent last year, 48.1 percent this year.

Finally, in 5-on-5 tied situations, the numbers again look alike.  Last year it was 48.7 percent Corsi-for, 48.8 percent this year.  Fenwick-for was 48.5 percent last season, 47.2 percent this season.

Pushing those results back up into outcomes, the picture is not encouraging.  The Caps found themselves on the wrong side of 50 percent in shots on goal at 5-on-5 overall last year (47.2 percent) and this year (47.1 percent.  The same applies to 5-on-5 close score situations (46.1 percent/47.1 percent) and 5-on-5 tied situations (47.5 percent/46.8 percent).  What we then see in terms of PDO values (sum of shooting and save percentages) is that in each situation the value dropped from year to year - from 101.4 to 99.9 at 5-on-5, from 101.3 to 99.7 in 5-on-5 close score situations, and from 99.4 to 98.5 in 5-on-5 tied situations.

In the end...

Last season Caps fans could lean on the fact that the club had to break in a new coach, a new coaching staff, a new system.  Add to that a lack of the usual training camp and a compressed schedule, and it was a recipe for frustration.  When the Caps opened the season with a 2-8-1 record, fans might have been ready to write off the season.  The Caps finished strong, though, going 25-10-2 over their last 37 games.

Even if one accounts for the eight-game winning streak as an outlier, the Caps had a strong record to end the season.  They seemed to "get it" as far as scheme and coach were concerned.  From St. Patrick's Day forward, a span of 21 games, the Caps scored four or more goals 11 times and allowed two or fewer 13 times.  Their possession numbers did not impress, but their outcomes did.

Perhaps you thought as we did last year, that the 2012-2013 season would be more or less one long training camp for the Caps, an opportunity to bake in the new approaches in game conditions.  When the club did better than expected after their slow start (in the regular season, at least), it made for optimism this season that the Caps could hit the ground running.

Well, now we have another 48-game block to look at, and what the Caps have not done is "hit the ground running" in Year Two under head coach Adam Oates  They have taken a few steps, stumbled, keeled over into a ditch, got up again, taken a few more steps, and repeated the process for most of the season.  They had no streaks - winning or losing - of more than four games.  Their power play remained strong, their penalty kill weak (except for a superb stretch in late October).  Their 5-on-5 play was as inconsistent as it was last season and too far to the wrong side of the 50 percent mark in the usual measures.

In other words, the Caps have not improved.  They are not better for having had last year's 48 games as prelude to this season's first 48 games.  More disturbing, they are much more unsettled.  Lines are jumbled frequently, the defense is weak in its lower half (making for more jumbling of the lineup), they depend far too much on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for offense, and the goaltending decisions this season almost seem capricious compared to the stability of last season.

The maneuvering might be a response to what is a roster that lacks depth.  Core players - those who recorded high levels of effort last year and this in games played - have contributed at about the same rate.  However, those results are heavily skewed by those of Alex Ovechkin, who scored goals at a 55-goal full season pace last season and who was on a 61-goal pace through 48-games this season.
The players whose level of effort replaced players of similar levels last year who have departed have not yet measured up, although the swapping out of Mike Ribeiro for Mikhail Grabovski counts as a clear plus in our book, especially with their respective price tags for this season.

The situation is made worse by grumbling in the ranks.  Three players, either in their words or those of their representatives, have expressed a desire (or at least a willingness) to be moved for lack of playing time - Martin Erat, Michal Neuvirth, and Dmitry Orlov.  While that sort of thing seems to have died down somewhat, the Caps still have the look of a team up on blocks on the side of the road.  They aren't going anywhere and are being passed by other teams on the road to the playoffs.
It is not what anyone expected, let alone hoped for, in the second edition of the Capitals' first 48 games under current management.