Saturday, January 06, 2018

Washington Capitals: Half and Half - Comparing Seasons at the Half-Way Mark, Part II

In Part I of our look at the Washington Capitals’ first half of the 2017-2018 season compared to last season’s first half, we looked at team factors.  Now, the returning skaters.

The Returning Skater Ensemble

Sixteen players from the club that skated in the first 41 games last season have appeared in the first 41 games for the Caps this season.  What is noteworthy about them as a group is the manner in which they stepped up their collective performance.  Last year, this group of 16 combined for 527 man-games played in the first half.  That number is slightly higher this time around, the group combining for 542 man-games played.  The injuries sustained by Matt Niskanen (a drop of 13 games from last year to this) and Andre Burakovsky (38 to 19) have been offset by increases in games played on the part of Brett Connolly (up five), Jakub Vrana (up 28) and, perhaps surprisingly, Taylor Chorney (up 15).

While the games played haven’t changed all that much, the production has.  The 16 returning players have 22 more goals as a group (106) than they had at the half-way point last season (84).  And while it might be tempting to say it is Alex Ovechkin picking up his pace, that would explain only a part of the increase.  Ovechkin is up five goals from a comparable point last season (from 21 to 26 through 41 games), in terms of numbers and percentage increase, look to Evgeny Kuznetsov (up from 5 to 12) and Jakub Vrana (from two in 12 games in last season’s first half to 10 in 40 games so far this season).  And there are Tom Wilson (up from 2 to 6) and Dmitry Orlov (from 2 to 5).

Part of the improvement is efficiency.  As a group, the returning skaters are shooting at almost precisely the rate at which they shot last season (1.81 shots per man-game in both years), but this year they are shooting at 10.8 percent versus 8.8 percent at this point last season.

The odd thing if you look one level lower is that the forwards and defensemen have improved their goal scoring by roughly the same amounts, percentage-wise, the forwards going from 74 goals at this point last year to 93 (up 25.7 percent), while the defensemen are up from 10 to 13 (up 30 percent).

Both groups have contributed to the improvement in overall shooting efficiency.  The forwards are shooting marginally more often (up from 1.85 shots per man-game to 1.91) but have improved their shooting percentage from 11.3 to 13.2 percent.  Meanwhile, defensemen are shooting a bit less often (from 1.75 shots per man-game to 1.61), but their shooting percentage is up as well, from 3.3 to 4.7 percent.

Ah, but there is a flip side to that forward/defenseman break out: plus-minus.  The returning forwards were a plus-71 in the first half last season but only plus-25 as a group so far this season (minus-46 differential).  It is almost as bad on defense, which as a group (five returnees) is plus-23 after being plus-52 at this point last season.

The Individuals
(click on image for larger version)

Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom, while still a very productive element of this team, seems a bit, well…”off” so far this season.  There was the long stretch without a goal (21 games) that is the big donut hole in his season so far, but he is still off from last year’s numbers in just about every statistical category from last year’s half-season mark.  This is despite his getting a little more than an additional minute of ice time per game this season compared to last year at this point. He has been a recipent of more ice time, averaging more than a minute more (19:32) in the first half than he did in last season's first half (18:21).  That he is getting a bit more ice time on the power play (3:38 per game versus 3:09 at this point last season) while seeing his power play numbers drop a bit (2-10-12 versus 3-13-16 last season) is something to note.

Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin continues to mow down opponents and milestones.  With 26 goals so far he has jumped from 26th to 20th place on the all-time list of goal scorers, and his 43 points has enabled him to jump almost ten spots into 63rd place all time in points.  It is the seventh time in 13 seasons that he topped 25 goals at the half-way mark, and more to the point of comparison with last season, he is five ahead of last year’s 21-goal total.  He has done it be being more efficient, his 14.4 percent shooting percentage being 1.5 points higher than where he was at this point last season.  Those improved numbers have not come on the power play, where his seven goals is one off his 2016-2017 pace (eight).  He has 19 even strength goals this season compared to 13 at this point last season.  One other number of note, he is one of a minority on this club with a better plus-minus this season (plua-12) over last (plus-5).

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov did not have a good first half last season, part of what would be a large dropoff in points from the 2015-2016 season.  But he has come back with a strong first half this season, more than doubling his goal output in the first half from last season (from five to 12) and increasing his point total by 11 (from 28 to 39).  The odd part is his being a merely “even” player in plus-minus after going plus-13 in the first half last season.  Then again, his power play scoring being up significantly (up three goals and up six in assists), that plus-minus is easier to explain.  He is also getting more ice time, as it seems the top-six is in general, Kuznetsov up almost two full minutes per game over this point last season.

T.J. Oshie

Would you believe T.J. Oshie has played more games in the first half this season (35) than he did in the first half last season (33)?  His production is roughly equivalent to what he had in the first half last season, but like Kuznetsov, his plus-minus has plummeted (from plus-18 to minus-2).  It is another case of his power play production being a bit better, meaning his even strength has suffered by a roughly equivalent degree.  His average ice time is up, too, almost a minute and a half over last season.

Jay Beagle

Last year would become a career year for Beagle, so comparisons carry with them the faint air of unfairness.  And, being a player now in his 30’s, continued improvement on his part might be a stretch.  That said, he has dropped off a bit in goals and points from a similar point last season.  Known as a superior faceoff performer, he has largely maintained a high efficiency level there, even if he is a bit down from last season (from 59.5 percent to 58.3 percent). He has almost doubled his takeaways (7 to 15), cut his giveaways almost in half (from 13 to 7), and he has more credited hits (from 28 to 42). On the other hand, you could look at those numbers and think, “those are ‘not having the puck’ numbers.”

Andre Burakovsky

This is not a first half that has much use for Andre Burakovsky except as a learning tool – how to deal with and respond to adversity.  He has played only half the games (19) that he played in the first half last season (38).  His goals/assists/points are similarly reduced (from 5-10-15 to 3-5-8).  His plus-minus is down (plus-2 to minus-3), while his penalty minutes are up (10 to 18).  What has not changed is his ice time, when he has been available (13:44 per game last season, 13:44 this season).

Lars Eller

Eller has improved his numbers over last year’s first half.  Playing in 40 games in each season’s first half, he has lifted his goal scoring a bit (4 to 5), but his assists have jumped quite a bit (from 4 to 12).  Otherwise, his numbers look very similar to last year’s first half, except he is getting more ice time, about a minute more per game (from 14:04 to 15:14).  Hit blocked shots are up (from 12 to 27), perhaps (again) a reflection the larger possession issues the Caps have, and his giveaways are up (from 16 to 27).

Brett Connolly

Connolly, as he was in last year’s first half, was more a finisher than a set-up player.  His goals are up some (from 5 to 8), and his assists are as well (from 1 to 3), but they have moved in tandem.  Connolly’s ice time has increased some, a product of more power play responsibility (0:40 last season to 1:27 so far this season).  The odd stat for him is a somewhat more scattershot shooting performance.  At this point last season he had six missed shots to 33 shots on goal, while this season it is 18 misses and 25 shots on goal, which makes that 32.0 shooting percentage (8 goals on 25 shots) stand out.

Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson, despite playing in four fewer games in the first half of this season (37) than he did last season (all 41 games), has made considerable strides to shed the notion of his being merely a thumper and an agitator.  He is averaging almost three full minutes more per game – some of it as a first line player – and is making an impression with the opportunity.  With six goals and 12 assists so far, to go with a plus-10, the relevant comparison might not to be to the first half of last season (2-2-4, plus-6), but to his full year totals (7-12-19, plus-9).  In fact, he is already within striking distance of career highs in all of the points categories (he was 7-16-23 in 2015-2016).  He has doubled his shooting efficiency from last season from 5.3 to 11.5 percent.  It has not kept him from maintaining a certain edge, his hits (108 this year versus 99 in the first half last year), blocked shots (15 versus 17), and takeaways (22 versus 20) at roughly the same level.  The one element that seems to have returned is taking penalties.  His 98 PIMs is almost three times the level he had at this point last season (38).

Jakub Vrana

With these eyes, we watch Jakub Vrana and see “Peter Bondra,” a smooth, fast skater with a finisher’s touch.  If one looks at Bondra’s goal totals in his first two seasons (12 in 54 games in his rookie year and 28 in 71 games in the following season), then the improvement of Vrana in first half this season (10 goals in 40 games) compared to last season (two goals in 12 games) makes some sense.  Vrana has also refined his shooting to become more efficient, at least in the early going.  His 12.7 percent this season is more than three points better than where he was at this point last season (9.5 percent).  It is also showing up in his ice time, up by almost two minutes per game from last year (11:45 in the first half) to 13:24 so far this season.

Liam O’Brien

There not a lot to say about Liam O’Brien, whose exposure to the NHL has been short and infrequent.  He has appeared in three games this season after dressing for one last season, but he did not record a point in any of those games.  If he can develop further at Hershey, he might be a serviceable depth forward who can fill a spot in a pinch, but at the moment it is hard to see how he cracks this lineup this season.

John Carlson

John Carlson is having a fine year on the offensive side of the ledger.  He reached the half-way point of the Caps’ season as the second-leading scorer among defensemen in the league (31 points), trailing only Dallas’ John Klingberg (35).  On the other hand, he was the only defenseman among the top seven scorers with a “minus” on his stat line (minus-3, although to be fair, eight of the top 14 blueline scorers were minus players).  He has improved his performance numbers almost across the board from the first half last year, up in assists (19 to 27), points (24 to 31), power play goals )1 to 2), power play assists (9 to 11), power play points (10 to 13), and shots on goal (104 to 118), all in playing 41 games, as he did last season.  The big jump, though, is in ice time, where he is three minutes (at 26:20 a game, fifth in the league) over last year’s average at the half-way point (23:20).

Dmitry Orlov

The big difference in Dmitry Orlov from last season’s first half to this, is as much responsibility as numbers.  He skated more than four minutes more per game in this year’s first half (23:17) than he did in last year’s first half (19:12).  Based on minutes for other defensemen, he looks to be getting a lot of what were Karl Alzner’s minutes from last season, especially on the penalty kill, where he is averaging 2:18 per game compared to 0:01 last season.  With the added minutes his goal scoring is up (from 2 to 5), as is his shooting percentage (from 3.1 to 6.8).  It is not a uniform increase in his numbers, though.  While dressing in 41 games in the first half in both seasons, he is down in assists (from 17 to 8), points (19 to 13), plus-minus (from plus-15 to plus-9), and power play assists and points (from 3 to 1 in both).  At the other end, he does have more hits (68 to 64) and blocked shots (from 50 to 61), and that might be a reflection of the broader possession issues the Caps have this season.

Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen appeared in 40 of the Caps’ first 41 games last season, but this season has been marred by injury, limiting him to 27 games in the first half.  Still, he has three goals in those 27 games compared to just one in 40 last season, and he is a plus-14 (best on the team), compared to plus-11 last season.  The rest of his numbers have suffered with the absences, his assists down (from 16 to 8), points (from 18 to 11), his power play scoring line (from 1-1-2 to no points this season), and his shots on goal (from 78 to 50).  There has been a subtle shift in Niskanen’s responsibilities as reflected in ice time.  While his average ice time in total has not changed much (22:28 last year compared to 22:13 this season), his even strength time is up (from 17:33 to 19:11), while his special teams time is down (1:44 to 0:46 on the power play, 2:56 to 2:30 on the penalty kill).

Brooks Orpik

For Brooks Orpik, it is 41 games in last year’s first half and 41 this year.  The offensive numbers remain modest – no goals (none last year at this point), six assists (nine last year), and six points (nine last year).  That plus-minus number, though.  He was plus-16 at this point last season but is just minus-6 through the first half this season.  The biggest changes are in the numbers one might associate more with Orpik.  His credited hits are up almost a third (from 94 to 120), and his blocked shots are up more than half (from 59 to 94).  Part of it might reflect an increase in ice time of more than three minutes per game (from 17:31 to 20:56, split among even strength, from 14:50 to 17:51, and penalty killing, from 2:39 to 3:02), but there is that broader issue of possession that might be at play with Orpik as well.

Taylor Chorney

Last season, Taylor Chorney was the seventh defenseman, getting only eight games in the first half.  This season he has been pressed into more service as a product of departures and injuries, dressing for 23 games so far.  His are also modest performance numbers, and they are about the same on a per game basis (1-1-2, plus-3 in eight games last season, 1-3-4, plus-8 in 23 games this season).  He is taking a bit of a lighter load in terms of ice time when he does get in, his average dropping slightly from 13:17 to 12:57.

In the end…

The returning group has played in more games, scored more goals, posted more power play goals, shot more efficiently, and posted more points than they did as a group through the first half of last season. 

On the other hand, their credited hits and blocked shots are up significantly as a group.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given this profile, as a group they are just plus-48 this season compared to plus-123 last year at this point.  That so many of the group are playing more minutes per game reflects more responsibility (e.g., Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov) as a result of departures, and replacements coming in to fill in those lesser roles.  That’s the group to which we turn next.