Caps’ Trotz on protecting leads: ‘Sometimes safe is death’

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The Washington Capitals are currently on a three-game winning streak, yet they’re not that far removed from a disturbing run of blown leads. Barry Trotz told the Washington Post that his team needs to drop the urge to play things too close to the vest.

“I think continue to play north, the north game,” Trotz said. “But with a good conscious effort to make sure we’re making good decisions with the puck and not backing up, playing on your toes, not your heels. If you have that mentality, we’re going to be on our toes offensively and defensively, then we should be fine, rather than let’s play on our heels, a safe game. Sometimes safe is death.”

When stats-leaning observers speak of “score effects,” they refer to teams easing off the gas when they have leads.

It’s almost inevitable to do so – the Washington Post points out that only two NHL teams have avoided possession declines with leads so far this season – but Washington has experienced the second-worst drop-off when they get ahead.

Japers Rink dives deep into this issue, including these interesting observations:

So, while the Capitals are doing a very impressive job limiting shot attempts, it’s coming at a high cost. The drop-off in attempt generation is staggering, especially when you recall that Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green all see a larger percentage of ice time when the team is leading than when the game is tied and the Caps are getting all of those offensive zone starts.

Thanks to a piece that Matt Pffefer wrote for Hockey Prospectus we know that teams shoot at a higher percentage when they are leading, and the Caps are putting their top offensive players on the ice… but they need to take shots in order to score (a little luck wouldn’t hurt either – the Caps are in the bottom-third in up-one shooting percentage). Up to this point in the season the Capitals have fallen into an extremely defensive posture when leading (and have had plenty of practice doing it), and doing so has cost them. It’s now up to the coaching staff to identify that a change in tactics is necessary in order to help this team secure better outcomes.

Coaching might be the most interesting part of all of this.

Considering his “safe is death” comments, it seems like Trotz at least understands that it’s not wise to go into “turtle mode” when you have a lead. One cannot help but read into phrases like “making good decisions with the puck” a little bit and wonder if Caps players might be so over-thinking things, however. Whether that can be attributed to old habits dying hard or Trotz’s influence, it’s a trend that needs to end.

Naturally, it’s still early in the season and the sample size isn’t large; the Capitals could improve at protecting leads if goaltending improves and bounces go their way.

Even so, it’s something the team needs to work on, and possibly an instance in which Trotz must practice what he preaches.