Let’s talk about the Washington Capitals for a little bit because it seems like we’re not doing that enough.
Entering play on Tuesday they own a four-point cushion for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They are on track to finish with 100-plus points for the fourth year in a row and win their division for the third-year in a row. Impressive stuff. But that success doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.
Maybe it’s because we’ve taken their regular season success for granted a little bit over the years because it hasn’t resulted in a championship.
Or maybe it is because we really do not have a sense for how good this team actually is, even with its strong record.
On paper there is still an awful lot to like about the roster.
Alex Ovechkin has roared back from a “down” year to once again lead the league in goals and make a strong push for another 50-goal season, defying the usual aging curve for goal scorers in the process.
They still have high-end, front-line forwards around him in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and what should be a pretty good support cast around them that includes T.J. Oshie and defensemen John Carlson and Matt Niskanen.
Behind all of that they still have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Braden Holtby, and they’ve made sure he’s been tested a bit more than usual this season.
But when you look below the record and look at how that roster is actually playing it paints a somewhat concerning picture.
Entering play on Tuesday the Capitals are 25th in the NHL in terms of shot attempt percentage, attempting only 47.8 of the shot attempts during 5-on-5 play.
They are dead last in the NHL in shots on goal per game, averaging just 28.6. They are the only team in the league that is not averaging at least 29 shots per game.
They are also giving up more than 32 per game on the other end of the ice.
Of the teams in the bottom-10 in shot attempts percentage and shots on goal per game, the only two teams that currently occupy a playoff spot are the Capitals and Minnesota Wild, who are barely clinging to a wild card spot in the Western Conference. It’s pretty simple: Teams that don’t generate a lot of shots on goal and get outshot on a regular basis tend to struggle to win games. It’s not impossible, but the odds of sustained success are greatly reduced if the other team is controlling the majority of shots and chances.
The Capitals will argue they are looking for quality over quantity (Brett Connolly, who has 14 goals on only 49 shots this season, was featured prominently in a recent Washington Post article talking about this). But every team in the league that ever finds short-term success thanks to high shooting percentages says the exact same thing and almost none of them can maintain it.
When it comes to finding success in that sort of environment it really comes down two different kinds of teams: Those that are lucky and catching lightning in a bottle, whether it be due to a hot goaltender or a couple of career seasons from forwards that are shooting the lights out at at the same time; and those that have the kind of high-end talent that don’t need to generate huge shot volumes to score. When it comes to the latter, those teams are very few and far between. Back in the spring I argued that the Penguins were the rare team that could outperform their shot metrics because of how much natural talent they had up front.
The Capitals could also be that kind of team.
To a certain degree, they have been in recent seasons.
Even when the Capitals were winning the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years they were never really a team that dominated possession or relied on heavy shot volumes to score goals.
Over the previous three years (all 100-point seasons; two Presidents’ Trophies) they finished higher than 13th in shot attempts percentage only once. They never finished higher than eighth in shots per game (they were 15th and 20th the other two years). Hockey analytics website Natural Stat Trick keeps track of “high danger chances” and the Capitals have consistently rated among the bottom half of the league in terms of their share of those chances. In 2014-15 they generated 50.9 percent of the high-danger chances during 5-on-5 play in their games, that was 14th in the league. In 2015-16 they were 11th (50.8 percent). They were 20th a year ago (49.9 percent). This year they are dead last (only 43.5 percent).
Obviously this season almost all of their shot and chance metrics are worse than they have been, but the Capitals have always been a team that relied on pure shooting talent more than bludgeoning teams with a dominant possession game. And honestly, that shouldn’t be a surprise given the makeup of the roster. Players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and a lot of the players they have had over the years don’t need a ton of shots to score. Sometimes they only need one mistake from their opponents, one opening, or one good luck to find the back of the net.
They have consistently finished among the top teams in the league in shooting percentage, and their shooting percentage marks have remained pretty consistent the past few years, including this season.
Still, the decrease in shot volume has been a problem because even though the Capitals are the top shooting percentage team in the league they are still only 10th in the league in goals scored (they were second and third the past two years).
This is where a lot of the losses to the roster have probably hurt a bit. Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson were top-six forwards that walked out the door for no immediate return. No disrespect to Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson, but they aren’t Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. That does not even get into the departures on defense where Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner left.
It remains an interesting team.
They have scary talent up front that can burn any team in the league, even in limited opportunities. They have an elite goalie that can mask a lot of flaws on the back end or when it comes to allowing too many high-danger chances and can carry a team when he gets hot. But even with that they are not quite as dangerous as they could be because they generate even fewer opportunities than they have in recent seasons, due in large part to losing a significant chunk of the roster without being able to replace it.
That brings up what has to be a concerning point for the Capitals and their fans: If better Capitals teams than this one could not break through the glass ceiling that is the second round, why is this group with the way it is actually playing going to be the one that is different? Even with a Metropolitan Division title staring them in the face there are still some nightmare matchups potentially facing them, perhaps even as early as the first-round where that top Wild Card team could be anyone from a Columbus team that is probably better than its record, to a Philadelphia team that has been dominating for two months now, or, perhaps worst of all, a Pittsburgh team that finally seems to be figuring it all out this season.