Washington Capitals, 2009-10
Goals For: 318 1st
Goals Against: 233 17th
GVT: 85 1st
Points: 121 1st
VUKOTA Projection for 2010-11
Goals For: 276 1st
Goals Against: 237 21st
GVT: 39 1st
Points: 105 1st
The Washington Capitals marched into last postseason as a clear favorite, driven by a prolific offense that led the way to a Presidents Trophy as the regular seasons best team. Yet puzzlingly, it was that prolific offense let them down in a first round meltdown against playoff Cinderella Montreal. Regardless, the real question mark for the Caps all along has been in goal, last season with the mediocre-at-best Jose Theodore (.911 save percentage) in net, and this season with relatively untested youngsters Michal Neuvirth (22 career games through 2009-10) and Semyon Varlamov (32 career games through 2009-10) between the pipes. Perhaps GM George McPhee wanted to give the two netminders a chance to prove themselves while leaving the door open to a trade deadline deal if the situation warranted it. Then again, while Washingtons goal prevention has been hit-and-miss this season, its their offense thats surprisingly taken a big step backwards, towards the middle of the pack, one reason for the Caps struggles of late.
Its not a surprise, but you can look at it right there in black and white: not only does Ovechkin shoot at an all-world rate, but hes just a hair off the team lead in Hits/60 as well. But is that a good thing? In other news, Eric Fehr (6.9 GVT), David Steckel (2.4 GVT) and Matt Bradley (2.7 GVT) appear frequently below, indicating well-rounded games for these role players.
Capitals top forwards, by 2009-10 stats
Shots/60: Alex Ovechkin 14.1, Alexander Semin 12.0, Eric Fehr 10.4
Hits/60: Matt Bradley 8.0, Alex Ovechkin 7.1, David Steckel 7.0
Blocked shots/60: David Steckel 2.3, Nicklas Backstrom 2.2, Mike Knuble 1.8
Takeaways/giveaway: Eric Fehr 4.3, Matt Bradley 3.4, Mike Knuble 1.8
Net penalties/60: Eric Fehr +0.5, Matt Bradley +0.5, Alex Ovechkin +0.3
Faceoffs: David Steckel 59.2%, Nicklas Backstrom 49.9%
Capitals top defensemen, by 2009-10 stats
Shots/60: Mike Green 6.4, John Erskine 3.8, Tyler Sloan 3.6
Hits/60: John Erskine 8.2, Tyler Sloan 5.9, Mike Green 4.2
Blocked shots/60: John Erskine 6.0, Tyler Sloan 5.5, Jeff Schultz 5.3
Takeaways/giveaway: Tom Poti 0.7, Mike Green 0.6, Jeff Schultz 0.3
Net penalties/60: Mike Green +0.1, Tyler Sloan -0.3, Tom Poti -0.4
Minimum 40 games played
Capitals goaltenders, 2009-10 stats
We know a bit more about Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov than we did going into the season, but realistically, not a whole lot more, based on careers still in their infancies. The 22-year-old Neuvirth has a .911 save percentage thus far (.917 even strength save percentage), but consider that hes only posted one shutout in 48 career games. Thats solid, but not world-beating. On the other hand, the 22-year-old Varlamov (.912 save percentage and .930 even strength save percentage, but in only 8 GP) has three shutouts to show for 43 career regular season games in addition to two shutouts in 19 career playoff games. Its potentially a sign of more upside for the young Russian, yet his durability remains a concern.
Save percentage .914
Even strength save percentage: .922
Power play save percentage: .889
Shorthanded save percentage: .842
Save percentage: .909
Even strength save percentage: .929
Power play save percentage: .802
Shorthanded save percentage: .938
Washingtons strength in the shootout may well rest in goal, as Neuvirth and Varlamov have both shown themselves to be above average
though in an admittedly very small sample of attempts. On the other hand, despite the superstar names, the Capitals top three shooters are a below average bunch compared to what other teams are able put forth, and there arent a whole lot of other Caps skaters who have shown much promise at the skills competition. Funny how it seemed like the one team who didnt really need those extra points was Washington. Things can change in a hurry, cant they?
Best options, shooters with 10 or more career attempts
Nicklas Backstrom: 33.3% (6 for 18)
Alexander Semin: 31.4% (11 for 35)
Alex Ovechkin: 30.8% (16 for 52)
Best options, shooters with a limited track record
Matt Hendricks: 50.0% (1 for 2)
Michal Neuvirth: .714 career (10 for 14), no attempts against in 2009-10
Semyon Varlamov: .750 career (27 for 36), .727 in 2009-10
THE BIG QUESTIONS FACING THE CAPITALS
Big Question #1: Whats wrong with the Caps offense?
VUKOTA says: Washington was projected to again lead the league in scoring with 276 GF, a full 25 goals ahead of second place Chicago.
Timo says: Which is more surprising: Washingtons fall from 1st in power play percentage (25.6%) in 2009-10 to currently 11th (19.6%), or their tumble in 5-on-5 GF/GA from a whopping 1.57 (1st in NHL) to a pedestrian 1.00 (tied for 17th in NHL)?
Bad luck and regression to the mean have something to do with their team shooting percentage falling from 11.6% to 9.0% (see the Boston Bruins chapter in Hockey Prospectus 2010-11 regarding a similar decline), but is there an element of poor chemistry and/or poor coaching involved?
Ovechkin has seen his shooting percentage plummet from a 12.1% career rate to a substandard 7.7%, accounting for 7.5 of Washingtons missing goals right there. In fact, other than Alexander Semin, almost all of the Caps key veterans have seen a similar, substantial dropoff in shooting percentage. It seems oddly similar to what the Devils have been going through, though with this team, its dropped them from powerhouse to average, not from average to abysmal.
Anecdotal evidence: Tomas Fleischmanns shooting percentage had fallen from a 13.3% career rate to 9.1% in 23 GP with Washington this season, pulling his points per game rate down from 0.74 career to 0.43 in 2010-11. After moving to Colorado, Fleischmann has seen his shooting percentage and points per game skyrocket to 20.8% and 1.00.
Answer: Good question. Regression is partly to blame, but a personnel or coaching shakeup wouldnt seem the worst thing in the world for the Capitals.
Big Question #2: Is Washingtons goaltending and defense good enough to win the Stanley Cup?
VUKOTA says: Michal Neuvirth 22 GP, .910 save percentage, 2.8 GVT. Semyon Varlamov 31 GP, .909 save percentage, 3.8 GVT.
Timo says: Regardless of Washingtons recent struggles, the seasons not lost by any stretch of the imagination, but its time for the Caps brass to acttheyve got the cap space to pick up an elite, veteran netminder, especially if theyre only going to take a portion of the cap hit. Who knows? Maybe they can win a Cup with as much goal prevention as goal scoring. Youd imagine that there will eventually be a deal out there that could be made for Tomas Vokoun (.918 save percentage, 15.1 GVT), Tuukka Rask (.916 save percentage, 15.0 GVT), Tim Thomas (.916 save percentage, 11.6 GVT), or possibly even Evgeni Nabokov (.913 save percentage, 10.6 GVT) or Miikka Kiprusoff (.911 save percentage, 7.6 GVT).
Answer: The Capitals should definitely look to upgrade their goaltending and/or defense, both to shake up their roster, and to win now with a win-now team.
Big Question #3: Will Ovechkins physically reckless style of play eventually cost him?
Head coach Bruce Boudreau (After Ovechkins Dec. 12 fight with Brandon Dubinsky): Theres always concern. But what are you going to do? Hes an emotional player that wants to win. And this is what captains do. I hope he doesnt have to do it anymore, ever. But you know, he thought he had to. And hes never been in this situation where weve lost a few games in a row as well. So he was doing what he thought, and rightfully so, what leaders do.
Timo says: Its surprising that teamsespecially Eastern Conference rivalsdont look to go after Ovechkin any more than they do, given the physical edge he plays with and given the lack of a traditional enforcer on the Capitals roster.
Regardless, when you throw your body around, itll eventually catch up to you. While its cool to see captains like Ovechkin and Jarome Iginla throwing some hits or periodically dropping the gloves, is the risk-reward really worth it? Avalanche captain-in-waiting Chris Stewart may have learned that lesson the hard way, taking his 1.09 points per game out of the lineup for a dozen-games-and-counting due to a hand injury sustained in a fight.
Answer: Its got to, and I dont see Ovechkins style changing at least until he learns that hard lesson first-hand. The question is when and for how long? Capitals fans better cross their fingers that it doesnt affect any championship aspirations down the line.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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