the Washington Capitals are bad

The Washington Capitals have reached the twenty-game mark, which is my totally arbitrary threshold that must be reached before I am willing to start making conclusions about the team.

So here’s my conclusion: Folks, they’re really bad. Let me trace how I got there.

I’ve tried half a dozen approaches to this story over the years. This time, I’m gonna use as few arcane numbers as possible. We’ll do it by Washington’s rank across various stats in various game states.

But first, the standings.

With a 7-10-3 record, the Capitals are second worst in their division. Their points percentage ranks 25th in the league, in company with Chicago, Vancouver, and Arizona. If the playoffs were to start today, the Capitals would be like”wtf mateI thought we had 62 more games.”

This is, objectively, a dismal situation for Washington, but this exercise is about going levels deeper. So follow me down.

Offenses

Here’s where the Capitals rank at various offensive event rates.

  • Attempts: 13th
  • Expected goals: 24th
  • Scoring chances: 21st
  • High-danger chances: 21st
  • Goals: 24th

To my mild surprise, Washington’s process stats for offense have ticked up over the past three seasons. They aren’t getting a great amount of danger per shot, but even expected goals have risen. Where everything goes wrong is finishing.

From HockeyViz, here is a heatmap of Washington’s offense compared to league average. Red blobs mean the Caps shoot more from that location.

The Caps are used to a five-on-five shooting percentage between nine and ten. Right now it’s 7.9. Failure to finish – either due to bad luck or inferior shooting talent – ​​is the main driver of Washington’s depressed scoring during even strength. The Caps have scored 2.4 goals less than what models would expect based on the profile of their offense, but that’s historically been an undercount for this team. Ranking 21st in the league in shooting percentage shouldn’t ordinarily be cause for alarm, but for a team that has relied on elite finishing as much as Washington, it’s practically fatal.

Defense

Here’s where the Capitals rank at various defensive event rates. In this case, the Caps are ranked by their opponents’ rates, where lower is better.

  • Attempts: 18th
  • Expected goals: 20th
  • Scoring chances: 17th
  • High-danger chances: 18th
  • Goals: 16th

The picture is drearier on the defensive side of the ice. The Caps of 2022-23 is the worst defensive team of the last six years (a span that covers their elite 2017 season, their uneven 2018 campaign on the way to the Cup, and the subsequent Reirden-coached letdown).

From HockeyViz, here is a heatmap of Washington’s defense compared to league average. Blue blobs mean opponents shoot less from that location.

Goal-tending is not the problem, though Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren have not distinguished themselves either. The five-on-five save percentage of .916 is identical to the team’s full-season numbers in the prior two seasons, during the Samsonov-Vanecek diumvirate. Lindgren and Kuemper have saved a modest 1.8 goals more than we’d expected based on the danger and volume of opponent offense.

The result is that the Capitals end up in the bottom third of the league everything but raw shot-attempt possession (17th, with 50.4 percent) and scoring chances (18th, with 49.3 percent).

Stepping aside from raw stats, my general impression is that Washington’s systemic problem is transitioning from defense to offense. Defender-to-forward puck movement in the defensive and neutral zones is underwhelming, and Washington’s ability to gain the offensive zone with possession suffers – either as a result or as a related phenomenon.

Special Teams

Alright, this part is going to suck. Starting with the power play, here are ranks:

  • Power-play attempts: 25th
  • Power play expected goals: 25th
  • Power play conversion rate: 24th

The Capitals power play is broken. To succeed it depends on Alex Ovechkin to defy our understanding of the sport. If he can’t do that – or if he can’t get fed a clean darn pass – then Washington is inert.

The problem, I think, starts in the neutral zone. According to All Three Zonesonly one team in the NHL carries the puck in to the offensive zone less often: the 28th ranked Philadelphia Flyers.

Now onto the penalty kill. Again, these are Washington’s rank at limiting the rates of opponents:

  • Penalty-kill attempts: 26th
  • Penalty-kill expected goals: 26th
  • Penalty-kill conversion rate: 15th

This one had me scratching my head for a while. My vague impression had been that the Caps had a decent penalty kill. Turns out not so much. Their propensity for blocking could have been a clue. They block more (by rate) than every team except Tampa and Vegas, the seventh highest amount of blocks in proportion to attempted shots.

The penalty kill is allowing a ton of shots, a ton of danger, and have just mediocre goaltending. And unlike with five-on-five and power-play problems, I’m not optimistic reversion to health alone will fix things here.


Hoo boy, that was bleak.

The Capitals are indisputably a bad hockey team. They deserve their place in the standings. Their defense is bad; their offense is worse; their special teams are in disarray. And while, sure, bad luck explains some fraction of the disappointment, the team’s hope that their return to watchability will come automatically with Dmitry Orlov, Tom Wilson, and TJ Oshie feels like a stretch to me.

And yet I’m still inclined to grant them a lot of latitude about injuries and theirs very difficult schedule. How much, I’m not sure. But now I’ve departed from the realm of quantities and into the realm of feelings. So I’ll turn it over to you: how are you feeling?

This story would not be possible without All Three Zones, Natural Stat Trick and HockeyViz. Please consider joining us in supporting those sites.

Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB, Capitals

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