The Capitals Must Act Fast To Save Their Season

Posted February 18, 2018

(Caps Outsider)

It is February 18, 2018 and the Washington Capitals find themselves on top of the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division. From one perspective, they are sitting pretty with 73 points – one up on the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions with two games in hand and 24 games to play.

From most other perspectives, the Capitals are a disaster waiting to happen. This might not make sense to some, based on the fact that they lead their own division by three points while being led by yet another resurgent season by their captain Alexander Ovechkin who paces the entire league in goals once again. At the same time, almost every major underlying statistic is saying that the Capitals are heavily outperforming the results that they should be getting. And for a team that is extensively known for peaking too early just to fold early on in the playoffs, assuming that history will repeat itself is a comfortable choice.

After winning two straight Presidents’ Trophies, a drop-off was expected. And while that has occurred, it has not been nearly as substantial in the standings as many expected. That’s why many people are confused as to how Washington is performing this way while not looking the part when you dig a little bit deeper.

What The Numbers Say

The Capitals have spent the last two seasons playing dominant hockey with one of the more loaded rosters that the league has seen in a long time. Even with favorable possession numbers and a lineup that consisted of four dangerous lines, three very good defensive pairings and an elite goaltender, they couldn’t get past the second round.

A large portion of the roster was essentially deconstructed last summer, the price you pay for going all-in for two seasons. The Capitals would have to rely on younger and, to some extent, unproven players to pick up the slack.

As mentioned, the overall results have not been terrible. 33-18-7, first place in the Metro and Ovechkin playing like he’s 25 again.

However, the Caps find themselves well into the bottom third of the league in shot attempt percentage at 47.58% at even-strength, according to Natural Stat Trick. For some perspective, this puts them behind Arizona, Vancouver and Detroit. That has been countered by a league-leading 9.63 shooting percentage and a PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) of 102.1, which is just barely trailing Tampa Bay’s 102.5 for the league lead in what most would consider the most “luck” in the league.

Those last two numbers aren’t necessarily out of character for a team with a goaltender like Braden Holtby and a lineup loaded with superstars up front. But paired with that abysmal possession mark, it is a recipe for disaster if either one of the latter two numbers dip at any point.

For a visual, here’s what that possession mark looks like, via Sean Tierney. The only other team anywhere near the bottom left of that chart that finds itself in the playoff race is Minnesota – who the Capitals just beat, and who are hanging onto the second Western Conference wild card spot for dear life. Washington’s head coach Barry Trotz surely knew he didn’t have a team that could cycle opponents to death anymore, but the fact that they have dropped over four percentage points from their mark of 51.81% in shot attempts last year is more than alarming. To add to that, the team doesn’t seem to be concerned over this rapid deterioration from last year’s marks.

There are other numbers we can dig into, including how Tierney’s models show that the Capitals are outperforming their Expected Goals For percentage significantly more than the rest of the league,  but the overall picture is that nothing is pretty right now. If nothing else, it is evidence that the waves of success that the Capitals have found themselves on at times this season aren’t likely to keep happening.

What Can Be Done?

To be blunt, a lot of this team’s flaws come down to Barry Trotz’s usage of his players. The fact that Brooks Orpik, who drags just about every player down with him while he’s on the ice, is playing 20 minutes a night as a 37-year old is unfathomable. The repetitive choice to go with veterans (Alex Chiasson) over youth and skill (Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana) is largely inexcusable, and is something that people have every right to complain about and question.

That isn’t to ignore the lack of quality defensive depth that comes back to plague the team almost every time they step on the ice, or the fact that, sure, they could use a reliable and experienced depth option besides Chiasson. But, given the makeup of this roster, there is really no excuse for the drop off we have seen this season. There is little consistency with the lines, although almost everyone besides the head coach seems to agree that there are ideal combinations to maximize what this team has to work with.

The Capitals are now reeling from absolute annihilation (7-1) at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. They have frequently, as of late, been taking a loser point out of games that they had no business being in, which is helping to mask just how bad the situation is. With a matchup against Buffalo approaching, there is a ton of pressure mounting.

I highly doubt that the Capitals will do anything major at the trade deadline this season, compared to last year. I think that, barring a trade or two for depth pieces, what you see is what you have moving forward.

Some are of the opinion that a couple of the hot streaks earlier this season likely saved Trotz’s job when the team was really struggling. However, general manager Brian MacLellan definitely understands the urgency here to win while Ovechkin is still producing at this level.

If Washington can’t get it together against Buffalo and suffers a similar fate as the one against Chicago, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world for Trotz to be relieved of his duties in favor of current assistant coach Todd Reirden to see if he can maximize what this team has. It would be dangerously late in the season for this type of move, but it can’t be any worse than what was on display Saturday night.

Firing Trotz will not solve most of the team’s defensive issues or likely move the needle too much at all, realistically speaking. But, transferring power to a familiar voice in Reirden, who is a very well-regarded coach around the league, could provide a spark that this team desperately needs to play to their potential.

Reirden has been seemingly next-in-line for this position since being named associate head coach two summers ago. With the Washington Capitals laboring as the most important part of the campaign is approaching, now may be the time to act, one way or another, to see if they can avoid yet another lost season as the Ovechkin-era begins to approach its dusk.