STATISTICAL ANALYSIS | If you thought the Washington Capitals were favorites to win the Eastern Conference this year, you had to put a lot of faith in their defense. Contrary to their “run and gun” offense reputation, the 2010-11 Capitals depended mostly on their well-above-average defense. And if you put a lot of faith in the defense, you had to be banking on contributions from Roman Hamrlik and Dennis Wideman.
Instead, in the first 22 games of the season, Hamrlik and Wideman have been on the ice for 31 and 28 goals against respectively. And the Capitals – not entirely coincidentally – have gone 12-9-1 and sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
With Hamrlik, the biggest problem has been the goaltending behind him. Washington sees more scoring chances in its favor with Hamrlik on the ice (53.7 percent) than without him (47.2 percent) during even-strength with the score tied. That means that when you take away the effects of playing with or without a lead, he drives play. Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth have let him down, posting a scoring chance save percentage of just .763 with him on the ice and .833 without. Because the quality of scoring chances are relatively equal, you can’t say Hamrlik is making it more difficult on the netminders. They are simply not getting the job done.
All the other underlying stats point to Hamrlik not being as bad as he has looked, and I agree that his play has looked extremely poor at times. For instance, his Corsi relative to the competition (a proxy for puck possession taking into account opponents faced) is the best among Washington blueliners playing more than 10 games, despite starting in the offensive zone the least (48.7 percent) amount of time.
Hamrlik’s on-ice results will improve, so have just a little more patience.
In Wideman’s case, however, there are some warning signs that something isn’t right. Since scoring a point in each of the first seven games of the season, Wideman has appeared broken, ultimately leading to his benching in the third period during the loss to Buffalo on Saturday night.
With Wideman, the biggest problem lies in the fact he simply has not driven play to any degree. Despite playing against the weakest competition the opposition has to offer and starting in the offensive zone a team-high 59.4 percent of the time, his Corsi relative to the competition is a minus-5.4. Plus, the team sees a great deal more of 5-on-5 scoring chances with the score tied in their favor with him on the bench (55.7 percent) than with him on the ice (37.3 percent).
And unlike with Hamrlik, you can’t blame Wideman’s goals-against woes on the netminders. The goaltending has been better at saving scoring chances with him on the ice (.833) than when he hasn’t been (.790).
Which isn’t at all to say that Wideman is doomed to struggle this season. Maybe he responds to the benching and gets better from here. Anyone can have a bad stretch of games, and having a bad first quarter isn’t really any worse than having them in the middle of the season. But things do need to turn around fast, because patience — among fans especially — is wearing thin.
Follow Neil on Twitter: @ngreenberg.