Five questions the Capitals need to answer soon

The Capitals won the Southeast Division while Alex Ovechkin claimed the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals scored. The Great Eight is also a finalist for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player. As the third seed in the Eastern Conference, Washington faced the New York Rangers in the quarterfinals and would eventually lose in seven games.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But the past is the past, and here are five questions Washington needs to answer in the immediate future:


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

1. Who will be the team’s second-line center next season?

When center Mike Riberio was acquired from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Cody Eakin and a second-round draft pick (54th overall) in 2012t, Washington had filled a long-standing hole in the middle of the second line. Riberio would carry the team through much of the early part of the season, scoring 22 points in the first 19 games and averaging more than a point per game the entire regular season.

His impact was especially visible on the power play, where he was second to Ovechkin in points (24) and had nine more primary assists than Washington’s premier playmaker, Nicklas Backstrom (2).

As an unrestricted free agent, there will be teams lined up for Riberio’s services, but Washington has approximately $6 million in cap space next year. With Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson both needing new deals as restricted free agents, it is likely the Capitals are already priced out of the market. So who fills the second-line center role?

Here is an out-of-the-box idea: Mathieu Perreault.

Washington took 52.1 percent of the total number of unblocked even-strength shots (FF%) when Perreault skated and just 45.2 percent when Ribeiro was on the ice. However, Ribeiro shared ice time with top-six forwards Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer while Perreault skated primarily on the third line with Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward.

Perreault also scored more points (Pts/60) and generated more shot attempts per 60 minutes (Shot attempts/60) plus won more of his faceoffs (FO%) during the regular season than Ribeiro.

Player Name

Pts/60

Shot attempts/60

FF%

FO%

Perreault

2.1

8.5

52.1%

51.7%

Ribeiro

1.7

5.9

45.2%

44.8%

At just a $1.05 million cap hit, Perreault could provide some great value in the top six.

 

2. Can they succeed without having the league’s best power play?

Washington sported a 20-9-2 regular season record when it converted on the man advantage and was 7-9-1 when it didn’t. Since 1999, only two teams that led the NHL in power-play efficiency went on to have a better conversion rate the following year: 1999-2000 Detroit Red Wings and the 2006-7 Montreal Canadiens.

When you are the best at something, other teams will copy what you are doing or look for ways to stop you from doing it. With Ovechkin taking more than half of the shots on the power play, I don’t suspect it will be difficult for teams to neutralize his effectiveness next season.

Year

Team

PP%

PP% the following year

1998

Dallas

20.0

18.8

1999

Anaheim

21.9

16.5

2000

Detroit

20.4

22.1

2001

New Jersey

22.9

16.8

2002

Los Angeles

20.6

14.6

2003

Detroit

23.8

20

2004

Ottawa

21.5

lockout

2006

Detroit

22.1

17.1

2007

Montreal

22.8

24.1

2008

Montreal

24.1

19.2

2009

Detroit

25.5

19.2

2010

Washington

25.2

17.5

2011

Vancouver

24.3

19.8

2012

Nashville

21.6

17.1

2013

Washington

26.8

???

 


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

3. Who will be this team’s top four defensemen in 2013-14?

In the playoffs, the top four Washington blueliners in TOI per game were Mike Green (25:31), John Carlson (22:28), Karl Alzner (22:18) and John Erskine (19:27). During the regular season the order was the same.

John Erskine, who earned a two-year, $3.925 million contract extension this past February, is a fine bottom-pair defenseman but was woefully outmatched in a top-four role and dragged down Carlson’s performance.

Shot attempt differential per 20
Erskine with Carlson -3.
Erskine without Carlson -1.8
Carlson without Erskine 2.2

(stats courtesy of hockeyanalysis.com)

Perhaps Dimitry Orlov, who missed three months this season with a concussion, can fill the void. Otherwise, the Capitals will need to go shopping for another lefty, stay-at-home defenseman to pair up with either Carlson or Green.

 


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

4. Can the Caps rely on Ovechkin to be a 40-50 goal scorer again?

Ovechkin was rejuvenated playing on the right wing this season, and you have to give Coach Adam Oates kudos for getting the Great Eight to buy in. The skilled winger led the league in scoring (32 goals in 48 games) and, perhaps more importantly, reversed a three-year trend of declining shots on net per game.

But lets take a closer look at where the production came from and see if it is indeed sustainable:

Even-strength Power play
Season(s) G Shots Sh% Shots/60 G Shots Sh% Shots/60
2012-13 14 134 10.4% 10.9 16 71 22.5% 20.6
2011-12 19 206 9.2% 10.4 13 77 16.9% 17.3
2010-11 17 230 7.4% 11.2 5 83 6.0% 15.4
2009-10 32 246 13.0% 13.1 13 90 14.4% 16.0
2008-09 27 305 8.9% 15.0 17 167 10.2% 24.9
2007-08 34 285 11.9% 13.1 21 109 19.3% 15.6

(stats courtesy of hockeyanalysis.com)

At even strength, not much changed. We would expect a talent like Ovechkin to be an above-average finisher and a 10.4 percent shooting percentage (Sh%) is only slightly higher than the league average of eight percent. The power-play production, on the other hand, should give us pause.

Ovechkin was a shooting dynamo during the man advantage, and some of that is due to the 1-3-1 system Oates put in place this season. Some of that is also due to ”puck luck,” which tends to even out over the long term and season to season.

That’s not to say that Ovechkin won’t score goals on the power play, but I wouldn’t expect him to be nearly as proficient as he was this season.

 


(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

5. Can they make the playoffs next year?

Washington will leave the friendly confines of the Southeast Division for the ominously named “Division D,” which includes Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The top three teams in each division make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division.

Missing one of the top three spots in their division would mean Washington must also contend with conference members Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto for two of the other playoff spots. Not so easy.

Puck possession metrics like shot differential (ignoring special-teams play and lead-protecting situations) give us a good indication of a team’s strength going forward. Here is how Washington stacked up this season against teams in next year’s Eastern Conference.

Team

Division

SF

SA

SF%

Sh Diff

Boston

C

831

688

54.7

143

Montreal

C

650

566

53.4

84

Detroit

C

735

664

52.5

71

Ottawa

C

876

813

51.9

63

Florida

C

638

672

48.7

-34

Tampa Bay

C

586

728

44.6

-142

Toronto

C

599

750

44.4

-151

Buffalo

C

652

822

44.2

-170

NY Islanders

D

799

687

53.8

112

NY Rangers

D

734

624

54

110

New Jersey

D

661

567

53.8

94

Carolina

D

726

698

51

28

Philadelphia

D

625

608

50.7

17

Pittsburgh

D

672

684

49.6

-12

Washington

D

602

700

46.2

-98

Columbus

D

716

878

44.9

-162

(stats courtesy of hockeyanalysis.com)

Miss you already, Southeast Division.

greenberg
Neil Greenberg, when he isn’t watching the games, analyzes advanced statistics in the NHL and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd. Follow him on Twitter: @ngreenberg.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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