Five questions the Capitals need to answer

 


(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

It finally happened. George McPhee and Adam Oates will not return to the Washington Capitals next season.

“We need to get back to being totally focused on one goal,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said, “and that’s winning a Stanley Cup.”

That starts with asking some tough questions.

1. What kind of team should they be with Alex Ovechkin?

The 2009-10 Washington Capitals set the NHL on fire when they scored 318 goals en route to a 54-15-13 record, only to flame out in the first round of the playoffs to Montreal.

Then, the changes came.

After losing to the New York Rangers 7-0 in December 2010 Boudreau instituted “the trap,” a defense-first strategy designed to prevent opponents from moving the puck through the neutral zone. The new style of play generated a 30-12-8 run plus an appearance in the second round of the playoffs. But a four-game losing streak showed Boudreau was out of options, and no longer the right man for the job.

“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe,” Boudreau said after losing 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. “I’m hoping that’s got to come from within because if I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”

Enter Dale Hunter, whose system didn’t keep fans on the edge of their seats offensively, but it did manage to get them within striking distance of the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Rangers in seven games during the second round. But it would take less than one season to know that his style – both on and off the ice – didn’t jell with Ovechkin, the team’s captain and face of the franchise. So Hunter, too, was gone.

Then came Adam Oates, whose plan to move Ovechkin to his strong side (right wing) and implement a 1-3-1 power play saw The Great Eight return to the generational goal scorer fans pay money to see.


Source: Sporting Charts

But with Washington’s playoff hopes teetering on the brink the superstar winger would be paired with Jay Beagle to help shore up Ovechkin’s defensive inadequacies. It ended up not working, and the Capitals missed the postseason for the first time since 2007.

Time to find an identity.

2. What to do about defenseman Mike Green?

Green has gone downhill after being named a finalist for the Norris Trophy — awarded to the blue liner with the greatest all-around ability in the position — two years in a row (2009 and 2010). Two things have kept him from making a third appearance as a finalist:

  1. Injuries. He has not played a full 82-game season since 2007-08.
  2. Inconsistency. His scoring touch returned thanks to Oates’s 1-3-1 power play but in terms of even strength Green has not been anything close to the player he was from 2007-08 to 2009-10 seasons.
Season EV Points/60 PP Points/60 FenClose%
2013-14 0.99 4.71 51.7%
2012-13 1.01 4.98 48.4%
2011-12 0.35 1.48 51.0%
2010-11 0.72 2.68 51.5%
2009-10 1.75 5.11 51.7%
2008-09 1.39 6.20 56.6%
2007-08 1.06 3.28 56.6%

FenClose% = Even-strength shot attempts in the team’s favor with Green on the ice when the score is within one goal.

Green, who will be paid $6 million next season before becoming an unrestricted free agent, is at his best when he is allowed to create offensively. If the organization cannot find a coaching staff that can maximize that, then perhaps it is time to maximize his trade value.

3. What about Brooks Laich?

A fan favorite, Brooks Laich has a contract that will pay him $4.5 million per year through the 2016-17 season. However, he has played a total of 60 games the past two seasons and been largely ineffective in most of them.

In fact, you could argue he makes those around him worse in terms of driving puck possession (as calculated by FenClose%).

4. Who is your goaltender?

Is it Braden Holtby? Philipp Grubauer? Someone else?

Holtby has shown he can be an above-average starter in the NHL (.919 regular season save percentage, .931 in playoffs) when not playing a system he is ill-suited for. Grubauer, a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft, has seen just 528 shots at the NHL level — but has saved 488 of them (.924 save percentage), showing that he too could deserve a look as the team’s No. 1 option.


Source: Sporting Charts

The organization could look to Jaroslav Halak, acquired by Washington at the deadline in exchange for goaltender Michal Neuvirth and Rostislav Klesla. Halak posted a .930 save percentage for the Capitals but raised some eyebrows when he did or didn’t ask not to start against his former team, the St. Louis Blues.

They could also court one of the free agents available. But no matter what path they choose one thing is for certain: whomever they decide on needs to see less shots against. Which brings us to our last question.

5. Is this a team on the upswing which needs some tinkering or is a(nother) major overhaul needed?

We can measure the strength of a team a few different ways. One is with traditional results, such as the Washington Capitals have not made it past the second round of the playoffs since the team lost to Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup finals.

Another is by fancy stats, such as puck possession metrics. Ignoring special teams and lead-protecting situations, Washington has seen its shot differential fall each and every season since 2007-08.

Simply put: the Capitals are not tilting the ice in their favor and have regressed each and every season since 2007-08. As a result, things could get even worse. Just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or the Buffalo Sabres. Or the Edmonton Oilers.

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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