Washington Capitals: Recent struggles may help spur Cup run

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 20: Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden looks on during a game between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks on January 20, 2019, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 20: Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden looks on during a game between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks on January 20, 2019, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Washington Capitals are in the midst of their worst slump in four seasons, but the lessons they learn from their struggles could be key to another championship season.

It is crazy what a difference one season makes. At this time last year, Washington Capitals fans were on pins and needles, ready to abandon all hope yet again at the sign of the slightest slump. A prolonged losing streak would have led to more talk of the “same old Caps.”

Now, on the heels of the team’s first ever Stanley Cup championship, the fact that the Capitals have lost six straight games does not seem quite as concerning. Sure, fans are starting to worry, but the team is still in a playoff spot and one good stretch away from retaking the division lead.

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One of the reasons why Washington’s struggles of late do not seem to carry quite as much weight this year is that they showed many of the same issues last year before the playoffs. If the team was able to fix them before last year’s stretch run, there is no reason they cannot do so now.

So what problems are these, in particular? By my estimation, they boil down to two more general ideas: penalties and shooting. I will examine how this year’s team compares to last year’s in those two categories, and show how improvement in them could lead to another championship.

*All stats used after here are courtesy of naturalstattrick.com and nhl.com/stats/.


One of the most commonly stated reasons for the struggles of the Washington Capitals has been an atrocious penalty kill. The team is currently ranked 23rd in the league in PK%, surrounded by subpar teams such as the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks.

However, while it would be great to see that number go up from its current 78.1% mark, it is unlikely that this deficiency is due to any systemic changes from last season. After all, new head coach Todd Reirden was in charge of the penalty kill last season as well as this year.

When comparing the Capitals after 48 games last season to this season, the marks are fairly similar. At this point a year ago, Washington was 19th in the league with a PK of 79.8%. In the postseason, the team carried an even worse PK of 76.7%, but that was enough to capture the Cup.

The real issue, then, is not so much the effectiveness of the penalty killing unit, but rather the rate at which they are taking those penalties. In 24 playoff games, they took 75 penalties, a rate of 3.125 per game.

After 48 games last year, Washington had taken 163 penalties, a rate of 3.4 per game. So far this year, that rate is even higher, at 169 penalties at a rate of 3.52 penalties per game.

That difference in rate may seem insignificant, but over the course of time it adds up. If the Caps had taken penalties at the 3.5 per game rate last postseason, they would have been shorthanded nine more times, equivalent to an additional 2-3 goals if they carried the same PK%.

Given how many close games Washington played in the postseason, those extra goals could have been the difference between a Stanley Cup or another early exit. As such, the main issue here is not necessarily the team’s poor PK, but the frequency at which they are taking penalties.

Part of the issue will most likely be fixed in the playoffs, when penalties are called less frequently, and the physical style of play that the Capitals play with will become more of an asset than a burden. In the interim, playing at a faster, less physical pace would help to minimize penalties.

At a somewhat related note, one of the main criticisms of the Washington Capitals this year has been the struggling power play. It is interesting to note that they have actually been more successful with the man advantage through 48 games this year than last.

Like with the penalty kill issue, it is likely that the Caps will be able to fix the power play, if only because it has too much talent to remain stagnant as it has. Overall, the special teams will be improved simply by improving the penalty differential, the most basic method of doing so.

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Scoring Chances

Over the last few years, one of the most discussed issues in the advanced stats community is how to account for shot quantity versus quality. During the heyday of the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, it seemed as though dominating in total shot attempts was the key to winning.

During their Presidents Trophy years, the Washington Capitals were consistently among the best teams in the league in Corsi, or Shot Attempts percentage. However, the reason for this was that the team drew most of their offense from the point, rather than from in close.

This was fine during the regular season, when the team could ride their incredible talent and absurdly good power play to their very successful seasons. In the playoffs, however, that soon took a turn, when they just could not seem to get over the hump.

What was it that made them lose? Two things: they did not challenge the goaltender enough, and they were too slow. What this meant was that the other team’s goalie would make a lot of saves, while the Caps would lose by a goal or two scored on the counterattack.

The league as a whole has taken a turn towards speed in recent years. It is what helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win their back-to-back championships. It is how the Washington Capitals were able to finally raise the cup last season. What speed brings is better quality chances.

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As such, what really tells the story of the Capitals is the proportion of shot attempts they are getting from high danger scoring areas as opposed to allowing. Simplistically, these are shot attempts from the slot, crease and in close, areas where goals are more likely to be scored from.

After 48 games last season, Washington was an abysmal 42.90% in High Danger Shot Attempts Percentage. This season, they are at 45.07%, a marked improvement although still substandard. For reference, in the postseason they carried a rate of 50.17%.

That is a very average rate, but it was enough for Washington last season. This is because they are still a very talented team that is capable of playing above its weight a bit. This point is illustrated by PDO.

PDO is the sum of a team’s shooting and save percentages. An average PDO would, naturally, be exactly 1.0. A value above that typically indicates some sort of luck, but, as with the Washington Capitals, it could also just be indicative of the talent a team has.

For comparison’s sake, the Capitals currently have a PDO of 1.022, third-highest in the league. At this time last year it was 1.021. In the playoffs last season it was 1.019. This seems to indicate that Washington is getting the results they should be, which bodes well for the playoffs.

What the Washington Capitals need to do this season, just as they did last year, is to play better defense in front of Braden Holtby and crash the net for more quality scoring chances. As with the penalty issue, this may be fixed in the postseason, when their physicality can maximize this.

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While the Washington Capitals are undoubtedly struggling right now, the underlying stats indicate that they are more-or-less in the same situation they are in now. They simply need to take fewer penalties and drive offense better.

What this will require is to balance their use of physicality. They must be aggressive and play with tenacity, but they cannot play over the line and take exorbitant penalties. That might be tough to balance, but they are professionals, and if Reirden can do so, he proves his worth as head coach.

Outside of that, what really helped the Capitals last season was the trade for Michal Kempny. Perhaps another trade for a depth player with solid positioning and puck-moving skills could do the trick again for this team.

Overall, Caps fans should not give up yet. There is plenty of season left, and if last year was any indication, the team could be well on their way to another Stanley Cup.