The Washington Capitals have been pretty much unstoppable this season. They’re one win shy of 50 for the season and we haven’t even hit the 70 game mark yet. The difference between them and the second place Stars in the overall standings is just about the same as the difference between the Stars and the 15th place Red Wings. And their plus-63 goal differential is twice as many as the next best team, Chicago’s plus-31. That’s a sizeable gap between Washington and the rest of the league, one that offers very little debate about who the league’s best team is. It’s pretty hard to argue with all those wins, right? Well, not exactly. Dig a little deeper and the Capitals aren’t as far ahead as you might think. That’s not to say that this team really has any huge flaws – they’re good-to-elite across the board – it’s more that they’re not miles ahead like their record suggests.
Here’s where they rank league-wide in various shot and goal categories at both 5-on-5 and on special teams:
The Capitals biggest strength is their elite powerplay, but we already knew that. Their penalty-kill has also been successful thanks mostly to their goaltending. The progression from their terrible rank on all shots to being top-10 at shots on goal and 13th in expected goals suggests Washington does a good job of blocking shots and keeping them to the outside, which helps insulate their goalies. Their combined special teams is top five league wide and that doesn’t seem like a huge stretch. Their defense at 5-on-5 follows a similar pattern to the PK where shots are blocked and pushed to the outside, creating a better environment for their goalies. With an elite goalie like Braden Holtby in net and Barry Trotz’s defensive structure, the Caps get the best of both worlds in their own end and the results aren’t too far off from what you’d expect. That leaves the Capitals 5-on-5 offense, and that’s where there’s some cause for some concern. Again, the Capitals have the league’s best offensive numbers, but it’s not coming from elite shot generation, it’s coming exclusively from an ultra high shooting percentage. That’s almost always a sign of luck more than it is skill. That’s usually where you’d hear cries of “unsustainable!” echoing from a nearby basement, but is it possible the Capitals are an exception to the rule? After all, this team boasts some elite talent like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov that have the ability to fill the net at will. The team is currently scoring on 8.8 percent of their shots – second behind only the Rangers – while the league average is roughly 7.4 percent. The question is whether that’s real talent or luck. To figure that out, I looked at each player’s goal and shot totals over the last three seasons, weighted them based on recency and regressed to the mean to get a rough estimate of a player’s true shooting ability. I then applied it to the shots they took this season. Washington drops from 8.8 percent to 7.7 percent, which is still above average – top 10 even – but it’s not second best in the league good. Don’t believe me? Here’s every Capital’s shooting percentage this season (as of Monday) compared to their weighted three year average.
Unless you think Brooks Orpik can keep scoring on 14 percent of his shots, then it’s pretty clear that a lot of players on the team are experiencing some good luck all at once. There’s an argument to be made for young guns like Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, but not so much for the established talent. Combine the high shooting percentage with save percentage and you get a PDO of 101.9. I’d estimate their true PDO is closer to 100.5, the fifth best mark league-wide. That may not seem all that high, but it would put their goals percentage at roughly 53 percent, despite a Corsi percentage of 51 percent. With their talent level, and elite special teams, the Capitals are much more than just their possession stats alone. Still, the extra 1.1 percent in shooting percentage is a huge jump, the biggest in the league this year and it’s created 18 extra goals for the Capitals this year. In net, they added three more goals from “luck” giving them 21 added goals this season from an inflated PDO, again, the highest in the league.
Now 21 extra goals is a lot, and it makes the Capitals the league’s luckiest team, but when you consider that they were 32 goals better than the league’s best team in goal difference, it still gives them an 11 goal cushion. Factor in every other team’s estimated percentage driven goal-difference and that drops to just a 3.6 goal difference over Chicago. That doesn’t factor in luck that may arise on special teams (check out Chicago’s shooting and save percentage there compared to their shot totals), but what it shows is that the gap between the Capitals and the rest of the league isn’t as big as it seems. They’re still likely the league’s best team, but not 14 points better. In a sport as parity-driven as hockey, no team is ever really that good anyways, so this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Most teams range from a true win percentage of .400 to .600, while the Capitals are at an absolutely ridiculous .742. That obviously won’t continue forever, but it shouldn’t take away from the incredible season they’ve already accomplished, even if it was – for the most part at least – just good fortune.
Stats derived using data from corsica.hockey, war-on-ice.com and NHL.com