On the whole, the Caps are an okay defensive team. They are right about the league average in most defensive categories (Shot attempts against, goals against etc.). Averages don’t really tell the whole story though, as it’s really been the tale of two teams this year. While they certainly have the ability to hold a team to one or two goals, they have also let in 5+ goals on several occasions. Consistency is something that has been severely lacking on the back end, and relying on the offense to be able to bail them out every night is simply unsustainable. If they want to make a deep playoff run this year, they will need to button things up defensively.
Areas of Weakness
When a team gives up a bunch of goals in a game, it’s easy to blame the goalie. There’s no denying Holtby is in a very deep funk, (according to Hockey Reference, his Save% for the year is .896, and it’s at .856 over the last ten games), and certainly, deserves his share of the blame. Like on this atrocity from Wednesday night:
But that being said, hockey is a team game. The Caps biggest problem defensively has been keeping pucks out of high danger areas. For every hour of 5v5 play the Caps have, they are allowing the other team to take over 11 shots from the slot, which is the 8th most in the league, and about 20% of those are ending up in the net. Shown more visually:
As you can see, even though the Caps, for the most part are keeping teams from shooting, they are allowing teams get to the most vulnerable area of the ice. For reference, here is the same chart for the Boston Bruins:
The Boston Bruins are allowing the same number of shot attempts every night as the Caps. The difference between them and the Caps is that those shots are coming from outside the slot. And indeed, the Bruins 5v5 Save% is a full 1.5% higher than the Caps. While the team has been better in front of Samsonov than Holtby, they are still leaving open that area of the ice.
Now, I’m not saying they need to sacrifice their offense in order to be better defensively. That’s not who the Caps are. Even in the Cup year, they gave up a high number of high danger shots. What’s important was that they went from giving 12.5 High-Danger Shots per hour in the regular season, to only giving up 10.8 in the playoffs (per Natural Stat Trick). That, along with Holtby standing on his head was just enough defense to let the offense flourish.
Fixing the Problem
The first thing the Caps need to do are the little things. Turnovers being the most obvious problem the Caps are facing. It’s tough to play sound defensively if you keep giving the puck to the other team. Holtby needs to be better at rebound control, and his five-hole has been wide open for a while.
Those are all basic things that they should be doing anyway, and those are really just a matter of execution. Something I think the Caps really need to focus on is their physical play. According to Evolving Hockey, they are averaging fewer hits than they were earlier in the season, despite getting hit more often. This decrease in physicality is allowing guys to move more freely through the slot.
Additionally, there are a few lineup shuffles that I think could be fun experiments, with the potential to go really well. The one that I think would be most impactful, as well as something that Reirden would be willing to try out, would be to swap Orlov and Kempny. Kempny has not been as good this year and Orlov has been a rock defensively.
In the limited minutes Orlov and Carlson have gotten together this season, they are still producing offensively, but it’s damn near impossible to score on them. Getting Orlov more minutes with Carlson means more minutes with the Ovechkin line, which needs a little defense to balance them out.
The most important thing they can do though? Make SOME sort of trade deadline move for a defenseman. It’s happened each of the last 3 years. Two out of the three were at least okay, with one being a fantastic move (Kempny). The move to get Jensen was fine, but signing him to a 4 year deal before really giving him some time to play with the team was unwise, and it has not panned out.
There are a few guys out there who might be solid rental pieces. For example, Dylan DeMelo from Ottawa. He fits right into the Caps salary cap range, he’s in the last year of his deal and there’s this:
Of course, he fits the profile of a trade deadline guy so there’s obviously already rumors about him, but I think the Caps should at least take a flyer on the guy, even if they don’t end up making the move. According to Cap Friendly, there are 26 right handed defensemen who will be UFA’s at the end of this year, have a sub $3mil Cap hit, and are on the right side of 35. Well, 25 if you exclude Shattenkirk, who we already tried once. A bunch of them are on teams that are likely sellers.
Whatever they do, they need to do something soon, before they start leaving Samsonov out to dry as badly as they are leaving Holtby.