First of all: Hey guys! Welcome back. I’ve missed you! The season has been going for a couple weeks now, which means there’s finally enough sample size to write analytics based articles without belaboring the “small sample size but….” bit.
Secondly, the Caps are playing really well (except in overtime, which is basically a coin toss anyway), and there are a lot of fun things to talk about. For instance, they found some random winger who won’t stop scoring:
Or the fact that the young guys are actually playing pretty well. Just look at McMichael in the graph below. I will put a caveat that some of that is probably coming from some sheltered minutes, but for his first real year in the NHL, he’s showing serious signs of promise.
And I haven’t even gotten to the Kuzy Revenge Tour. But there’s something else that I want to touch on that’s not necessarily as super fun and exciting as the other storylines, but is still important: Defense. That’s right, defense. The Caps are playing some elite defense right now, and I want to talk about it. Good defense is obviously something you want always, but especially when you have two young goalies (one of whom definitely didn’t have shoulder surgery- grrrr Noah, I can’t believe you tricked me like that).
So let’s get into it. I first noticed it when I saw this graph from Micah Blake McCurdy (remember, blue is good in the defensive zone):
That’s uh… that’s substantial. Like… WOW. Clearly, whatever Laviolette is feeding them is working. The defense was also pretty good last year too but was…. lacking under Reirden. Here’s the same graph but from 19-20:
Pretty mediocre right? So something has changed since Lavi arrived and I’d love to get to the bottom of it. Well the quick and obvious answer is, they’re just using their size and hitting people right? The Caps are big, they’re just outmuscling people in their own zone aren’t they? Willy, Orlov, and Mantha are just bodying people? Well no actually. Per NHL.com they’re bottom ten in the league in hits/60 and are currently on pace for the fewest hits/60 this team has had since the Glen Hanlon years. So what is it then?
Well a combination of things. First of all they’re playing very well with the puck and not turning it over. Now, I want to preface this by saying that Giveaway and Takeaway statistics as tracked by the NHL are known to be somewhat dubious. So take this with a little grain of salt. However, they’re not utterly devoid of meaning. The Caps are allowing just 6.89 Giveaways/60 (per NHL.com) which is on pace for their lowest of the Ovechkin era, and in the top half of the league currently. Also, apparently they’ve been winning Defensive Zone faceoffs? They are winning 52% of D-Zone faceoffs, which is top ten in the league. When did that happen? If you’ve followed the blog/podcast, you know I don’t generally put a lot of faith in faceoffs to get the job done but it certainly doesn’t hurt to keep the puck away from the other team to start the play. In any event, they are keeping the puck away from the opposition in multiple ways.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they are blocking shots insanely well. According to NHL.com they’re blocking 14.5 Shots/60 at 5v5. Which is above league average, but still outside the top ten. So what do I mean they’re doing it well? Well there’s more to it than just the sheer number of shots being blocked. Its the fact that they are blocking a whopping 31% of shot attempts (per data obtained via Natural Stat Trick), which is not only the highest in the league, but also the only team above 30%. For those interested the three guys leading the way in terms of blocked shots/60: Fehervary, TVR, and Nick Jensen. Do with that information what you will, but I can tell you, I intend to make much more of this than is actually probably there.
Put simply, the Caps are limiting mistakes, and thus limiting opponent possession of the puck, and thus reducing shot attempts. And then, on top of that, the shot attempts they do allow are hitting bodies and not making it to the net. Which, again, is very important with a couple of young goalies who are currently hovering around league average analytically. Laviolette’s defensive system has worked so far. Let’s hope it continues to do so.