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Previewing the Metro: Washington Capitals

Can the Capitals do it again?

Washington Capitals Victory Parade and Rally Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals ended a decade of playoff misery by winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup this past June. To make it even sweeter, the Caps eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins on the way to their title. Although many of the same players are returning for the 2018-19 season, will Washington face adversity via complacency and a new head coach or will they become the second team to win back-to-back Cups?

Additions and Subtractions

Washington Capitals 2018 offseason moves

Additions Subtractions
Additions Subtractions
Pheonix Copley Barry Trotz
Dmitrij Jaskin Philipp Grubauer
Nic Dowd Jay Beagle
Jayson Megna Alex Chiasson
Michael Sgarbossa Jakub Jerabek
Ilya Samsonov Tyler Graovac
Sergei Shumakov Anthony Peluso
Juuso Ikonen Wayne Simpson
Axel Jonsson Fjallby Tim McGauley
Maximilian Kammerer Adam Carlson

On the ice, there aren’t that many changes for the Washington Capitals. Philipp Grubauer was a talented backup goalie they leaned on throughout last season, which might be a lot to ask out of a 26-year-old Pheonix Copley that posted a .896 save percentage in 41 games last season with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. Copley is most likely a short-term solution, as the highly touted Ilya Samsonov is now in North America and will be playing for the Bears this year.

The biggest addition or subtraction for the Caps from last season is behind the bench, as Barry Trotz left the organization and joined the New York Islanders. In his four seasons as Washington’s head coach, the Caps won the division three times, won a total of seven playoff series (at least one in each season), and won a Stanley Cup. The most successful time of the Ovechkin era in Washington came under Trotz, which will be a hard thing to reproduce. However, the Capitals have been grooming new head coach Todd Reirden for years. As we saw last season, this team has the skill to win, but it a lot depends on if Reirden is able to push the right buttons like Trotz did during the 2018 postseason.

Strengths and weaknesses
When it comes to the Capitals, the easiest way to see their strengths and weaknesses is to look at their success in the postseason and what their issues were during the regular season. In the playoffs, Washington turned on the defense. They didn’t become shot suppression kings, as their 58.16 shot attempts against per 60 put them eighth out of the 16 postseason teams in the 2018 playoffs, but they did limit high-danger chances against, as they finished third with a rate of 2.01 expected goals against per 60.

Not only did the Caps limit high-quality chances against, they were effective in eliminating shot attempts altogether, as they were one of the better teams in the 2018 postseason in blocking shots. Obviously, playing in four more games than the second-closest playoff team is going to help raw totals, but Washington’s 418 blocks over 24 games equals 17.42 blocked shots per game, an increase from their 14.88 average during the regular season. The Caps’ blocked-shots-per-game rate was the second highest for any of the eight teams to reach the second round this past postseason behind only the San Jose Sharks, who denied 196 shot attempts in 10 games for a 19.6 average.

Relying solely on blocking shots is not a truly effective way to win the possession battle or games. However, reducing the number of expected goals per 60 at 5-on-5 from 2.56 during the regular season (which put them 28th) to 2.01 in the postseason while reducing the number of shot attempts that get through can help give a team’s goalie easy nights in net, as seen in Braden Holtby’s jump from a .907 save percentage in the regular season to a .922 save percentage in the postseason.

Another strength, as usual with Washington, was the power play. It didn’t quite click at the level of the Caps in the early ‘10s during the regular season, but it still finished second in the postseason with a conversion rate of 29.3. The first power-play unit of Washington over the last few seasons is one that most teams are going to struggle against: John Carlson at the point, T.J. Oshie in the slot, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov working the sidewall and below the goal line, and of course Alex Ovechkin above the circle. Everybody knows Ovechkin is going to wander around the top half of the circle to the goalie’s right, and opposing penalty kills know that’s where the other four Caps want to feed it, yet he still drives home at least 15 power-play goals a season. Even if teams focus on covering Ovechkin to an extreme extent, it just opens up more time and space for Oshie, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, or Carlson.

As for the weaknesses, all one has to do is look at how the Caps defended in their own zone during the regular season. Before they drastically improved their underlying numbers during the most important part of the year, Washington finished the 2017-18 regular season 24th in the league with a 47.99 corsi for percentage thanks to a 54.76 shot-attempts-per-60 rate that finished 25th in the league. They also finished 25th with a 46.88 expected goals for percentage allowing 2.56 expected goals against per 60, which was 28th in the league. A lot was made of Holtby’s mediocre season, but not many goalies can thrive under this amount of pressure (via Hockey Viz):

The darker the red, the more unblocked shot attempts opponents produced from that area

Fortunately for Washington, Grubauer was one of those goalies. Although Holtby finished 33rd with a high-danger save percentage of .767 among the 36 goalies that played 1,500 5-on-5 minutes or more last season, Grubauer finished third with a high-danger save percentage of .855. This is what most likely led to Grubauer starting Games 1 and 2 of the Capitals’ opening round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

One big question: can Reirden lead this team to another Cup?
Before the 2017-18 season, the biggest question in front of the Caps was is this finally the season they won’t choke in the postseason? Finally able to answer yes to that question, and with almost the identical roster returning as the one that pushed the franchise past the second round and to a title, the question becomes can they do it again?

Trotz is regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, as many felt he got the most out of his Nashville Predators’ teams and these last few Caps’ squads. Not only is Reirden already walking into very high expectations, but he’s going to have to try and implement new systems with a team that is most likely complacent from their recent title run. It shouldn’t be too difficult to put his strategies into place, since he’s been with the Caps since 2014 and most likely will employ a lot of the same strategies Trotz employed, but it’s still an unknown process. He’s never been the head coach of an NHL hockey team and the dynamic in the locker room could have changed since the success of last season.

The Caps have had several talented teams in the past, but only one coach has been able to push them all the way. It’s a tall order to ask a new head coach to repeat, but those on the team seem to already have confidence in Reirden.

2018-19 outlook
There’s little reason to believe the Capitals won’t finish at least second in the division behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, if not win their fourth straight division title. Perhaps the Flyers or the Columbus Blue Jackets make a big push and finish second in the division, but more likely than not the Caps are enjoying home ice in the 2019 NHL postseason. Without the voodoo of facing the Pens in the postseason no longer holding over them, the biggest obstacle in the Caps way of winning it all is out of the way. Although the Metro Division is going to offer up a difficult matchup in the Eastern Conference Final and the Western Conference will most likely provide a tougher opponent than an expansion team riding a high, there’s no reason why the Caps can’t find themselves as the last team standing again come June.

*Stats via Natural Stat Trick and Corsica