Why the Washington Capitals aren’t really Stanley Cup contenders

HC at Noon discussion on Alexander Ovechkin's goal scoring legacy, debating over whether he needs to win that Stanley Cup before we can consider him in a group with the best ever?

Ever since the Washington Capitals captured their first Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10, pundits have been predicting “this is the year” for Alex Ovechkin’s team. And no matter what, something always goes wrong.

Whether it’s running into Jaroslav Halak on the hottest streak of his life, or just being unable to ever get past the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals have been unable to get out of the second round of the playoffs despite recording the three best regular season records of the past eight years (2009-10, 2015-16, and 2016-17).

Losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, and Kevin Shattenkirk last summer was expected to take a big chunk out of the Capitals’ ability to be a Cup contender this season, but they’ve still managed to lead the Metropolitan Division once again.

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What’s different about this season is that you don’t hear many people saying this is their year. Part of the reason for that is simply because other teams have looked stronger in Tampa Bay, Boston, Nashville, Winnipeg, and Vegas. But Washington’s season has also been a bit of smoke and mirrors.

There has been a lot of focus on Braden Holtby’s struggles this season. He has a career low .907 save percentage after three straight years of .922 or better and consistently being in the Vezina conversation. Philipp Grubauer, meanwhile, has been excellent in 33 appearances with a .923 save percentage.

Goaltending has been a big topic of conversation in the American capital, with coach Barry Trotz insisting there is no goalie controversy while at the same time saying he has a decision to make about who should start in the playoffs. But goaltending isn’t even the major issue the Caps face.

When you break down the Capitals’ share of plays that drive goals, both at 5-on-5 and in all situations, they look terrible.

The positive for the Capitals is that they’re an excellent passing team on offence. They create way more passes to the slot and passes off the rush than they give up, which shouldn’t be too surprising considering they employ a couple of the league’s premier playmakers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

They just don’t get shots, and they give up a ton of them.

When it comes to recovering pucks, overall the Capitals are an average team – slightly better at 5-on-5 and slightly worse at even strength. But the difference isn’t enough to conclude this is a factor as to why they’re heavily out-shot and out-chanced.

What’s scariest for the Capitals is that their worst differentials come in the high danger area, where almost half of all NHL goals are scored and where shots on net have about a 22 per cent chance of going in.

In all situations, no team in the NHL has a worse high danger chance differential than Washington, which suggests they’ve been absurdly lucky in the percentages this season.

Another big issue for the Capitals is how heavily they rely on Alex Ovechkin to be their shot machine.

Only the Minnesota Wild have taken fewer shot attempts than the Capitals this season, and no team has put fewer shots on net. And yet, Ovechkin trails only Brent Burns in shot attempts with 676, and he leads all players in shots on goal with 332.

While Kuznetsov and Backstrom, and to a lesser extent John Carlson, are superb playmakers who create a lot of offence, you could argue not much of that would matter if it weren’t for Ovechkin eventually firing those pucks on and into the net.

It’s not easy to shut down Ovechkin, and it hasn’t been done very often in the playoffs, but with so much riding on one player, it’s troubling for their Cup chances. If teams are able to focus on taking away Ovechkin’s shot, it’s unlikely the Capitals will be able to form much of an attack, and they’ve been so porous defensively that it could lead to a very early exit.

Maybe having a year without great expectations will calm the Caps’ nerves enough to finally make a run. But based on how they’ve played this season, they look more like first-round fodder than contenders.

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