Hockey

I like to do this at the watermarks of the season. If you’re new, and some of you shockingly are, I take an analytic look where I can on where the major hardware should go, but sometimes won’t, at this point in the season. For the most part, it sticks to where you think it would go anyway, but sometimes it diverges. Anyway, to it…

Hart Trophy – Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl Split It

This would certainly drive the hockey world mad, and you’ll have more than enough saying that Draisaitl’s stats and success are merely based on playing with McDavid. And I could probably accept that, and if they just wanted to hand it to McDavid I wouldn’t complain. McDavid is almost certainly going to wind up like Mike Trout, where he wins three or four of these and then when he retires we realize he probably should have won eight or nine and there was no good reason he didn’t.

Either way, the Oilers suck to high heaven and yet are comfortably in first in the Pacific because of these two. They are both leading the NHL in scoring at 44 and 43 points. No one else on their team has more than 17. Along with their linemate James Neal, they have 43 goals. The rest of the team has 33. If you were to go totally rudimentary on this, the rest of the team is getting slightly beyond one goal per game. These two are accounting for over two.

Norris Trophy – John Carlson

Believe me, this seemed way too obvious for me but it’s hard to make a case for anyone else. And he’s already going to win it, given the buzz his point total at this point has generated. When you’re a defenseman and you’re on pace for 124 points, people tend to take notice.

So I looked for a metric way to get beyond Carlson, but he’s ahead of the team-rate in Coris and expected goals. The argument that will be brought out by someone is that he doesn’t play great defense. But the Caps are scoring 50% more goals when he’s on the ice than they give up, and the whole point of the fucking sport is to score more goals than the other team. Carlson is helping the Caps do that more than anyone.

You could make a small case for Dougie Hamilton, as his possession numbers are better. But beyond that, his argument would be the same one for Carlson. Kris Letang has actually been magnificent for the strangely dominant-at-evens Penguins, but as always he’s been ouchy and isn’t scoring enough.

If there were a Rod Langway Award–for best defensive defenseman–and he had been healthy, I could make a serious case for Connor Murphy here. No, seriously, I can. Murph has the second best relative Corsi-against rate in the league, and the second-best expected goals-against rate. While the Hawks remain The War Rig at the end of Fury Road defensively overall, they’re actually somewhat stout when Murphy is on the ice. No d-man has improved his team’s defense more than Murphy. It won’t get him any hardware, and it’ll probably only get him traded in the offseason as the Hawks continue to cower in fear of Seabrook and need to find room for Boqvist, Mitchell, et al, but everyone should know just how good Murphy has been.

Vezina – Robin Lehner

Fuck you, let’s go with the hometown vote. While Kuemper and Greiss have better SV%, they’re playing behind better defensive teams. So is every other goalie on the planet, essentially. Those two also have bigger differences when it comes to expected save percentages and expected goals and such, but Lehner has had to have great games while still giving up three or four to keep it from being 10. We know what Trotz systems do for goalies. We probably know what Colliton systems do for then too, and it ain’t the same. Lehner has had to perform miracles to keep the Hawks on the periphery of they playoff chase. And I’ll be goddamned if I’m handing anything to Darcy Goddamn Kuemper.

Calder – Cale Makar

This one isn’t even close. Makar is blowing away the rookie scoring race from the blue line, and he has a +7 relative xG%. While the Avs have gone without Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel ThreeYaksAndADog for a good portion of the season, they’re still hanging around the top of the conference with games in hand on everyone because of Makar and MacKinnon. He’s been everything as advertised, and is probably the best hope for a non-truly evil team to come out of the West this year.

Selke – J.T. Miller

Most voters would light themselves on fire before they give this award to a winger, which is why Marian Hossa doesn’t have the three he should, but if you dig deep on the metrics it’s pretty clear. Miller sits atop the rankings when it comes to attempts and expected goals against relative to his team, and in both cases it’s by some margin. Oh, and because morons care about this, he’s been taking Elias Pettersson‘s draws for the most part and is clipping in at a 59% win rate. So there.

Hockey

The old standby. The last four seasons, no matter what happens, there the Caps are, finishing first in the Metro. There’s always a portion of the season where it feels like it’s gone on them, that this is finally where they’ve gotten too old and too predictable and too comfortable, and yet the season ends and here we are. Coaching change doesn’t seem to matter much. Whatever player turnover doesn’t seem to matter much. There seems to be things you can always count on. Alex Ovechkin will lead the league in goals, he’ll score from his post-up spot, and the Caps will finish first.

Will it be true again? There are a couple challengers, but maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we just take the Caps as a given until they say they’re not.

2018-2019

48-26-8  102 points (1st in Metro, lost in 1st round)

3.34 GF/G (5th)  3.02 GA/G (17th)

49.1 CF% (18th)  47.1 xGF% (25th)

20.8 PP% (12th)  79.9 PK% (24th)

Goalies: You think of Braden Holtby as another given for the Caps, along with Ovie and Backstrom. Still, the past two seasons he’s only been ok, and you’ll recall the Caps’ Cup run started with Philip Grubauer in net in the playoffs before he gave way to Holtby. Holts put up a .911 last year, which was only a touch above league average. He hasn’t been near his Vezina form for two seasons now, but this is his final one before hitting free agency. Tends to motivate some players. He’ll be 30 when the season starts, which means whatever comes after this is probably the last big contract he’ll sign, wherever that might be. There’s no reason to think the .908s and .911s of the past two seasons are now the norm. If the Caps get another .920+ out of Holtby, then they’ll almost certainly be near the top of the standings again.

He’ll be backed up by Pheonix Copley and his misspelled first name, who was your run of the mill backup last year. The Caps can’t afford an injury to Holtby, that’s for sure. Then again, do the Caps want Holtby to prove he’s worth $8M or $9M for the next few years?

Defense: The Caps mostly return the same outfit on the blue line, except they’ve swapped out Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas. At first that sounds like a major downgrade. It’s still something of one, but Gudas is actually effective when none of the bullshit is on display. Sadly, there’s always some bullshit on display, so the Caps will be killing off some dumbass penalties. John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Kempny (sigh) will be doing the heavy lifting here, They’ll hope for development from both Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler, and both were good in sheltered roles last year. If they get that, they can reduce what they need out of Gudas, which should always be the idea. They may get minutes from prospect Lucas Johansen as well, but they shouldn’t need it.

Forwards: Along with Holtby, Nicklas Backstrom is going into his free agent year at 31. Just like the goalie, this is probably his last big contract, and it’s a question if he’ll get it from the Caps with Evgeny Kuznetsov pretty much taking the #1 center role, or poised to. Backstrom is a lock for 70 or more points every year, and that should get him a deal nearing eight figures next summer, even at 32. Kuznetsov and him down the middle is just about as good as it gets. Lars Eller does the dirty work, and you know what Ovechkin is going to do no matter how old he is. He’ll be scoring 45 when he is 45. Beyond that there’s TJ Oshie, who if healthy he’s probably good f0r 30 goals again. Big if, though.

Beyond that, the Caps might be a touch short on scoring forwards. If they get a step forward from Jakub Vrana and his 24 goals last year, they’ll be ok. Carl Hagelin is around for a full season this time, and though he’s getting up there he still that brain and those feet. If the top six do top six things, the Caps are fine as they have plenty of foot soldiers in the bottom six to carry through. They always do, don’t they?

Prediction: You know what the floor is with the Caps. It’s incredibly hard to envision them slipping out of the playoffs unless Holtby goes full poltergeist in net or getting hurt. Ovie will score. So will Kuznetsov and Backstrom and Oshie. They’ll get contributions from elsewhere. The defense is solid if not spectacular, though it could start to approach that if the two kids become things. They have the Penguins and Hurricanes to outlast, but they always seem to. Maybe they’ll fall all the way to second. It’s hard to see anything worse.

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Columbus

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Everything Else

RussianMachineNeverBreaks.com has been a quality Caps outlet for as long as we’ve been doing this. Follow them @RussianMachine. 

It’s odd for a Cup-winning team to lose its coach. What really happened with Barry Trotz and has it made any difference so far this year?

There’s probably less to the story of Trotz’s exit than meets the eye. Trotz’s contract was up at the end of last season, but he had a provision that would have extended him with a modest raise if he won the Cup. Trotz felt he deserved more than a modest raise, and the Caps felt they should not commit upwards of $20 million on a coach that would likely be fired before full term. Trotz had come very close to a firing this time last year, and Todd Reirden had been groomed to take over for a couple years now. It was an awkward split, but this is sort of the way it had to go.
The team is mostly the same, but they’re having massive trouble with team defense, especially on the PK. New AC Reid Cashman is reportedly in charge of the defense, and they’re certainly struggling so far.

Much like last year, Braden Holtby can’t seem to stop a sloth. He struggled last season, and then was excellent in the playoffs. What’s the deal here?

We think Holtby’s doing okay, but “okay” is sub par for Holtby. Instead of saving around 93% during 5v5 play, he’s barely saving above what we’d expect given his workload — and that’s the rub. Holtby’s job has gotten much harder in the last year: more shots and more of them from close up. The team needs to do slightly better for him, and then I suspect Holtby will climb back up to that 93% range.

Feel free to go ahead and taunt us about Michal Kempny. We’ve lost all feeling anyway. 

Kempny literally saved the Caps season. He replaced Madison Bowey in February and immediately transformed the blue line. He seemed just as happy about the change of scenery as we were. Flat out: the Caps could not have won the Cup without him. Thank you for sharing.
Actually, Kempny got a concussion in the preseason and hasn’t quite been on the ball yet this year. I hope he’ll get back to it soon.

With the defense this team still has, why do their metrics underwhelm?

A bunch of factors, but here are a few: they stink without the puck. They are way too passive on the forecheck, which leaves the potential of dangerous floaters like Ovechkin and Kuznetsov unexploited. Orlov and Niskanen seem to be having down years, and depth forward Andre Burakovsky can’t seem to get his scoring touch back after an injury-riddled season. Still, I expect the Caps to outscore their shot-attempt stats by a fair bit just on the strength of their shooting talent.

If the Caps went 0-82, would anyone around there really care?

In the words of JP at Japers Rink,
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¯\_(ツ)_/¯

 

Game #22 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Oh yeah, these guys. While the Capitals finally hoisting the Cup last season was basically the equivalent of Denzel winning an Oscar for Training Day or Scorsese winning for The Departed, they certainly didn’t celebrate like a team that beat an expansion franchise, and to be fair, they did take out the top seed in the conference Lightning and the two-time defending champion and arch-nemesis in the form of the very tired Penguins, so the names won’t be ground out of the silver any time soon. Last season’s champions return mostly in tact, if more than a little bit dehydrated.

’17-’18: 49W-26L-7OT 256GF 239GA 22.5%PP 80.3%PK 47.96%CF 9.19SH% .9248SV%

 

Goaltending: Last year was finally the year that Braden Holtby broke under years of tremendous workloads, with sub .900 months of January and Febrary, ceding much of the home stretch of the season to Philipp Grubauer, who even started the playoffs in Round 1 against Columbus. But as Grubauer faltered, a somewhat rested Holtby was able to return to form and posted a .922 overall the remainder of the post season. With Grubauer shipped to Colorado for a second round pick, Holtby will now be backed up by something called Pheonix Copley (yes, that’s how his name is spelled) who has allowed 6 goals on the 35 shots he’s faced in the NHL since 2016. While Barry Trotz and his propensity for grinding goalies into dirt might be gone (due to some of the dumbest ass reasons ever), Holtby might have to play 70 games again out of necessity. He’s always generally been up to the task as one of the most consistent and stable goalies in the league and has a Vezina to prove it, but the modern game just simply can’t ask goalies to play that much.

Defensemen: Someone was going to pay John Carlson an exorbitant amount of money this past off season, particularly after the playoff run he had where he scored 5 goals and 20 total points from the back end, and given that the Caps actually walked away with hardware this time, it makes a certain degree of sense that it would be them to keep the home grown product in the fold. Carlson is the de facto #1 defenseman here, and he’s certainly paid like it, but it’s the goddamnedest thing that his game picked up right around the time that the Capitals acquired Michal Kempny from a long-out-of-it team with a coach that somehow couldn’t or wouldn’t figure out how to properly use him. Kempny’s coming out party in the post season earned him a contract of $2.5 per over four years, which will be an absolute steal if he plays the way he did in Washington post-trade. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov provide a fair amount of offensive punch themselves, however one of them is still going to be dragging around what’s left of the wheelbarrow full of cinder blocks that is Brooks Orpik. Orpik was traded, bought out, and resigned back with Washington for $1 million for this year, which probably figures to be his last as he turns 38 a week from today. It’s a solid grouping, but it still kind of hinges on Michal Kempny not being a fluke.

Forwards: The strong suit of any team that has Alexander Ovechkin on it. The sheer firepower that Ovechkin has produced in his career, particularly having occurred in this era, has been poured over at length in this space. Having just turned 33 on Monday, he’s not quite the force of nature that he once was, but he can still basically get whatever he wants on the ice whenever he wants it, even if he probably didn’t fully deserve the Conn Smythe he was awarded in June, which should have gone to Evgeny Kuznetsov and his 32 post season points. Kuzya’s emergence has given the Caps some true center depth as Nicklas Backstrom ages gracefully into a slighly reduced role as a #2 center, and Lars Eller slots in nicely as a #3. Timothy Jimothy Leif predictably did not put up the Mike Bossy-esque shooting percentage numbers last year that he did in his contract year, and the game he plays at 31 would indicate that age is going to hit him in a hurry when it finally catches up, and a summer of being dick in the dirt drunk probably won’t help that. Andrei Burakovsky will be counted on to take the next step while providing some size on the wing, and Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana will certainly contribute some zest from the bottom six. Tom Wilson is now paid $5.16 million dollars a year to attempt to injure other players and generally be a pus-seeping carbunkle on the ass of the league.

Outlook: After the absolutely boneheaded decision to not pay Barry Trotz like the top tier head coach that he always has been in the wake of his and the franchise’s first Cup, and Todd Reirden has subsequently been giving his first ever head coaching job as Trotz has fucked off to Long Island/Brooklyn/wherever they play. Given how publicly and infamously the Capitals partied this year, having a rookie coach in the room doesn’t exactly seem like a great way to get everyone back on task to making another run at things. This team is still stacked given the restraints the salary cap imposes, but it took a lot of tread off the tires just to get to #1, and they may just not have it in them anymore. Given the personnel, the team can only get so bad, and they’ll probably ride Holtby until he collapses in the regular season which could very well win them an iffy division, but in all likelihood everyone will probably run out of gas by the time the inevitable post-season matchup with the Penguins comes around again.

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Everything Else

Motherfucker.

Diving into the 2018 free agency pool for defense was never going to go swimmingly for the Blackhawks. Sure, there were rumblings about John Carlson’s availability, but even if he hadn’t re-signed in Washington, paying him $8 million per over a two-term presidency was neither realistic nor wanted, given all the griping we’ve done about Seabrook. Calvin de Haan may have been nice, but he ended up in Carolina for $4.55 million per over four years. Thomas Hickey also could have maybe been a thing, but the 2007 #4 overall pick signed with the Islanders at $2.5 million per over four years. Once those three came off the board, you’d have thought the Hawks would scrape the bucket for a PTO guy like Franson to throw maybe $1 million at.

Instead, the Hawks went out and gave a two-year, $2.25 million per contract to Brandon Manning, a PTO talent at a Thomas Hickey price. ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET?

2017–18 Stats

65 GP – 7 G, 12 A

50 CF%, 45.6 oZS%

Avg. TOI 17:57

A Brief History: First off, fuck this guy. Brandon Manning spent most of his junior career sucking, and in an effort to get noticed, he—in his own fucking words—”fought nine or 10 times that year and stuck up for my teammates and made some big hits.” Jesus Christ bare-assed on the cross, Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville actually called Brandon Manning and told him, “We need a guy who doesn’t really score and can play physical.” Just keep giving Q the biddy, StanBo, it’s worked so fucking well in the past. Really good start here.

Manning went undrafted before latching on in Philadelphia—a place nothing less than perfect for a booger-eating buffoon whose calling card was protecting grown men on skates from other grown men on skates—in 2012. He spent most of his career with the Flyera doing nothing aside from tripping and breaking the collarbone of Connor McDavid in 2015, allegedly telling McDavid that he hurt him on purpose during a game in 2016, recanting when McDavid talked about it publicly, then getting his ass punched in by the aptly named Patrick Maroon as retribution in 2017. WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE ABOUT THIS SIGNING?

In his first two full years, Manning spent most of his time in the offensive zone not contributing offensively. Last year was a bit different. He spent just 45.6% of his time in the offensive zone but contributed a career high 19 points. He broke exactly even at 50% on the CF% front. That’s somewhat encouraging, especially since he played most of his time next to living ghoul Radko Gudas and his aircraft carrier forehead.

But as we are wont to do, once you dig into the fancier stats, things look less than good. His xGF% (expected goals for percentage) was 48.89, which means that Manning’s opponents were expected to score more often when Manning was on the ice than the Flyera were. The closest Blackhawks comp Manning had in this category was Jordan Oesterle (49.00), who, as we all know, is one of the suckiest sucks who ever sucked on defense.

Further, his Rel xGF% (relative expected goals for percentage) was -2.22, which means Manning brought the likelihood of the Flyera scoring a goal down about 2% while he was on the ice. The closest Blackhawks comp from last year is Jan Rutta (-2.24).

And fuck it, let’s go even deeper, because the Hawks brass obviously couldn’t be bothered, as evidenced by the fact that they signed Brandon Motherfucking Manning. Manning’s HDCF%, which measures the percentage of high-danger chances for vs. high-danger chances against, was 47.31, good for second worst on the Flyera. This means that when Manning was on the ice, opponents were more likely to take shots from high-danger zones. High-danger shots are more likely to become goals. Since Manning himself doesn’t generate offense and apparently isn’t great at suppressing high-danger shots, it would seem that having him on the ice against anything but bottom lines is a recipe for disaster, especially if anyone but Crawford is in net.

So, he’s a combo of Oesterle without the KEEP FIRING ASSHOLES mentality and Rutta. And all this for just $2.25 million a year for two god damn years. Whose loins aren’t frothing?

It Was the Best of Times: Best case, Manning becomes part of a trade package for Erik Karlsson. Or, with contract negotiations for Darnell Nurse reportedly breaking down, they do Hall for Larssen II with Manning for Nurse. Barring those miracles, Manning plays fewer than 10 games because Jokiharju pulls a DeBrincat and makes it impossible not to play him. In the time he does play, Manning puts three or four points up and wins a fight or two, and the Hawks can trade him for something not called Brandon Manning. If he can’t be traded (he can’t), Quenneville shocks us all by learning what a sunk cost is and makes him a consistent healthy scratch.

It Was the BLURST of Times: We cannot stress enough how asinine this signing is. The fact that he was signed at all is a worst-case scenario. But he’s here now, he’s going to play, it’s going to suck, and it’s up to us to imagine how badly it’s going to suck. Worst case, Manning slots with Seabrook on the second pairing, because Manning played Top-4 minutes in the playoffs for the Flyera last year, a series in which Manning tossed a 48.77 CF%, 35.83 xGF%, and a hilarious -14.88 Rel xGF% against the likes of Crosby and Malkin.

StanBo throws his entire dick into his pet theory that Manning has gotten better with age and is on the verge of a breakout. That doesn’t happen, of course, because Brandon Manning sucks and would be better served in the boxing ring having his dome caved in nightly like the palooka he is. He channels his inner John Scott and becomes an insufferable monolith, both on and off the ice. After serving as a $4.5 million paperweight in his two years here, Manning uses his money to buy and close Al’s so he can open a Wawa there.

Prediction: Brandon Manning is the most Tom Smykowski signing the Hawks have had since Jordan Oesterle. He spent most of his career doing much of nothing, couldn’t hack it on a team that started Radko Fucking Gudas with a straight face, then got a seven-figure settlement as Bowman (read: Quenneville) went drunk driving and smashed into him with a HOCKEY REASONS contract.

So, he’ll spend time on the Top 4 with Seabrook. He’ll be an unmitigated disaster at all times and still get looks over Jokiharju and Murphy because HE’S HARD TO PLAY AGAINST. He’ll stumble his way into 10 points and then be considered for an extension. We’ll get all sorts of think pieces about how much his teammates like him, yet none of his teammates will offer that thought without priming from whoever’s in charge of pushing that narrative that day.

Just burn the whole building down.

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So that’s what Game 1 in 2010 looked like to everyone else.

It’s been a while since we’ve had two teams that haven’t been anywhere close to this in the Final, or at least hadn’t been in recent history. Basically 2012, and neither the Kings or Devils played a system that could get loose at times. The Penguins had been there the past two years and still had players who had been there seven years before, and the four before that were populated by the Kings or Hawks. So it’s not a huge shock that nerves might have gotten the better of both sides, at least to open Game 1.

At the top, before going any further, let me say that and I and most every other hockey fan would take last night’s disjointed, frantic, kindergarten recess of a hockey game as entertainment every damn time over whatever shlock a trapping or conservative or outright scared team like the Kings, or one coached by Mike Babcock would offer. It was fun, if not particularly graceful, and if that’s what the series ends up being, so be it.

But for all of the gushing, and it was exciting, it wasn’t particularly good. Or particularly well-executed, let’s say. The Knights force such a pace, and we saw this in last year’s Final too, that it’s hard for either team to play what you’d call a “smooth” game. It’s very hard for teams to complete passes, and it’s very hard for their to not be turnovers and defensive breakdowns, such is the rate that everything is happening. And it’s open and there are chances, but they’re not built out of skill or brilliance so much as just cracks forming, Which is fine, it’s just not art. Only Carlson’s goal that tied the game at 3 last night would you say was well-worked, along with Nosek’s winner. But the latter had Devante Smith-Pelley make a mistake to lead to it (and the make sure everyone in the arena and at home knew how upset he was with himself. Oh my god so upset. Look at how upset he is everyone! Can’t you see how upset he is?! ARGH SO UPSET!). And Carlson’s goal was the result of Marc-Andre Fleury looking like the drunk trying to negotiate his keys at 4am. Still, better than most alternatives.

The Knights don’t really care if their passing isn’t crisp, as they don’t really attempt that many. They chip and flip pucks into the neutral zone and only worry about passes when they’re on the rush and the offensive zone. I don’t know if the Caps can play like this and win four of the next six, but we’ll find out. They’ll feel they missed a real opportunity because Fleury wasn’t all that good and you probably have to win the “Fleury Isn’t Fleury” game this spring. Then again, MAF was always do for some kind of regression, be it now or October.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the NHL if it didn’t have its head in its ass at crucial points. And when you have Ryan Reaves and Tom Wilson out there, your game’s head is going to be even more firmly lodged in its colon. I have always fucking hated the policy refs have in the playoffs of swallowing the whistle and “letting the players decide.” All that is is abdicating responsibility and sinking into spinlessness for those who are supposed to be officiating the game. Ryan Reaves is a dolt, and he essentially “cheated” to score the equalizing goal in the 3rd. The players have decided. A superior player in Carlson has good position on him and Reaves illegally moved him. The players have “decided” that should be a penalty. The refs have “decided” to simply give Vegas a crucial goal. I’ll forgive a missed call here and there in the neutral zone where a lot more has to happen before it results in a change on the scoreboard. This led directly to a goal, and a big one. That’s not the players deciding. That’s the refs deciding by losing any gumption to do their jobs.

As for Wilson, in a league that made sense and wasn’t afraid of yelling old white men (and it’s not the only one, as you can recall the Yuri Gurriel fiasco from the last World Series), Tom Wilson would be thrown out for the rest of the Final. This is a repeat offense. It was an attempt to injure, and calling it “finishing a check” is the height of idiocy. There was nothing to be gained from clobbering Marchessault three seconds after he had the puck, other than to knock him out of the game. And it was from the blind-side, so it’s not like he was “pressuring” Marchessault.

Wilson quite simply is a menace, he’s a hazard to his fellow professionals and tossing him for the rest of the most important series the sport has to offer might finally be the lesson that gets through his and any other’s leaden skull. Just fucking chuck him. The league will be better off without him.

Everything Else

 vs. 

SCHEDULE: Game 1 Friday, Game 2 Sunday, Game 3 Tuesday, Game 4 Thursday

They’ve broken through. After more than a decade in the Ovechkin Era, and repeated attempts to run head-first (sometimes literally) through the forcefield between the second round and the conference final, the Caps finally found the weak point and got into the back half of the journey toward the Cup. Good for them, Ovie certainly deserves it. Seems a shame it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a very long stay, because they’re going to find an unholy machine waiting for them.

Goalies: Before this whole thing started, we said it might be better for Braden Holtby, who’s not ever really been a playoff dog except for last season, to come in and be the white knight to bail out Barry Trotz and the Caps after trying Phillip Grubauer in the first two games against the Jackets. That didn’t work, this did work, and now Holtby is playing awfully well. He only gave up 13 goals in the six games against the Pens, but then again he wasn’t asked to do all that much. The Caps only gave up more than 25 shots twice in six games, and that’s just about the best they can do. Holtby isn’t going to have a full-out meltdown with that kind of workload, but sadly that workload is probably going to get a whole lot heavier in this round.

You could say Vasilevskiy has had even less to do. He only had to face one player in the first round in Taylor Hall. He only had to face one line in the second round against the Bruins, and after Game 1 he gave up only seven goals in their four wins. He only saw over 30 shots once in those four wins, but the Lightning can probably hold the Caps to the same kind of output which certainly isn’t the case vice versa. Neither Holtby or Vasilevskiy have been here before so we have no idea how they’ll react. When this is all over, I doubt it’ll be because of either goalie primarily.

Defense: The Caps defense in the second round was basically what it was all season. John Carlson scores a ton on the power play, some at evens, and then they kind of turtle well enough to keep the other side from tearing the walls down. Orlov and Niskanen have been more than just useful, and basically nullified Crosby and Guentzel when the last series got decided. They’ll get the Stamkos and Kucherov assignment you’d think as often as possible, and based on how the last series ended the Caps are probably going to send their stall out to help them as much as possible with a trapping style that’s going to make you really understand Ibsen and welcome the void into your life.

I’m still not totally convinced by the Lightning’s defense, but because it hasn’t been seriously tested, and the Caps are likely to play this very conservatively, I don’t know that I have to be. Hedman might be enough, and will see plenty of Ovechkin with McDonagh you would think. Or if they wanted to play a funny joke they could throw McDonagh and Girardi at Ovie’s line just like the Rangers did and it always seemed to work even though everything tells you it shouldn’t. Also, Dan Girardi sucks. Anton Stralman isn’t much better these days as he gets older, but he’s enough. What the Bolts do have that the Caps don’t is a young, third-pairing bum-slayer in Mikhail Sergachev who has run wild most of these playoffs. That is when he’s played which really has been barely at all. Cooper needs to let this guy off the hook because the Caps will not have an answer and they’re probably going to need all the neutral zone busters they can find as the Caps dig trenches and set up barbed wire there.

Forwards: Even if the Caps were fully healthy, this is where the Lightning have the biggest advantage. And Backstrom and Burakovsky are not healthy. If they could not make the bell for an elimination game against the Penguins, only Washington’s Sisyphusian boulder they finally got up the hill, you have to imagine they’re really hurt. They’ll suit up at some point in this series, though Backstrom’s status for Game 1 is up in the air. Without him, this team is really just one line, and we saw what the Bolts did to a one-line team the last round. Lars Eller is great and all but he’s not enough. Especially when Tom Wilson is assuredly going to give away a couple dumbass power plays to the Lightning by trying to eat someone’s face in a bid to one-up Marchand or something.

We derided Swingin’ Jon Cooper’s choice to send Brayden Point and Palat and Johnson out against Boston’s main threat after Game 1. They spent the rest of the series giving that line a swirly. That goes with Stamkos and Kucherov and Miller (who’s been great) on the top line. Killorn and Gourde are a very decent third line. Basically, the Lightning are two to three times deeper than the Caps, and there just isn’t much they can do about it.

Prediction: The Caps have to gum this up as much as possible. They cannot run with the Lightning in any fashion. They don’t have the depth at forward. They’ll get outscored. So they’ll have to make everything 2-1 and hope Holtby goes nuclear or Vasilevskiy goes blind. They’re counting on Ovechkin or Oshie getting really hot, but if neither do they just don’t have the goals. The Lightning have the guns and they have the numbers. Crash before my eyes…Lightning in 5. 

Everything Else

When the Hawks brought Connor Murphy in, he was the presumptive favorite to replace the puck-pocked husk of what was once Niklas Hjalmarsson. And as the season went on, and the Hawks found their heads deeper and deeper in the toilet, the narrative began to range from “the Hawks will need a Top 4 defenseman next year” (true) to “the Hawks really miss Hjalmarsson this year” (categorically false in terms of on-ice performance).

After some early season struggles, a few confounding healthy scratches, and a mostly successful experiment on his off side, Murphy settled in to produce a couple of interesting career highs and team rankings. Let’s kick it.

Connor Murphy

76 GP, 2 Goals, 12 Assists, 14 Points, -3, 34 PIM

53.44 CF% (Evens), 1.2 CF% Rel (Evens), 53.47 SCF% (5v5), 51.57 xGF% (5v5), 2.99 xGF% Rel (5v5)

 50% oZ Start (Evens)

What We Said: Behind Keith and—if you look at him with enough glare from the sun—Seabrook, Murphy is probably the Hawks’s third best D-man. He’s fine if not underwhelming for the price ($3.85 million cap hit), but on the edge of 24, he will need to prove that his numbers really are the result of playing in America’s chafe rather than wasted potential. Given that the Hawks have won three Cups on the backs of their defensemen . . . Murphy will need to develop into a shutdown D-man fast.

What We Got: We’ll start with some numbers (feel free to skip the bullets if all you want is the explanation).

– Murphy posted an even-strength CF% of 53.44, finishing above water for the first time since his rookie year. Of Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games, he finished fourth, behind Franson (59.91), Gustafsson (55.39), and Kempný (53.95). If you bump the minimum threshold up to 40 games, Murphy is your leader in CF% for Hawks D-men.

– His 1.2 CF% Rel was only the second time he’s been in the positives on that ledger (1.0 last year). Of all Hawks defensemen who played at least 20 games, only Franson (9.2), Gustafsson (6.6), and Kempný (1.4) had higher CF% Rels. Again, bumping the threshold up to 40 games, Murphy’s your D-man leader for the Hawks.

– The caveat there is that Franson, Gustafsson, and Kempný started in the offensive zone at respective rates of 65.8%, 57.4%, and 55.4% to Murphy’s 50%.

– Murphy also finished with a High Danger Chances For Percentage (HDCF%) of 48.56. That’s fourth among Hawks D-men with at least 20 games—behind Kempný (52.86), Franson (52.34), and Gustafsson (50.59)—and above the team rate of 47.11. Once again, bumping the threshold to 40 games, Murphy leads all Hawks D-men.

– Murphy finished fourth in Expected Goals For Percentage (xGF%; 51.57) among Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games (behind Franson, Kempný, and Gustafsson). When bumped up to 40 games, Murphy was the leader.

– Finally, Murphy finished third in Expected Goals For Percentage Relative (xGF% Rel; 2.99) among Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games (behind Gustafsson and Franson). When bumped to 40 games, he’s the leader again.

All of this is to say that in terms of possession, Murphy was good if not great overall. He was better than the Hawks’s average in terms of giving up high-danger chances, but not great in a vacuum. And when he was on the ice, the Hawks could have expected more goals for than against.

That said, one of Murphy’s glaring weaknesses, especially at the beginning and end of the year, was his struggle to clear the puck in his own zone under pressure.

The above graph, which was tracked by Corey Sznajder, tells us that of these nine Blackhawks, only Brent Seabrook had more failed zone exits per 60 minutes of play. This means that the opposition was more likely to sustain pressure when Murphy had the puck in his own zone, which, of course, tends to lead to more opportunities to score goals. And while these data aren’t comprehensive (only tracked through 38 games), it does give us a good sample size for what’s pretty obvious through the eye test: When Murphy was pressured in his own zone, he sometimes panicked.

While Murphy absolutely must keep his spurs from jingling and jangling in his own zone if he’s going to develop into a true Top 4 shutdown D-man, it’s hard to ignore the carousel of D-men he was jerked around with this year and wonder whether that affected his play.

Murphy played primary time with five different defensemen this year.

All stats 5v5

Given how often he got jerked around, including playing his off side in his 25 games with Seabrook, one thing that stands out is the relative consistency in his possession numbers, aside from Keith. And despite the fact that the Hawks were the seventh worst team in giving up High Danger Chances, Murphy still managed well when away from Oesterle and Keith.

But therein lies the problem: Since the assumption is that Keith takes on the toughest competition (and he usually does), Murphy’s piss-poor numbers with him might suggest that he isn’t a Top 4 guy like Hjalmarsson was.

But this dovetails nicely with the overall point I want to make: The Murphy-for-Hjalmarsson trade wasn’t the loss for the Hawks some people want to say it is, and having Hjalmarsson over Murphy would have made things worse, not better.

Check out some of Hjalmarsson’s numbers when he played with Keith over his Hawks career:

All Stats 5v5

Like Murphy, Hjalmarsson had a rough go of it in the first 100 or so minutes with Keith, and that was when Keith was starting to go full Oppenheimer on the league. Coincidentally, it wasn’t until Hjalmarsson turned 25 that things really started to click any time he played with Keith, and next year Murphy will be 25.

Clearly, this is simply a coincidence, as raw age will have no effect on how (or whether) Murphy plays with Keith going forward. But this idea that Murphy doesn’t have Top 4 potential because he didn’t play well with a declining Keith over seven games this year is one of the more confusing implications I’ve heard this year.

The last point I’ll make regarding the implication that the Murphy-for-Hjalmarsson trade was a loss for the Hawks and that the Hawks miss Hjalmarsson is this:

Using more of Sznajder’s tracking data, it’s obvious that Murphy brought more to the table for the Hawks than Hjalmarsson did for the Coyotes this year. One of the two things that Hjalmarsson did that was marginally better was in terms of the breakups he caused at the blue line, preventing opponents from entering the zone with possession. (Note: They only tracked Hjalmarsson for 10 games this year against Murphy’s 38, so consider the sample size.)

Going even farther—because I have no sense of moderation whatsoever—even when comparing this year’s Murphy to last year’s Hjalmarsson, the differences aren’t as big as you’d think, mostly:

So even when we recognize and admit that Murphy had trouble with his exits from his own zone, the revisionist history that Hjalmarsson was an indispensable cog whose absence contributed to this year’s downfall doesn’t really hold water. Last year’s Hjalmarsson certainly had a better performance in terms of breakups and the percentage of entries he allowed, but he did it primarily with a not-yet-in-full-decline Duncan Keith covering him (or vice versa). Murphy spent most of his time with the glob of ambergris that is Brent Seabrook.

In short, Murphy had a good year with the Hawks despite his coach’s best efforts to jerk him around, was better than Hjalmarsson would have been, and stayed generally consistent despite spending almost a third of his year on his off side babysitting Seabrook. He’ll never be a game breaker, but he doesn’t have to be.

Where We Go From Here: Connor Murphy ought to open next year next to either Keith or Erik Gustafsson. If the Hawks are going to look at Keith as a Top Pairing Guy next year (they probably shouldn’t), they have to give him someone to cover his ass when his brain says he can make a play but his feet disagree, as we saw more often this year. I’d argue that Murphy, more than Oesterle, is that guy, despite how poorly they played together last year.

Whether you think Gustafsson is a second pairing guy is a conversation for another day (for the record, I can see it if I squint, and I’m willing to try it). But what’s undeniable is that in 135 minutes together at 5v5, Murphy and Gustafsson had a 57+ CF% while starting in the offensive zone at a 49.45% rate. With Murphy and Gustafsson entering their primes at 25 and 26, and each having paper that runs at least through 2020, pairing them might be worth an extended look, but it probably requires outside help to pair with Keith.

If the Hawks manage to sign a guy like John Carlson, or swing a trade for an OEL, Darnell Nurse, Justin Faulk, or maybe Oscar Klefbom, you’ll feel more comfortable about having the new guy and Keith as the top pairing, with Murphy covering Gustafsson. Or, you can pair the new guy with Murphy on the top pairing. This would let Keith slot in the second pairing with some iteration of Gustafsson on his off side, Forsling on his off side, Jokiharju (which is probably too much to ask), or Oesterle, because you know that’s going to happen again, despite our wailing.

Regardless, the Hawks have to saddle Murphy with more responsibility next year, whether they like it or not. The Hawks have a Top-4-potential guy in Murphy, and when he wasn’t getting the runaround, he showed flashes of it last year. Whether they use him that way is anyone’s guess.

All stats from hockey-reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, or corsica.hockey, unless otherwise noted.

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Capitals 33-17-7   Hawks 24-26-8

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: WGN

THE NATIONALS HAVE NEVER WON A PLAYOFF SERIES: Japers Rink

At this point, we should just enjoy every game for the singular event that it is. I guess. So tonight is the one time per year that Alex Ovechkin comes to town, and if you’re headed to the UC tonight remember that you may be seeing the greatest goal-scorer of all-time (if you adjust for the era and such). So that’s cool. Other than that… well, it’s more to the Lance Bouma-Tommy Wingels Showcase Showdown.

When looking at the Caps, it’s actually really hard to tell just what the hell they’re doing at the top of the Metropolitan. Maybe it’s just that division is so bad, or was until the Penguins turned on lately. For fuck’s sake, the Flyers are in third in that division. Did you know that? No, you didn’t, because you don’t ever think about Cold Ones. And you don’t know who the hell is on there anymore. And they’re in third.

The Caps are a bad possession team. They’re a bad defensive team, as they actually have a worse expected goals-against than the Islanders, and the Islanders defensive policy is to fart into the wind. The Caps haven’t even really gotten a high-level of goaltending, as both Braden Holtby and Phillip Grubauer are carrying SV%’s right around league average. Holtby of late has been terrible, with an .898 in February. At least Trotz has figured out to not punt him out there 70+ times a season.

What the Caps do is shoot well, with the league’s best SH% at evens. The Caps have never needed to dominate games possession-wise with the skills of Ovie, Backstrom, Oshie, Kuznetsov, and they still have bottom-six finish with Eller, Connolly, and Vrana. They get some help in that area from the back end as well, with Carlson and Orlov each having over 20 points (and Carlson over 40). But the extent at which they’re overcoming their deficiencies so far makes you believe this is all a house of cards. And of course, once the Caps spit it in Round 1 or 2, we’ll get the now springtime tradition of Caps and turning their road jerseys into home ones by opening up a vein or six.

The Caps busted a modest two-game losing streak by stuffing the Wild but good on Thursday. They’ve been ho-hum this month, going 3-2-2 and giving life to the division chase of Pittsburgh. The Pens are three points back but have played two games more, so it’s still a ways to go but if the market corrects on the Caps before the playoffs, you can see where this is going.

Still, for tonight, it’s an awful lot of firepower for the Hawks beleaguered defense and goalies and… you know, let’s just change this to “beleaguered Hawks.” The Caps can get you from three lines and the power play is always something you don’t want to mess with. Trotz likely won’t hold anything back tonight, as the Hawks look like easy prey to just about everyone right now. The word’s out that if you get the Hawks in any kind of antsy situation, they’re probably going to find a way to lose and/or pack up the cats. So Washington will be looking for an early lead to get themselves an easy night. Not like the Hawks can score three goals anyway.

For the Hawks, lineup changes look like Connor Murphy will be punished for catching a rut on Thursday in Quenneville’s every increasingly-logical world. David Kampf also looks like he’ll draw back in for Tomas Jurco, so he can center Duclair and Anisimov for seven minutes or so. Everything else should stay the same, and Forsberg will get two straight starts if you can believe it.

Nothing to do now but play spoiler and see how much Schmaltz, Top Cat, and now Dahlstrom can grow. At least the Hawks showed some chutzpa on Thursday. That’s another thing to watch, whether Q can keep them trying until the end. We have so little to hang on to.

 

Game #59 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Jason Rogers is a writer for JapersRink.com, as well as a few other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @HeyJayJRogers. 

The Caps had their own salary cap purge in the summer. Williams, Johansson, Alzner, Shattenkirk, Schmidt all headed for the exit. Which has stung the most so far this season?
Boy, it depends on when you’re asking. Early on, it was defenseman Nate Schmidt. Ol’ Smiley Face was a third-pair blueliner while in Washington, and struggled to even earn a sweater from Coach Barry Trotz over crumbling Methuselah Karl Alzner last season. With fully half of the defensive starters now gone from last season, you might say depth has been a problem, in the same way that it is a problem for sinking ships. Rookies have stepped up admirably, and the new young core seems to be beginning to gel, but sprinkle in another injury here or there and this Capitals defensive could be in major trouble.
There was some furor over Barry Trotz splitting up Backstrom and Ovie for a period of time. Is there anything more here than just trying to spread scoring?
That’s basically all it was. With Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams (two thirds of last year’s second line) gone to other clubs, scoring was thinner than a svelte ski for a while there. They’ve been reunited for a couple games now, and, well, Alex Ovechkin once again leads the NHL in goals. It’s hard to oversell how historically good the set-up-and-finish pair of Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin for the last decade, but both of these guys are headed to Hall of Fame one day, and they’ll each have the other to thank.
Maybe due to the departures on D, John Carlson is playing about four minutes more per night than he ever has. Any concern that he’ll be paste by April?
Yes. Oh, God, yes. It’s one of the hottest topics in DC right now. Can John Carlson sustain this level of ice time? Can Barry Trotz really keep using Carlson like this? Are the other defensemen made of balsa wood and paper mache or something? Carlson struggled in his expanded deployment early on this season, but he’s coalesced into a fairly reliable emergency cork for this team. Barry Trotz has a reputation, deserved or not, for being especially unwilling to give young players ice time in order to develop when he has more experienced veterans, perhaps with lower ceilings, available now. What you’re seeing now on the Capitals blue line is this simple face: Barry Trotz trusts John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and, lately, Dmitry Orlov. He is learning to trust Christian Djoos. He does not trust Madison Bowey or Brooks Orpik.
Lars Eller is having his best offensive season so far. Just a different role or different game?
Lars Eller is a stone cold stud. He is a possession gremlin, and he makes more offensive things happen in Washington than a skeezy lobbyist. Last year, his line (along with Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly) was the very best possession line in hockey for most of the season. He’s getting opportunities this year, but he’s also being used like a fine, Danish glue to hold the offense together wherever it seems weakest. But keep an eye on his hands; the dude can make plays.
Eller, Carlson, Beagle, and Wilson are all free agents after the season. If the window didn’t shut last year, is this going to be it for this group or can they keep everyone together?
Ah, the seventy-five million dollar question. Lars Eller may have played his way out of the Capitals’ tax bracket the last two years. Someone will offer him more than Washington would like to, but he should be a priority for them.
Jay Beagle, what can you say: the front office loves him. He’s a “glue guy.” He’s consistently a league-leader in faceoff percentage, and he’s their most trusted penalty killer. Would the Capitals like to try and replace him? No, certainly not. Can they replace a career fourth-line forward? Yes, of course.
Tom Wilson, they will have to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves some tough questions. With all of the penalties, and the suspensions, and the general lack of offensive production, is this grinder and penalty killer – and former first-round draft pick – still worth his salary when the purse strings are this tight? Could they get a league-minimum guy who can do what Tom Wilson does, and then some, perhaps? For me, I say yes, because I know for a fact that Daniel Winnik exists.
John Carlson will be the most interesting of all. At the end of last season, I would have told you there was no chance Carlson would be on the Capitals at the end of this one. Now, though, will his unavoidably praise-worthy, improved level of play – in killer minutes, being asked to absorb killer assignments – he may have made himself too valuable for Washington to let go.