By Dom Luszczyszyn
It’s still too early to make any meaningful judgments, but so far it looks like the Washington Capitals’ biggest problem has been solved.
The Caps have been a notoriously abysmal defensive team for a while now, and missing the playoffs last season meant changes had to be made to the former powerhouse. The biggest one was bringing in coach Barry Trotz, arguably the most reputable defensive coach in the game.
While changing the coach isn’t always the right call, it was clear that Adam Oates wasn’t getting the most out of his players, specifically his best one, Alex Ovechkin. The same can be said for Trotz, who was well past his expiration date in Nashville. Washington and Trotz were a perfect fit.
Looking back through the past seven years in Washington paints a dark picture of what over-reaction looks like. During the Bruce Boudreau era, the Capitals were a force to be reckoned with, but one playoff series against an overachieving Montreal team with a hot goalie changed all that, and the Caps haven’t been the same since. Not only have the Caps been bleeding in the defensive zone, but they were no longer the offensive juggernaut they once were.
The addition of Trotz has changed that. The offensive output may still be average, but the Caps have become a significantly tighter defensive unit. They have the eighth best 5-on-5 shot suppression rate in the league in the early goings at 48.6 shot attempts against per 60. That’s 8.4 fewer attempts than the year before. Why does that matter? Over a full season, that translates to almost five extra wins, based on the assumption every six goals gets you a win. Last year, that would’ve not only pushed Washington into the playoffs, it would’ve given them home-ice advantage.
A lot of credit for that has to go to Trotz, but he wasn’t the only addition. The Capitals signed defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik away from the Penguins over the summer, immediately shoring up their top four. Niskanen leads the Caps in ice time and has looked decent in driving possession. Orpik has been better than he was as a Penguin, but that might be because he’s getting much easier zone starts. The two have been important factors in creating balance on the Caps blueline.
To see how Trotz has really impacted the lineup, though, it’s best to look at each player individually. It’s only been five games, but it seems like the players are buying in to what Trotz is selling. Across the board, players who were on the team last year and have played the most this year have seen a dramatic reduction in shot attempts against them while they’re on the ice. The samples are small, but it’s very encouraging to see that the effect applies to everyone here (sorry Brooks Laich).
The most drastic improvement? Alex Ovechkin, who has shaved 20 attempts per 60 minutes from last season. The added defensive capability wasn’t at the expense of his offense, either. In fact, shot attempts while he’s on the ice have increased slightly (from 58 to 62) and he’s potted five goals already. Ovechkin’s terrific play so far should be comforting news to Caps fans, as rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Has Trotz not only fixed the Caps woes, but also turned Ovechkin into a defensive stalwart? The early results back up Trotz’s reputation.
All stats via war-on-ice.com
Follow Dom Luszczyszyn on Twitter at @omgitsdomi