Why the Washington Capitals’ Offense Can Improve

The Washington Capitals (9-8-3) start to the season is a mixed bag. They’ve accomplished a few important things, including finding out what Andre Burakovsky can provide (12 points in 20 games) and playing an improved possession game (51.9 CF%, 12th in NHL).

However, the Capitals have just the 20th best points percentage (.525) on the season. They’ve yet to play too many tough matchups against Eastern Conference powers, but they will face an extremely tough test Wednesday night against the improving New York Islanders, who are unquestionably an Eastern Conference contender.

While expecting to be a major strength of the club heading into the season, goaltending has failed the Capitals through 20 games on the season. Washington has the fifth lowest five-on-five save percentage in the league according to Hockey Analysis at .9054, above just Columbus, Carolina, Vancouver and Edmonton.

Ovechkin awaits for the faceoff against the Blues. (Tom Turk/THW)
Ovechkin awaits for the faceoff against the Blues. (Tom Turk/THW)

The play of Justin Peters (2-3-1, .882 SV%) has been a letdown so far, but starting net minder Braden Holtby continues to improve his play and impact Washington’s recent performance. Holtby’s now 7-5-2 on the year, with a 2.25 goals against average and .915 save percentage. Over his last six contests, Holtby has a 1.67 goals against average and .942 save percentage.

One reason for the Capitals lack of offensive success has been a minute amount of chances on the man advantage. The Capitals have had 59 power plays on the season, 28th in the league. Only the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins have had less. Below is a chart displaying the Capitals power plays per game over the past few seasons.

 

(Matthew Speck/The Hockey Writers)
(Matthew Speck/The Hockey Writers)

“As we get rolling offensively, right now we’re in a little bit of an offensive funk, just a lot of stuff isn’t going in for us right now, so as we put more heat on teams, we force them into uncomfortable situations. That’s when they take penalties.” –Matt Niskanen

One reason that the Capitals don’t draw a high rate of power plays could be their lack of big physical bodies that disrupt the opposing defense in the crease. Beyond Tom Wilson and Troy Brouwer, Washington lacks an impactful power forward that can make a substantial difference in front of the net.

“They recognize right now we don’t get a lot of power plays, we’re not producing a lot of goals five-on-five right now. It’s hand in hand. But you can force teams to take penalties on you by being hard, by crashing the net, instead of going around the net.

Then out of the perimeter, you’re taking it inside the dots, you’re throwing it on net, you’re creating second chances and chaos. Usually in those chaotic situations, teams or players will have a moment where they’re in desperation, they’ll either grab you or hook you or trip you, whatever they need to stop you from getting an offensive chance. We haven’t done a good enough job getting in the interior.”-Barry Trotz

Brooks Laich being out is another contributing factor to their ineffective play at the net, he’s expected to sit out once again Wednesday night due to injury. Dustin Penner provided a big body for the Capitals in his brief stint with the club in Washington, but his contract expired in the offseason.

Washington has employed players that can make a difference in the crease to generate offense including Mike Knuble, Jason Arnott among others. There doesn’t seem to be an internal option beyond Brooks Laich returning. Whether the Capitals decide to add a difference maker near the NHL trade deadline remains to be seen.

There are other ways to draw penalties beyond net presence. Using speed to bring the puck into the zone is another option to create offense and generate power play opportunities.

The Capitals have just two players in the top 150 for drawn penalties per sixty minutes, with Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky leading the club, unsurprisingly. Below is a chart on the Capitals top four players at drawing penalties with their rank among players who have played at least ten games this season.

Player Penalties Drawn/60 Rank
Alex Ovechkin 1.6 34
Andre Burakovsky 1.3 68
Joel Ward 0.9 162
Eric Fehr 0.9 181

 

The Capitals’ offense can improve. Becoming a more aggressive team in the third period and overall will help them draw more penalties. Getting a few extra power plays over a course of games compared to their current rate will go a long way to aiding the Capitals to a potential playoff berth.