Monday, April 5, 2010

54 Point Player Criticizes 114 Point Team

The Washington Capitals sit atop the league with 114 points with four games to play and have already clinched the President’s Trophy. The San Jose Sharks could win their remaining three games and still finish with only 113 points.

However, this hasn’t stopped R.J Umberger, member of the 32-win Blue Jackets, from criticising the team after a 3-2 home loss to the Capitals on Saturday.

"I don't think any team in the West would be overmatched by them. They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they're going to get frustrated because they're in their zone a lot." via (TSN)

We’ll ignore the fact that Umberger plays for the seventh worst team in the league, is currently a -14, a career -47, and has only played past the first round of the playoffs once. It certainly seems bizarre that someone with such a mediocre pedigree would choose to criticise a team with over 50 wins, but he may have a point. Are the Capitals for real?

First, the positives. The Capitals have the most wins in the league (51), the fewest regulation losses (15), and the most goals scored (301). The team with the second most goals is the Vancouver Canucks and they have scored over 40 fewer goals than the Capitals.

Their power-play is also dynamic, clicking at a 25.4% rate, which is good enough for first in the league. They also get a lot of opportunities on the power-play (fifth most of all playoff teams), which is likely a product of being a team that is relentless in their attack.

The Capitals have also been on fire since the Olympic break. They only have two regulation losses over the past 16 games. Teams tend to carry the momentum from the regular season into the playoffs and the Capitals record of late bodes well for future success.

At first I thought maybe their win total was inflated by playing in the brutal South East Division, where the Capitals are 18-3-2, but the Caps play just as well against the rest of the Eastern Conference. They are 10-4-4 against the North East Division and 13-3-3 against the Atlantic Division. Against the Western Conference they are 10-5-3.

Oh, and they also have Alex Ovechkin, who is the most talented player in the NHL today. He has 46 goals and 102 points in a mere 68 games. They also have Mike Green, who is the NHL’s best offensive defenceman. Green has 74 points in 73 games, which is almost unheard of for a defenceman in today’s game.

Now, the negatives. They do take the fourth most shots in the league (32.7), but they give up 30.9, which is the 18th most in the league. This just shows that they like to play a run and gun style of game, which I’m not convinced works exceptionally well in the playoffs.

They also let in a lot of goals. They have given up 222 goals, tied for 17th best in the league with the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, this is only tied for sixth best of all Eastern Conference playoff teams and tied for second worst of all playoff teams. Those stats don’t exactly prove Umberger wrong.

Another stat that does not favour the Capitals is their penalty kill percentage. They only kill off 78.6% of penalties, which is the 6th worst in the league. The only playoff team with a worse rate is the Nashville Predators, who only kill off 2.6% more penalties than the Maple Leafs. This low penalty kill percent is somewhat mitigated by the lack of penalties they actually take. The Capitals have only taken 361 penalties all year, which is the ninth best in the league.

These stats suggest that the Capitals are not a very good defensive team. They seem to me like a bunch of puck sharks. Not really fully committed to defence, instead perpetually awaiting breakaway passes and one-timers. Their defence is also led by Mike Green, undoubtedly offensively prolific, but not really a defenceman in my eyes. He’s playing some hybrid position in between forward and defence (which I have been calling the Puck Hawk – no real concern for positioning, just always hunting the puck – not the most defensive way to play).

But it is hard to argue against their 51 wins this season. Their style of play has worked tremendously during the regular season.

However, for the past two seasons they have been in the top-10 in goals forward, while allowing as many goals as they have this season. Both those seasons the Capitals were eliminated prematurely. In 2008 they were beat in seven games by the Flyers in the first round and last year they were beat in seven games by the Penguins in the second round. This is not entirely surprising considering they were (and still are) a very young team making their first few trips to the post-season. The Penguins were defeated in five games in 2007 during their first trip to the post-season and they did not realize exactly the type of effort required to win until they lost in the Stanley Cup Final the next year to the Detroit Red Wings.

Last year’s second round defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins could act as a similar motivating factor for the Capitals. They saw what it takes to win (from their bitter rivals, no less) and made depth moves in the off-season to supplement their talented core. One of the better moves was acquiring Mike Knuble, who has played in 41 career playoff games and plays the hard, physical style required for playoff success. If players like Ovechkin, Green, Semin, and Backstrom didn’t realize the sacrifice and commitment needed to win then hopefully adding a player like Knuble will show them.

When asked about Umberger’s comments Mike Green said, "We play an aggressive game, but that's why we're so successful during the season. It's obviously a different style, but now having played two, three years in the playoffs, we really understand what it takes.” via (The Washington Post)

That should be an indication that the Capitals are willing to change their run and gun style and commit to defence for the playoffs, although their coach didn’t suggest as much.

Bruce Boudreau said, “I like the fact that as a coach, I've got a few championships under my belt playing this way, so we'll leave it at that." via (The Washington Post)

This is troubling because he must be referencing his 1999 ECHL Championship or his 2006 AHL championship. Umm, I don’t think run and gun success in those leagues necessarily translates to the NHL, Bruce.


Ted Rigby said...

Sweet burn on Bruce Boudreau!

Theo said...

Also, I think attacking Washington for an offense-first style is kind of pointless, because it does work. Umberger basically says that a team in the playoffs will figure the Caps out, eliminating turnovers and hemming them in their own zone... now I'm too lazy to find this information, but I seriously doubt the Blue Jackets have had much success against the Caps this year, so Umberger coming up with some "good on paper" strategy is all fine and dandy, but in reality it probably wouldn't work. The Caps have the most dynamic offense in hockey, and adjusting to their style would no doubt change their strategy, and they'd just find new ways to put a half dozen goals in.

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