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Posted at 1:39 PM ET, 11/22/2010

At the quarter turn: An improved defense?

By Kareem El-Alaily

In hockey, defensive performance can be broken down into two unique parts: team defense and goaltending. On some teams you get below average team defensive play – evidenced by a high number of shots against – that’s compensated for by great goaltending (think: Florida Panthers). In other cases you get a team that plays great defense (low shots against), but gets below average goaltending (think Chicago Blackhawks 2009-10). And, rarely, you have a team that excels at both (think “trap era” New Jersey Devils). Last season’s regular-season Capitals could arguably be characterized as having slightly above-average team defense and slightly below-average goaltending. What can’t be argued is that the team was unexceptional in either phase.

Through the first quarter of this season a general theme espoused by the media is that the Caps have improved their overall defensive play and received good goaltending.  However, a quick look at the team’s goals against numbers doesn’t prove this out as the Caps are allowing 2.81 goals per game, up from last year’s 2.77 pace (sans empty-netters). So I’m left to ask: have the Caps really improved their overall defensive performance this year?

Let’s try and find some answers by taking a look at this season’s performance across the first 21 games and comparing the results against last year’s 82-game performance. To do this, let’s look at goals allowed (demonstrating overall team performance), shots allowed (demonstrating team defensive performance) and save percentage (demonstrating goaltender performance) which you can see in the table below.

Notes: Raw data is from and does not include empty-net goals (Click chart to see larger version)

Looking at the Caps overall play across all situations, the Caps have lowered their shots against by 1.6 shots per game – a 5 percent reduction over last season. Goaltending has underperformed, evidenced by the decrease in save percentage from 0.911 to 0.905. (For comparison purposes, average NHL save percentage is roughly 0.912.) The easy conclusion is that team defense has improved (by lowering its shots against) while team goaltending has regressed. That’s indeed the high-level take-away from this analysis. However, let’s segment performance by even strength and penalty kill situations to draw more detailed conclusions about the team’s ability to prevent goals.

Even Strength

  • At even strength, the team defense’s improvement is very noticeable as the skaters have reduced shots allowed by 2.7 shots per game, an impressive 11 percent reduction from last year. No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The Caps are indeed playing better team defense at even strength. Kudos to the team!
  • What is not impressive is that even strength save percentage has dropped by 18 points – going from 0.925 in 2009-10 to 0.907 in 2010-11. This unflattering fact is why the even strength goals allowed has increased by 0.19 goals from last season. Team goaltending, which started out super hot in October, has cooled off.
  • If the Caps were to get last year’s 0.925 save percentage at even strength, the team’s goals allowed per game would drop to a more pleasant 1.7.

Conclusion: At even strength the team defense has improved, but the goaltending is not holding up its end of the bargain.

Penalty Kill

  • The team penalty kill output has improved, as the Caps have gone from letting in 0.82 goals per game last year to 0.67 this year, a very impressive 0.15 goals per game improvement.
  • Shorthanded save percentage has risen from 0.848 last year to 0.898 this year. While the team is employing a more aggressive PK this season, there are no doubts that the PK improvement is being driven by superior shorthanded goaltending.
  • This year’s more aggressive penalty kill is not lowering its shots against totals. The team’s shots allowed per minute of PK time has increased this season, going from 0.85 shots per minute last year to 0.92 this year. Unless you subscribe to the theory that the new PK style is allowing the goalie to see lower quality shots with less traffic in front, my conclusion is that this season’s PK  is no improvement over last season’s.
  • One more sobering stat about this year’s non-goaltending PK performance: the Caps are allowing an additional 1.1 shorthanded shots per game, an ugly increase of 21% over last year. The team’s lack of discipline in taking penalties is leaving the Caps shorthanded for an extra 0.7 minutes per game, which is why the goalies are seeing more rubber while on the PK. Hats off to the goalies for consistently bailing the team out! They’re providing better results while playing more minutes on the penalty kill.
  • While I’ve been complimentary of the goaltending on the PK, I believe the team’s 0.898 shorthanded save percentage is unsustainable. The team’s goalies are not playing terribly well at even strength, and I suspect that shorthanded save percentage will regress closer to the league average of 0.865 in the next quarter.
Conclusion: The incredible improvement in goals against on the penalty kill is coming from superior goaltending - not the penalty killers - and is unlikely to be sustained.

Second Quarter Theme

The big defensive theme to watch as the second quarter starts is not whether Caps skaters can sustain their improved defensive play. I believe they will because they are more committed to team defense this year. The big question, to me, is if the overall goaltending can improve and climb closer to the league average 0.912 save percentage. That requires better goaltending at even strength, a necessity as the Caps PK goaltending starts its likely regression back to the mean. Semyon Varlamov’s healthy return should help as it takes the burden off of an overworked Neuvirth. However if that doesn’t provide the needed results, goaltending may become another position that needs to be addressed by the trade deadline.

By Kareem El-Alaily  | November 22, 2010; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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How do these stats relate to the rest of the league? Is scoring up or down in general? Also are the caps being penalized more or less than last season? These are all things that would put more meaning and clarity into these stats, yes?

Posted by: GFisher1 | November 22, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

sorry to be a bummer...i have 2 1600*1200 screens...but your lil statistic unreadable...maybe with a magnifine glass..even when i clicked on it....image ready duh

Posted by: dskelly1 | November 23, 2010 1:29 AM | Report abuse

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