Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Varlavirth Should be Starting the Playoffs

...not Braden Holtby.

If you've been in the comments section on Japers' Rink, you've seen me say this in bits and pieces, but I want to reiterate again.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Strong Bottom Six

Of all the possible factors that could cause the Capitals to bow out of the playoffs early this year--coaching, power play, even strength offense, penalty kill, goaltending, etc--there's one that I'm convinced will be a legitimate, significant strength for the Caps: the bottom-six forwards.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Who Needs a Goalie?

I don't want the Capitals to trade any of their three young goalies in the near future, nor do I think the team should. A goalie that can come in and be league average (or better) at age 20 or 22...comparables in that regard include Marc Andre Fleury, Cam Ward, Tuukka Rask, as well as players like Andrew Raycroft. Hanging onto three goalies is a bit of a two edged sword.

Ideally, the team sells high on the guy that ends up being the worst (like Pittsburgh did with Angelo Esposito), but there's virtually no way of knowing which will be the worst. If Varlamov stays healthy, he could be similar to Henrik Lundqvist. If Neuvirth stays healthy, think Cam Ward, I think. And Holtby actually can stay healthy, and is the best puck handler and most outwardly-emotional of the bunch. And any of them could just as easily go the Raycroft route as the all-star route.

There are plenty of people who would trade one of those goalies if the return is decent. Any sane team wouldn't pay much for a goalie in a trade: there's simply too much uncertainty in goalie development. A desperate team, though, may be willing to overpay. Which teams could be desperate?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Awards Watch: March

Hart Trophy:
  1. Tim Thomas--leads by a healthy margin in GVT despite not getting as much playing time. Last time anyone had anything close to a .938 over a full season was 1998-1999 (Dominik Hasek's .937). That was the only time, too--Thomas may be authoring the greatest goalie season in NHL history.
  2. Jonathan Toews--2nd in GVT for skaters, kills his minutes, above 57% in faceoffs, and now up to 9th in scoring, just as the Blackhawks are finally making a run. Not to detract from his being here, but it's in no small part a product of some of the other top skaters having Hart-rivals on their very teams.
  3. Steven Stamkos--Leads the Richard race by seven goals and is 2nd in points, playing power versus power on 2nd-toughs.
  4. Daniel Sedin--league's leading scorer. He clocks in so low because Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, and Roberto Luongo are all also having individual trophy-esque seasons.
  5. Pekka Rinne--lost in the Tim Thomas talk is how Rinne has raced up the goalie leaderboards to sit in 2nd.
Just missed: Henrik Lundqvist, Martin St. Louis, Corey Perry, Henrik Sedin, Sidney Crosby

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Recap: Caps 4, Hawks 3 (OT)

What a game. Not so much the first (outside shots, with two or three somewhat weak goals given up, plus another early in the 2nd), but about halfway through the second, the game, as the talking heads on NBC noted, started getting nasty. Jason Chimera and a couple of other Caps ran Corey Crawford, Alex Ovechkin ran over Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, and the game began to open up a bit more. Both teams were cycling, both teams kept the other out of the middle defensively, both teams hit the post, scored, and got excellent saves by their goalie.

No Need For a Veteran in Net

Why do people say teams need veteran presence in the playoffs, especially in net?
  1. Fans see some inexperienced goalies falter, mistakes that are magnified in the small sample that is a playoff series, leading to confirmation bias of the cliche that you need veterans.
  2. Goalies collapse under playoff pressure.
To the first, I say this: whether or not a goalie is on a hot or cold streak, his expected level of performance in his next game is his true talent level, adjusted for shot and shooter quality. That is, pretty much his save percentage over about the last thousand shots or so (unless the goalie has really improved, like Ward and Fleury this season).

Regardless, some goalies do go on hot streaks. Inexperienced goalies don't have enough of a sample of shots faced to tell us their true talent level, so whenever a coach finds one (Reimer, for example, or Varlamov 2009), he runs with him. The dude usually ends up being nothing special. The playoff letdown, then, is nothing other than an end to the hot streak. And keep in mind that goalie hot streaks can extend over an entire season.

To the second, every player nowadays is plenty experienced--peewee championships in all likelihood, and for most notables, world junior championships too. The WJC < Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that international stage is pretty huge nonetheless. It's a very rare guy that collapses or excels (more than normal) under pressure, and for goalies, at least, it's not like we can tell the difference.

Have confidence in Varlavirthby. They're one of three reasons I can still be hopeful for these playoffs.

The Capitals Defense

Much has been made about the Capitals trying to play better defense this season, as the offense stopped coming in droves in December and the system had failed the Capitals in the playoffs.

In my mind, there are several ways to look at defense:

  • Goals against. Over the long run, we'd expect this number to be most indicative of a team's defensive prowess (obviously), but in the sample size of 82 games, it's subject to goalie hot/cold streaks, luck on special teams, and so forth.
  • Shots against. Give up less shots, you'll give up fewer goals. Obviously, not all shots are created equal, but if you're a team that significantly reduces shots against (like St. Louis or Chicago) then the effect is greater than reducing quality (which has an inverse relationship with quantity--decrease quality, increase quantity).
  • Fenwick events against.
  • Corsi events against. While goals and shots against are more indicative in the long run, the much larger samples Fenwick and Corsi provide increase the confidence we can have in the ratios in the short run.
  • The for-against differentials of these metrics, rather than pure "against." Does it really matter if you give up 3 goals a game if you score 5? It's high-risk, high-reward (a tradeoff that was probably perfected by the dynastic Oilers).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Winning the Division: High Risk, High Reward

Contenders for top seed: Philadelphia, Boston
Contenders for 3-6: Washington, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Montreal
Contenders for 7-8: New York Rangers, Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto, Atlanta, New Jersey*

*I included New Jersey since the Devils are legitimately much better than any team currently lower than 6th in the East, even though they're a-ways out from the 8th spot, and the Thrashers since they're still in front of the Devils.

So I think the standings may look like this:
1. Philadelphia/Boston
2. Boston/Philadelphia
3. Washington
4. Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh
5. Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay
6. Montreal
7. New York Rangers
8. Buffalo

That terrifies me.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Could Alex Ovechkin Win the Hart Trophy?

  • The top four scorers in the league will like be Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Daniel Sedin, and Henrik Sedin, in some order. The partnership of both pairs of teammates is well documented.
  • The Sedins also have potential Hart candidate Ryan Kesler on their team, plus Roberto Luongo.
  • Alex Ovechkin is 2 points behind Henrik Zetterberg for 5th in league scoring, 69-67 (Corey Perry has 68 points, leaving Ovechkin in 7th). Ovechkin leads the NHL in even strength points, tied for first (48) with Henrik Sedin.
  • While Ovechkin is well behind Steven Stamkos in the Richard race (Stamkos has 41 tallies so far), Ovechkin only sits 8 goals out of 2nd (Patrick Sharp at 33). And 7 of those 8 goals by which Sharp leads Ovechkin are power play goals. Ovechkin is five behind Bobby Ryan (25) for the lead in even strength goals.
  • Ovechkin is 7th in assists, just trailing 4th-place Daniel Sedin by 5. He is 6th in even strength assists, just three behind Henrik Zetterberg's 31 for 2nd.
  • The Capitals' down season this year is well documented. Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin are playing under 70 point-per-82-games paces, Semin with injury troubles too. Mike Green, after going back-to-back seasons above a point-per-game, is not scoring at even half that rate this season. The Caps have been shutout the second most times in the league (only Toronto has been more often) and the offense is 22nd in the NHL, scoring 1.4 goals per game less than last season.
  • Despite these struggles, the Capitals sit one point behind Tampa Bay for the division lead (with an extra game played) and two points behind Pittsburgh (with a game in hand) for 4th in the conference. Boston is within striking distance, too.
  • For all the talk about Dwayne Roloson, the Lightning, both before and after getting Roloson, are roughly even in goal differential. Pittsburgh is down three centers and a top line wing, and Boston...Tim Thomas isn't this good. The Caps could be better than all three of those teams (even Boston) and eventually true talent will win out.
  • The Caps' power play, after breaking 25% each of the past two seasons, is now stagnating at 16.1%, 25th. After registering 51-52, 55-37, 75-37, 63-46, and 73-36 in ESpoints-PPpoints in his first five seasons in the league, Ovechkin's 48-19 this season rates to 61-24. The power play has been the biggest culprit in holding him back. 
  • After scoring 79 power play goals last year, the Caps are only on pace for 44 this year. Rate Ovechkin's scoring based on those 79 goals and his 61-24 increases to 61-43. Rate his scoring based on Toronto's 15th-place 43 PPGs in 65 games, and the 61-24 becomes 61-30.
  • He's been on a roll lately. He's currently on pace for 32-53-85, but with 15 goals in his last 17 games--something which, according to my calculations, Ovechkin has accomplished 74 times with overlap, 8 times without overlap (including playoffs)--he'll hit 40 goals. He could feasibly finish the season 40-50-90 while leading in even-strength points and top-5 in goals, assists, and points.
  • The Capitals are on pace for 101 points, and given their play this season, one could expect a slightly higher finish. That could mean another last-day division title.
With those last two not-too-much-of-a-stretch bullets, I'm optimistic Ovechki has a chance at another Hart nomination.

Whether or not he deserves it is another issue.

Edit: And lo and behold, THN's Hart Trophy Watch has Ovie re-entering the race.