Why Missing the Playoffs Would Be Good for Washington Capitals' Future

Robert WoodCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2014

Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates and owner Ted Leonsis (l-r).
Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates and owner Ted Leonsis (l-r).Associated Press

If the Washington Capitals were to make the playoffs this season, it would actually hurt the franchise. Extending their postseason streak to seven seasons would only mask the problems that plague this deeply flawed hockey team. Therefore, missing the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs would actually be good for the Washington Capitals' future. 

The above statement may be impossible for Capitals fans to internalize at this time. After all, the entire point of the NHL regular season is to qualify for the postseason, and the Capitals still have a chance of doing just that. Right now, Washington is 33-27-10 with 76 points, good for ninth in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the eighth and final playoff spot, with the Blue Jackets possessing the tie-breaker and two games in hand. 

But Washington has earned a paltry 25 regulation and overtime wins (ROW). This number is important because at the end of the season, the first step in the NHL's tie-breaking procedure is to determine "the greater number of games won, excluding games won in the Shootout. This figure is reflected in the ROW column." 

Washington has the fifth-fewest ROW in the Eastern Conference and is tied for the fewest ROW among the 13 teams still mathematically alive in the playoff chase. This factor could very well come back to haunt the Capitals, perhaps even keeping them out of the postseason. 

If Washington does indeed miss the playoffs—especially for the first time this decade—then it will be time to reexamine the structure of this team to determine if this Capitals team can actually win the Stanley Cup. 

You think I'm being too drastic, don't you? 

Well, I hate to use someone's words against them, but—wait a second, I love to use someone's words against them. There is no better time to do just that then right here, right now. 

On Feb. 26, 2009, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis described his 10-point rebuilding plan to SBNation: Hogs Haven. Here is an excerpt from that list which explains the first of Leonsis' 10 points, detailing what a team should do if it thinks it's time to rebuild: 

Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don't fake it--really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, 'We are just one player away.' Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride--have confidence in the plan--'trust and verify: the progress -- but don't deviate from the plan.' 

To begin the process of answering the question posed by Leonsis, we will start by examining the Capitals' point totals in the standings in each of the last seven seasons, starting with 2007-08: 

Last 7 Seasons: Capitals' Record, Point Totals

This seven-year period begins with Washington's first return to the postseason after the canceled season of 2004-05, which also marks the first postseason of the "Young Guns" era. In addition, this period is noteworthy due to the gradual decline in the team's position in the final standings.

The decline began in 2011-12, as the team finished with fewer than 100 points for the first time since 2007-08. In the following season of 2012-13, the Capitals only played 48 games due to the lockout-shortened season. Over an 82-game season, their point percentage from 2012-13 would have projected to 97 points. A good number for sure, but still less than 100. 

The trend has continued thus far in 2013-14. The Caps' point percentage of .543 is their lowest since 2007-08. By extension, they are also on pace for their lowest point total (89) in this time frame. At this pace, 100 points is far in the distance for Washington. 

So what is causing this decline?

We can answer that question by being "brutally honest," to quote Leonsis. To do so, we will focus on the period of decline, examining several important team statistics from the last three seasons, including this year:

Last 3 Seasons: Selected Team Stats for Washington Capitals
Plus/Minus Rating0 (15)+8 (8)-20 (23)
5-on-5 Goals For/Against Ratio1.01 (13)1.07 (10)0.89 (23)
Shots For Per Game28.0 (23)28.1 (19)30.0 (15)
Shots Against Per Game30.2 (16)32.3 (28)33.5 (27)
Out-Shoot Win %.500 (15).786 (3).500 (16)
Out-Shot By Win %.510 (16).471 (16).435 (21)
Scoring First Win %.690 (15).654 (20).686 (17)
Trailing First Win %.325 (15).455 (4).257 (20)

These statistics paint a good picture. The Capitals have struggled in five-on-five play while allowing progressively more shots against. This disparity has had a direct negative effect on their record, as it has prevented their consistent recovery from early deficits. 

All these trends originate with shots for and shots against. So, to "really do the analytics," we must focus on shots by employing some "fancy stats"

These advanced analytics are powered by Corsi and Fenwick. The two concepts are explained below: 

Fancy Stats: Corsi vs. Fenwick
CorsiCorsi is the number of shot attempts by a team or player. In other words, it's the sum of a team or players's goals, shots on net, shots that miss the net, and shots that are blocked. It's used as a proxy for puck possession: since we can't (yet) measure how long a player or team has possession of the puck, we use corsi as an approximation. We're interested in puck possession because you can't score if you don't have the puck (and the team that has puck more often usually wins). For players, we usually measure "on-ice" corsi, or all of their team's shot attempts while they're on the ice.
FenwickFenwick is the number of unblocked shot attempts by a team or player. It's the same as corsi, but excludes shots that are blocked. It's used because over many games it's a slightly better proxy for possession than corsi. It's not used exclusively instead of corsi mainly because over smaller sample sizes, the larger corsi number is more accurate in reflecting puck possession.

Since the NHL does not currently track time of possession, these metrics are the next best thing. Both Corsi and Fenwick do a good job of further analyzing a team's offensive and defensive performance. 

Now, to turn them on the Capitals: 

Last 3 Seasons: Fancy Stats for Washington Capitals
Shots For per 60:0027.7 (20)27.7 (17)27.9 (23)
Shots Against per 60:0029.1 (14)31.0 (26)31.2 (25)
Shots on Goal Differential per 60:00-1.4 (19)-3.3 (25)-3.3 (27)
Corsi For per 60:0052.9 (18)53.5 (15)53.3 (19)
Corsi Against per 60:0055.4 (19)56.4 (22)56.2 (20)
Corsi Differential per 60:00-2.5 (18)-2.9 (21)-2.9 (23)
Fenwick For per 60:0038.6 (20)38.7 (16)39.0 (21)
Fenwick Against per 60:0040.1 (12)41.0 (18)42.2 (24)
Fenwick Differential per 60:00-1.5 (17)-2.2 (19)-3.2 (26)

The Corsi and Fenwick statistics show the Capitals have gotten progressively worse in terms of puck possession. That's a disturbing trend, because no matter how you analyze the data generated by this sport, three basic principles of hockey will always hold true:

  1. A team cannot score if it does not possess the puck. 
  2. A team cannot win games if it does not score. 
  3. A team cannot become champion if it does not win games. 

With these three principles in mind, do all the negative statistics dictate the Capitals must undergo a complete rebuild? 

That is an unlikely scenario, but something is definitely broken. Trust and believe Leonsis did not gut his team before the cancelled season of 2004-05 only to have the rebuilt version miss the playoffs ten years later, especially after winning the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy only four years earlier. 

Compounding the lack of tangible results and the possibility of missing the playoffs altogether is the fact Leonsis' team has not come cheap. According to CapGeek.com, Washington has the eighth-highest payroll in the NHL, with only $38,830 of cap space. Leonsis needs a better return on his investment. 

At a time like this, the Capitals must "run away from experts that say, 'We are just one player away,'" to once again use Leonsis' words against him. 

How convenient it is, then, that oft-criticized general manager George McPhee is up for a contract extension this summer. If the Capitals miss the playoffs, Leonsis would have almost no other alternative than to let McPhee go after 17 years of holding the position. 

That would be a major decision for Leonsis. McPhee has done a lot for this franchise, including overseeing the franchise's only trip to the Stanley Cup Final as well as its lone Presidents' Trophy. McPhee's accomplishments and length of tenure can also be demonstrated by viewing the 106 trades he has completed while in Washington, all of which were recently chronicled by Capitals' blog Japer's Rink (as of March 5 at 12 p.m. ET). 

A review of McPhee's most recent trades reveals he believes the Capitals are "just one player away." The most popular example of just such a deal is of course the Martin Erat-Filip Forsberg trade. But the Jaroslav Halak-Michal Neuvirth trade appears to have been approached with a similar mindset, as do others on that list. By Leonsis' own admission, an "expert" who holds this viewpoint and makes these types of deals is one the Capitals should avoid at all costs. 

Additionally, McPhee seems to be deluded about the Capitals' issue with puck possession, and by extension, how it affects the team as whole. On March 5, in discussing the acquisition of Halak, McPhee offered up this interesting explanation to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post:

I talked to [Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong] and he actually thinks that Halak is better with more work. We play a system where teams get probably more shots the way we play but most of them are from the outside, we’ll allow those. In some ways that might be better for this particular goaltender. 

More important than McPhee's philosophy on how many shots his team can safely allow is the fact he must be held responsible for the failures this team has experienced during his tenure.

On March 12, Bleacher Report NHL National Lead Writer Dave Lozo published a thorough examination of how the Capitals became such a mess. Here is one particularly cogent passage:

A once dynamic team has now been reduced to a squad that doesn't look like a good bet to reach the playoffs in a watered-down Eastern Conference. It has to do with a lot of things, perhaps the biggest of which was firing Boudreau in November 2011 after management made him change his coaching style, one that has worked wonders with the Anaheim Ducks the past two seasons.

In an ironic twist of fate, head coach Adam Oates and the Capitals played Boudreau and the Ducks on March 18, as I was completing this article. This was Washington's second meeting with Anaheim this season and the first since Boudreau achieved another impressive career milestone. On Feb. 28, Boudreau became the fastest coach in modern NHL history to earn his 300th win, according to the team's website

After that game, Boudreau deflected the personal accolades and focused on his team's priorities, via Twitter: 

When Boudreau left Washington in 2011, he was just happy to get a fresh start.  

On Jan. 19, 2012—about two months after Boudreau had been fired by the Capitals and hired by the Ducks in the same week—Carrera of The Washington Post wrote:

Here in Southern California, Boudreau has found an opportunity to take what he learned from his first stint as an NHL coach and apply it. He was able to return to trusting his own instincts, which the 57-year-old acknowledged he questioned toward the end of his tenure with the Capitals.

In that same article, Boudreau added that “a head coach needs to be doing what he believes is right. I don’t know why I got away from it, because everything I had done was right—or it worked." 

The same can be said for the organization that let him go on Nov. 28, 2011. Now, more than three years later and still in search of their first Stanley Cup, the Capitals must rediscover their methods and return to doing what they believe is right. 

The sobering reality of missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years will expedite that process. A scenario that would seem devastating for Washington Capitals fans can actually motivate their favorite team to enact changes that will improve the franchise's future. 

In other words, the Capitals must take a hit to make a play. 


Note: All statistics updated through March 18 courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.