The good folks at the web site Behind the Net put together an intriguing post this morning about the Caps’ penalty kill. They crunched the numbers and concluded that unit isn’t near as good as its No. 3 ranking (85.8%). Fair enough. Also takes a shot at my tweet from Friday, which is fine. I don’t mind a little snark for breakfast. Plus, sites like this are invaluable as they sift through mountains of data that help everyone – reporters, fans, league officials – find useful information in the overwhelming numbers of an NHL season. BTN is one of the best.
But in this case I disagree with their analysis. Yes, saying the Caps are going to jump all the way from No. 25 on the PK last season (78.8%) and stay at No. 3 (85.8%) in 2010-11 is extreme. BTN makes it clear you can expect a PK regression and gives a solid reason why – an unsustainable .894 shorthanded save percentage by Washington’s goalies. Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are likely playing over their heads there. But – in my opinion - the writer goes too far when calling the Caps’ goaltending “legitimately below average” and that their PK save percentage can’t “substantially improve” from one year to the next.
Why not? The new system is completely different from last year’s passive PK. It uses a deep group of forwards, attacks aggressively, changes personnel relentlessly and – as BTN notes - has limited PK shots by 2.9 fewer per 60 minutes of play than last season. That doesn’t help improve a goalie’s save percentage? Not to mention adding defenseman Scott Hannan via trade and using Karl Alzner and rookie John Carlson full time. Washington now has six defensemen with 2 minutes, 4 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game or greater. Last year only four saw that much ice time on the PK. One of them - Shaone Morrisonn - is gone and last year’s PK leader, Tom Poti, is in a reduced role thanks to 22 games missed to injury.
Later in the comments section of the post, BTN’s writer claims there is no evidence that shot quality has any real effect on save percentage. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence? Conventional wisdom isn’t always right, of course. Statistical advances in baseball have long proved this. But a shot from the point with little traffic in front and a forward hounding you seems different than a one-timer in the slot. I’d love to learn more about that. I’m certainly not averse to changing my opinion. But in baseball we have people charting each play in every MLB game now and using that to devise better defensive metrics. Do NHL games get the same treatment with regard to shot quality? Maybe they do. I’m just asking the question.
Neuvirth’s numbers (.911 save percentage, 2.56 goals-against average) have obviously slipped since his fine October (NHL rookie of the month). That .911 save percentage is exactly where Jose Theodore finished last season in 47 games - 23rd overall. But Varlamov has a .928 save percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average. I’ll throw out his high rankings because that’s through just 15 games. But he’s shown flashes of this kind of play before. Using Braden Holtby’s five games – a young AHL goalie whose numbers (.845 save percentage) in Washington were poor during a stint earlier this season - BTN stretches its argument. If the idea is that the Caps’ PK will regress in the future it’s hard to see how including the third-string goalie is valid. Hey – I’ll admit if Holtby is recalled those PK numbers could plummet. How likely is that?
As for the assertion that I’m “making a big deal out of a small sample size”, yes, 67-of-76 since Nov. 24 is hardly a complete picture. But that stretch does encompass 20 games – basically one-quarter of an entire season – and Washington’s 85.8% overall kill rate is through 42 games. I do think a 145-for-169 PK is a pretty significant sample size.
Anyway, it’s odd to get the “sample size” argument thrown at me when BTN uses 5-on-3 luck (.938 save percentage) as another reason the PK will dip dramatically. The Caps are 8-for-9 killing 5-on-3s, right? They’ve been down two men for exactly 8 minutes, 54 seconds this season. That, my friends, is the epitome of a small sample size. Four of those two-man disadvantages have been 53 seconds or less. Two were less than 30 seconds. The Caps just don’t go down two men often enough for it to matter. It last happened on Dec. 9.
But in the end, the only real problem I had with BTN’s post was this statement:
“Forget that he's making a big deal out of a small sample size. Something I find really funny is that reporters can't seem to tell when NHL coaches speak the absolute truth. There's no question that Washington has been getting lucky at 4-on-5…”
I might be wrong on everything else. I’ll admit it if I am. We learn new things all the time, obviously, and sites like BTN are helping increase that knowledge base. But I can’t let that one slide. Let’s not pretend Bruce Boudreau was talking about luck on Friday night as if he had crunched the numbers and knew the PK save percentage was far too high and that the PK apocalypse is near.
Anyone around him every day knows Boudreau is pathologically superstitious. More likely he believes there is literally a group of hockey gods watching these games just waiting to turn the tide on his team. Boudreau knocks on wood at least twice a week when questioned about anything from a hot scorer to a winning streak. So, no, I don’t buy that he is telling me something and I just don’t want to listen. Boudreau might think this recent patch of PK success is luck. But not for the reason BTN thinks. And he'd never agree that the team's overall PK rate is unsustainable. Maybe not top 3. Top 10? Top 12? He'd be distraught if it fell much lower than that at this point. Anyway, nothing personal here. I enjoy the site and we can all agree that the PK resurgence has been one of the fascinating aspects of this season for the Caps. We’ll see if it continues.
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