Monday, March 10, 2014

Evgeny Kuznetsov Is Finally On U.S. Soil

"If you good hockey player it doesn't matter where you play, big ice, small ice," Kuznetsov said, adding that he has experience playing all three forward positions. "I'm ready to play hard hockey. I'm not scared."
With much fanfare and after, what, four years of waiting, Evgeny Kuznetsov is finally on U.S. soil and both ready and willing to play for the Washington Capitals for these critical last 17 games of the season. During that time, the Caps will try to make up the point that holds them out of the playoffs and hope like hell the teams ahead of them don't pick up any extra points with their games in hand.

The thing is, there would be reason to suspect the Caps wouldn't be able to make the playoffs even if they currently occupied a position which would enable them to do so. However, they do not. They are, in fact, 10th in the East. And while it's dumb to play the “What if the shootout didn't exist?” game — as the shootout does unfortunately continue to exist — the Caps have picked up eight of their 30 wins in this gimmick competition, second in the league behind only the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are likewise not very good.

This at least tells us a lot about where the team actually stands in legitimate NHL games: Not highly.

But the problem with this notion that Kuznetsov, by all accounts a premium prospect who's very capable already of contributing at the NHL level, is going to fix what's wrong with the Caps really only lends credence to the nonsense logic behind George McPhee's trade deadline transactions.

For starters, this is a team that isn't very good in possession, coming in 23rd out of 30 in corsi with the score close (48.6 percent). This is lower than other notably bad teams like the Hurricanes, Predators, Jets, and Islanders. One could suggest that adding Kuznetsov, a good offensive player, helps in this regard, as does tacking on Dustin Penner, whose corsi share (albeit on a much better team than the Capitals) is north of 50 percent, but only barely. The problem, though, is that the Caps aren't exactly wanting for offense; they're 14th in the league in shot attempts (1,733) which isn't great but it's something, and they're not exactly shooting poorly, at 7.4 percent, tied for 17th. Much of that, though, is down to the season enjoyed by Alex Ovechkin, as one might expect, and so any additional goals those two might provide couldn't, by definition, hurt.

But it's also not the Caps' area of greatest need. Seemingly to that end, McPhee went out and acquired — for the price of Rostislav Klesla and Michal Neuvirth — a pretty decent goalie in Jaroslav Halak who could, in a reasonable scenario, platoon with Braden Holtby for the rest of the season. Except that Neuvirth had a .914 save percentage with the Capitals this season, slightly better than league average, and Halak brings a .917 from a much better team, so you'd say perhaps that the difference is negligible.

So the team's real problem then, and obviously, is the fact that it bleeds possession because it cannot defend. They are, in fact, 22nd in the league in shot attempts against at 1,830, and the addition of two forwards and a goaltender does nothing to address this issue; John Carlson and Karl Alzner are indisputably their two best defensemen, but at the same time they're being devoured by the top-quality players they face. Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov have both been serviceable but play favorable zone starts and soft competition, beyond that, the D is a hodgepodge of guys you've never heard of and guys you wouldn't want to use on your NHL team. Andrew MacDonald, for instance, might have been something of an upgrade.

The issue, though, is that this isn't like the Penguins trying to get Ryan Kesler and ultimately failing; this is George McPhee not seeing his team's defense as a problem. Upon acquiring Halak and 86ing Neuvirth, he said this to the media: "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." The problem, of course, is that this isn't the case. There's really not all that much from the “outside” in this heat map of the shots Holtby has faced this season. Besides, this is an argument about shot quality, which is problematic, because good teams don't have to make it.

As a general rule, too, teams that say they're playing well despite the fact that they're not even .500 without the shootout, and that being outshot pretty much every night doesn't matter, have a lot more credibility when they're in a playoff spot (and when their PDO is about at equilibrium). You shouldn't expect to see the Capitals there any time soon, either.

More information:
» NHL: After Four-Year Wait, Kuznetsov Joins Capitals

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