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The Goalie Game

As has been the case for at least the past month or so, murmurs are once again circulating throughout Twitter (ultra-reliable BTW) that the Washington Capitals are at least somewhat interested in acquiring Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller.  This has been generally met with an air of disbelief among fans and writers, and yet, the rumor stays alive.  It doesn't help when your General Manager publicly points out how much better off your team would be if the goaltending was better.  Since I like to tell myself that we, as fans, know less than a GM or a coach, it made me wonder today if maybe I'm not seeing the team performance correctly.  So, I decided to sit down and rewatch every single even-strength goal the Capitals have allowed this season.  Here's what I saw.

Now, before we get into exactly what the tape shows, I know there will be some questions as to my methodology.  So, here it is.  I only looked at even strength goals for a couple of reasons.  The objective reason would be that a power play situation inherently favors the attacking team, as they have an extra player.  More often than not, a goal resulting from a power play has more to do with the extra player than anything the goaltender or the defense does (or doesn't do).  Subjectively, the Capitals are a bad even-strength team.  They could get by with a pad penalty kill if their even-strength play wasn't terrible.

I also was looking for two main points on every goal the Capitals allowed: location and presence of a screen.  Location was specifically meant to quantify goals that came from shots in the slot or deflections.  These two factors should be indicative of the quality of defense in front of the goaltender, as defenders' main jobs (in my opinion) are to force shots from low-scoring areas and to allow the goaltender to see said shot.   What I tried to eliminate from these counts were breakaways and odd-man rush (specifically 2-on-1s).  Goals resulting from those style of rushes tend to come from the slot, but the defense's liability is lower as the breakdown occurred outside of the defensive zone.  Is this a perfect equation?  Probably not, but it should give us better insight than just looking at the goaltender's GAA and save percentage.

So, what did I see?

The Caps' goaltending is getting better, but their defense is another story

Early on this season, we saw some troubling play from the goaltenders (mainly Holtby).  There was Johnny Oduya's game winning goal in the opener.  There was Paul Martin's shot from the point that Holtby didn't blink at.  In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who wouldn't place blame on Holtby for all three of Pittsburgh's even-strength goals in that game.  Then Neuvirth went down with an injury (from stepping on a puck) and Philipp Grubauer joined the team.  Much to the shock of nearly everyone who tracks this team, Grubauer was given the vast majority of the starts over the next month and change.  After juggling all three goaltenders for a couple of weeks, the Caps finally sent Grubauer back down to Hershey and rolled with Holtby and Neuvirth leading into the Olympic break.  And with the exception of a Brandon Dubinsky slap shot from range, they haven't been letting in any bad goals.

And yet, we see the amount of large goal games increasing.  They aren't too far removed from a four-game stretch that saw them give up 4, 5, 3, and 5 respectively.  The answer, at least from my vantage point, is that the defense is losing whatever grip they had on the defensive slot.  Of the 115 goals that I watched today, 36 were goals where the initial shot or deflection took originated in the slot, with another 15 being directly affected by a opposing player screening the goaltender.  That's about half of the goals they have allowed this season (plus two goals that deflected off of a Caps player past the goaltender).  Add to that 9 breakaway goals (including this doozie);  12 odd-man rushes (including this lovely play by the Kaptain); and two goals coming right as the opponent's power play expired.  By my math, that equals 76 of the 115 goals.

Now, it goes without saying that defensive breakdowns happen.  Every team has rough patches.   And not every breakdown is because a player screwed up.  Sometimes, it's just that the offense's game plan was better than the defensive game plan (although that still does not lay blame to the goaltenders).  And all of this argument does not actually point to stellar goaltending, but what it does show is that it is incredibly myopic for this management to think that the problem most in need of fixing is between the pipes.  

Is Ryan Miller better than either of the goaltender currently vying for the #1 spot?  Absolutely.  Ryan Miller is one of the best goaltenders in the world.  He probably would have started for any other team in the Olympics (maybe not Russia).  And twice this season Caps fans have seen up close and personal how Ryan Miller is capable of stealing game for his team.  Now, imagine the price that it would cost the Caps to bring him here.  It goes without saying it would cost either Neuvirth or Holtby for starters.  I'd argue it could cost one of the Caps top prospects as well (maybe Kuznetsov?).  And for what?  Even if it gets the Caps to the playoffs, you can't honestly believe this team can advance far with the likes of Pittsburgh or Boston.  And either way, Ryan Miller is a free agent this summer who will demand upwards of $7 million/season.  That would basically eat up all the new space the NHL is alloting so they still can't fix their defense.  Or they just let him walk (a la Huet) and then they've lost a lot for nothing.  

Filed in: | F Street Faithful | Permalink
  Tags: braden+holtby, michal+neuvirth, philipp+grubauer, ryan+miller, washington+capitals


Slumpy's avatar

Caps got Grubauer too so trading for Miller would be foolish. This team needs to start loading up on decent defenseman.

Posted by Slumpy from Under My Wheels on 02/25/14 at 04:08 PM ET

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Welcome to the home of the F Street Faithful, run by Matthew Tate.  This is a go-to blog for all things related to the Washington Capitals.  The F Street Faithful is 5% news and 95% breaking down the news.

In the past I have written for several other sports blogs as well as the college newspaper while at  York College of Pennsylvania.  I am a graduate of York College of Pennsylvania but am based out of Southern Maryland. 

You can follow me on twitter @FStreetTate but I must warn that I do tweet about more than hockey. You can also e-mail me at any time at overtheboard@gmail.com.