Wednesday, July 09, 2008

In Defense Of Jose, The Defense In Front Of Jose

The late 20th century philosopher Kilo Ali famously noted that "The playas gon' play, Them haters gonna hate."

While Ali couldn't have had Jose Theodore in mind when he penned those words of wisdom, they certainly apply - Jose's going to play his game and people are going to criticize him (though I believe you and I have yet to reserve our seats on Le Petit Poulet Bandwagon).

But while how far and in which direction Theodore varies from the median NHL goaltender is of some importance, something that is being widely overlooked is just how good the team defense behind which Theodore will play is becoming.

I mentioned it yesterday, but as no one wanted to wade into the murky statistical waters with me, I'm going to repeat it and expound upon it today: Statistically, the Caps had the best team defense in the Eastern Conference.

If you want to know how this determination is happened upon, take a look at pages 8 through 11 of Allan Ryder's 2008 NHL Review (PDF), but it basically comes down to a combination of shots allowed (the Caps gave up the third fewest in the Conference at 27.5, with a 27.0 average under Bruce Boudreau) and the quality of those shots (the Caps lead the Conference in defensive shot quality; see Ryder at p.8).

The obvious question, then, is "If the team defense was so good, why was the team goals against average so mediocre?" You know the answer to that one - it was the goaltending itself. The Caps got the second worst contribution from its goaltender in the League (see Ryder at p.12). Only Tampa got less from their netminders over the course of the season (Colorado, for the record, was in the middle of the pack, though one of their goaltenders was somewhat better than the other). No goalie in the NHL who played more than 51 games gave up more 5-on-5 goals per sixty minutes of ice time than Olie Kolzig did, and no goalie who played more than 36 games gave up more 4-on-5 goals per sixty than Kolzig (but we're all sure he "can still be a dominant goalie in the NHL.")

So what makes the Caps' team defense so good? A few stats from the forwards jump out:
  • Boyd Gordon made the sixth-largest defensive contribution of any forward in the League. Viktor Kozlov was ninth (thanks to the second-largest even strength contribution of any forward) and David Steckel 16th (see Ryder at p.21).
  • Further to the point on Kozlov, he had the seventh-best 5-on-5 plus/minus on-ice per sixty of any forward in the League (min. 30 games played). You're making a huge mistake if you don't think Kozlov is valuable to this team.
  • The Caps were ninth overall in team faceoff percentage, and if Sergei Fedorov returns, the team will have three pivots who won better than 55% of their draws in 2007-08.
In D.C., the best defense is sometimes a strong offense, and when you throw two (or three?) scoring lines out there with a couple of the best defensive forwards in the game thrown in the mix and an emerging blueline - Mike Green had the sixth-largest overall contribution of any NHL blueliner (see Ryder at p.23), Jeff Schultz is a combined +37 in two professional seasons, Karl Alzner is widely regarded as the top defensive prospect not yet in the NHL... and none of those players is yet 23 years old - you've got the makings of a very good team at both ends of the ice.

Taking all of the above together, two main points emerge. First, Bruce Boudreau gets plenty of credit for his work igniting the Caps' offense (and rightly so), but not nearly enough for his impact on the team's defense - a truly deserving Jack Adams Award winner if there ever was one. The fact that there aren't any individual defensive statistics from the blueliners that jump off the screen as contributing to the team's stout overall defense is a testament to Gabby's defensive scheme.

Second, and this is where Jose Theodore re-enters the blog post, when you consider how good the Caps' team defense was last year (far better, incidentally, than Joel Quenneville's Avalanche team D was) and how atrocious Olie Kolzig was, you can see how a decent (but by no means elite) netminder like Cristobal Huet was able to come in and put up the ridiculous numbers that he did (11-2-0/1.63/.936). This team has the ability - even with its Milan Jurcinas and John Erskines - to make goalies look good.

The bottom line is that with the probable returns to the lineup of defensively responsible forwards Sergei Fedorov and Chris Clark, a year's maturation of the team's young players and a full year of Bruce Boudreau behind the bench, the Caps are poised to become something few would have expected - one of the better defensive clubs in the League. And that can't do anything but help the new guy between the pipes.


The Peerless said...

And this is where another comparison to Pittsburgh bears watching. Pittsburgh became a Cup contender, not because of its offense (however prolific it might be), but because of its defense.

The Penguins improved from 14th overall to 10th in goals-per-game allowed, and they were a much better team in the last two thirds of the season (Fleury had a mediocre start before his injury).

They were second only to Detroit among playoff teams in goals-per-game allowed.

The Capitals are following right behind them.

NS said...

I hope Clark is 100% soon. excited about prospect of Fedorov and Clark returning.

This year's D is going to be interesting to watch, with the probable loss of Pothier and entry of Alzner.

I hope Schulz improved his skating a bit. That would make me stop yelling at my TV so much during games.

Unknown said...

I like that Ryder article...I think it's the first time I've seen that "marginal player" analysis in hockey stats and, much like VORP in baseball, seems like an easily-overlooked but highly impactful statistic.

NS said...

p.s. in total hockey withdrawal. this fuckin sucks.

Anonymous said...

Great read and it does offer food for thought. And everyone (me too) was yelling for a stay at home type free agent to be signed. Is one really needed...?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Tampa even looked at those stats before signing Olie. Then again, I wonder if Florida's version of Batman and Robin even know those kinds of stats exist. What this proves is that with a good/decent goalie (which Theodore is) the Caps can be a defensively superior team. What it should also do is put to rest the lie that Theodore only excelled last season because the Avalanche defense was so stingy. Based on these stats, Theo should actually improve on last year's play because he's joining a better defensive team. No doubt this is causing great angst among the Jose haters out there.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add, great analysis JP.

Anonymous said...

News Flash!! Feds signed for one year at $4 million.

~Mark said...

JP - Awesome work.
Yet again, you rule the blogosphere in Caps Nation!
Now that it looks like Feds will be back for sure, that blend of firepower and defensive responsibility should remain a staple of the 2009 Stanley Cup champions. :-)

Caps Dreamer said...

Great post JP! I looked at those stats yesterday and was a bit amazed at how far the Caps defense had progressed. That offers some hope that they'll be okay with the current goal tending situation. I'm definitely not sold on Theodore (and that's an understatement) but there weren't other options and, at least, he wants to play here.

Anonymous said...

JP -- excellent post. We did have a TON of fluke goals we gave up last year.

Our D will improve. Give them some more time. As the average age is something like 24 (not counting Pothier).

Sonia said...

dammit JP, it's only july. this post made me want hockey NOW!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis, and it certainly makes me very excited for next year.

One thing to keep in mind with these stats though, is that the Caps play in by far the worst division in the NHL. If we had to play Pitt/NYR/Phi/NJ/ instead of FLA/ATL/TB/CAR our stats surely would not be as good.

That being said I do think our team will be a legit contender in the East, and can't wait for the season

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (last post) made a good point about the SE divisional weakness.....

Great read though thanks JP!