Washington Capitals and the Presidents' Trophy (Trending Topics)

Washington Capitals and the Presidents' Trophy (Trending Topics)

The Washington Capitals have already locked up the Presidents' Trophy, which a lot of people still inexplicably poo-poo as somehow not being all that impressive a feat.

Loser point or not, weird ways to determine a winner or not, the Caps sit at 109 points after 72 games, which is a bananas number no matter which way you choose to look at it. That's a pace for more than 124 points, a number that would effectively tie what the Red Wings did in 2005-06. However, that's off the pace set by Chicago in the lockout-shortened season a few years ago, when they finished with 77 in 48, which might have translated to nearly 132 in 82.

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And already, there seems to be plenty of fretting that despite clinching the Presidents' Trophy with more than 10 games to go, this is somehow a team that's not equipped for a deep playoff run. Mainly, that seems to be paranoia stemming from “This is the Capitals we're talking about!” memories of 2009-10 and so on. But the thing is, if you win the Presidents' Trophy, you're far more likely to win the Stanley Cup than if you finish at any other seed, Nos. 2-16. Two regular-season champions have gone on to win the Cup since the implementation of the shootout, and another lost (rather famously) in the Cup Final. 

In general, your ability to win the most games out of 82 should understandably be a fairly good predictor of success in a three-month run during which you need to win 16 out of a maximum 28. There are very teams to win the Presidents' Trophy recently who you could even remotely criticize as not being particularly impressive. Maybe last year's New York Rangers, a marginally effective possession team propped up by Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot, are the only ones that approach that level. They never gave you much of a reason to think they were all that great, but the goaltending was good enough that you had to acknowledge that, come what may, they'd give literally anyone in the league a fight. 

Of course, when it comes to really breaking down which recent Presidents' Trophy winner was the best, we are a bit limited by the data available. It's only since 2007-08 that on-ice event tracking got to the current level (this is the Behind The Net Era), but that still gives you eight previous winners to look at in the most modern version of the NHL.

The easiest way for some people to break it down is by points per-game and goal differential. That's easy enough. These are the results of what should theoretically be an elite-level process, because goals are what you need to both cause and prevent to win, and wins are what you need to win the hardware here.

Via Ryan Lambert
Via Ryan Lambert

As you can see, the Caps are a dominant team in terms of winning and losing games, but more middle of the pack in terms of the amount of goals by which they win those games. Some of that is due to the narrowing number of goals being scored league-wide, and none of this is to say that if you're “only” scoring 0.85 more goals than your opponents every night, you're doing something wrong. But it is worth noting that these guys in some ways appear not to be as good as even the previous Washington team to win the Presidents' Trophy. Other issues, like the current Metro being a tougher division than the Southeast in 2009-10, might also play a role here.

But again, that's just a luck thing to some extent; what's interesting is that the Sharks team in 2008-09 probably should have been a lot better than it was in overall goal differential, but it had a PDO of just 98.9 at 5-on-5, and only had the 20th-best shooting percentage in all situations over the course of the season. This was a team with Joe Thornton in his absolute prime, so that's very, very hard to do. I'd probably call it bad luck, but it certainly cost them a decent number of points regardless of the cause. 

Point is, though, that despite the huge number of points these Caps teams are putting up, there's not really much here that makes you think they're any sort of ultra-exceptional team. But what about when you examine how they actually play the game over the course of thousands of minutes, and leave things like bad or good bounces out of the equation?

Via Ryan Lambert
Via Ryan Lambert

Here, it seems the Caps are once again pretty much middle-of-the-pack, but less so than above. Not a great possession team, and firmly in the middle of the other Presidents' Trophy winners. At this point there probably isn't too much of an opportunity to move the needle in the right direction, especially because the Caps are now having a bit of a crisis of confidence about their own play.

And indeed, if we look at things through the lens of how well they “should be” playing (using expected goals-for data from Corsica), we can see that the Caps are not only in the neighborhood of elite teams in this group, but also in the NHL this year as a whole. Of the 270 team seasons since 2007-08, the Caps' current expected goals-for percentage of 50.9 is 107th, in the top half but not convincingly so. That number is also the third-lowest among Presidents' Trophy winners, ahead of both Vancouver seasons. 

Meanwhile, though, their actual goals-for percentage of 57.4 is fourth among all Presidents' Trophy winners and seventh of 270 overall, one spot ahead of that phenomenal, everyone-should-try-to-play-like-this Wings team from 2008-09.

Via Ryan Lambert
Via Ryan Lambert

Basically, these Caps are fairly lucky to be where they are. Most Presidents' Trophy winners tend to be lucky to some extent, They're a good team, but certainly punching above their weight. Many are both lucky and good. And while part of the Caps' success is clearly talent-based — they have good forwards, a well-executed system that limits quality opportunities, and a very good goalie — no one's talent level is that significant to continue to outperform expected goals-for like that on a consistent basis. 

What's worrying for the Caps is that their expected goals-for of 50.1 percent is 13th in the league, behind a number of Western juggernauts of course, but also behind Pittsburgh's league-leading number, and Tampa's as well. Their being 13th in the league but third among Eastern Conference playoff teams (Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadiens are all ahead of them too, but awful due to lack of team talent) tells you a lot about the quality of the East in general. Moreover, though, it tells you the Caps have a really, really difficult path to the Cup Final, if they make it that far.

That game earlier this week where the Penguins beat the stuffing out of them isn't exactly a likely outcome every time they meet in the playoffs. However, the data suggests that on the balance, Pittsburgh is a better team. Therefore, the Caps will probably need their luck to continue unabated if they want to have a legitimate shot of winning the Cup. 

If they lose, though, that won't be because they're cursed or bad or anything like that. They also weren't clearly the best in the league. That's true of 29 teams a year. 

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.