In the 2017-18 season, the Washington Capitals finished dead last in the NHL in shots on goal. While the modern wave of analytics stressed possession as measured by shot attempts, the Caps bucked that trend and elected to focus more on generating high-quality shots even if it meant shooting less. The result was a lot of frustrated fans, but 3.12 goals per game -- good for 9th in the NHL -- and a Stanley Cup.
Since the 2017-18 season, however, the offensive mindset in Washington has changed and that is evident by how much the defense has been involved in the offense this season.
“When you get more pucks on net, it's more chances you're going to get to score,” Dmitry Orlov said.
That represents a significant mindset change from the team just one year ago.
“It doesn't make a ton of sense for me to take a wrist shot from the blue line if there's not a screen,” Matt Niskanen said in October 2018. “Maybe one out of 300, 400 is going in, especially with my shot. You can shoot to create if there's traffic around and stuff, but just in general, shooting just to shoot isn't a good philosophy I don't think. That kind of gets lost in the analytics crowd. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to just waste it."
But an offensive philosophy that places such a high degree of emphasis on high-danger opportunities limits the offensive role of the defense since defensemen are much less likely to find themselves in those high-danger areas of the ice. Most shots from defensemen are going to be the type Niskanen was referring to.
The team has gradually softened its stance since then which has led to more involvement from the defense and more shots.
In the 2017-18 season, Washington ranked 30th in the NHL with 3,607 shot attempts at 5-on-5. In 2018-19, the team improved to 17th with 3,713 5-on-5 shot attempts. It may be a small sample size just 11 games into the season, but the Caps currently rank 16th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts per game (38.3).
One difference is more perimeter shots including from the blue line.
"We're switching more to shooting the puck whenever you have a chance or a lane," Jonas Siegenthaler said. "A couple years ago, you were always looking for the next play or a green shot."
While Niskanen seemed not to be a fan, the defensemen seem to enjoy the opportunity to try to contribute offensively.
"I like that more, personally," Siegenthaler said. "Pretty sure the guys like it too. If the D gets the puck up on the blue line, if he sees the lane he shoots, we have two guys in front of the net. I think the forwards they like that too. It's never a bad play."
But the main tweak to the offense this season is the emphasis on the defensemen to pinch in the offensive zone. Basically the defensemen are encouraged to move up deeper into the zone and join the attack if they have an opening to do so.
"Our style of defense is taking time and space, be hard on people," Michal Kempny said. "You can now short in on the short side, like pinching. It's kind of a little change instead of least season, but I think we are getting more and more comfortable every game and just keep it up."
This change led to Kempny, a player who previously had scored only 11 goals in his NHL career, scoring a goal in his first game after returning from injury. It also is a factor in John Carlson’s offensive surge to start the season. Even a player like Siegenthaler can often be found deep in the zone joining the attack.
"The whole system is more aggressive," Siegenthaler said. "I think somehow it kind of translates to the D-men. You're always moving so you're not afraid to join the rush or go up to the play with the forwards."
"It's a little bit of our aggressive mindset that you've heard me discuss from the beginning of the year," head coach Todd Reirden said at practice Saturday. "As opposed to major, major systematic adjustments, a lot of it's been our mindset. Yeah, there's been some tweaks and some different things there, but it's something that we're able to do this year. ... I think we've kept pucks alive a lot more in the offensive zone and our D are in a spot where they're able to help with keeping those pucks alive."
This philosophy is not without risk. Whenever a defenseman moves up it can leave the team more vulnerable to a quick breakout or counter attack. The players have to be in constant communication so the forwards know when someone has to move back to the blue line in order to compensate for a defenseman moving up.
"We have to have a forward back to cover for them," Reirden said. "I think our forwards have done a really good job of, when our D have been active, of covering for them. It's not perfect yet, but it's something that we're working on. We've obviously given up a couple goals along the way through the learning process of trying to be a little bit more aggressive in that way, but I think the benefits for me outweigh the negatives right now."
The Caps’ began to shift their philosophy last season with more shots on goal. This year, they incorporated a larger offensive role for the defense, one that meshes well with the team’s more aggressive mindset.
Just 11 games into the season, it seems to be working.
Washington ranks third in the league with 3.73 goals per game while Carlson leads the entire NHL with 20 points.
"We're really playing on our toes more, we're using our skating to be more of a factor keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone," Reirden said, "And then whenever we're able to convert on them, that's always a bonus."
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