The similarity between this iteration of Washington Capitals and the probably-best-ever regular-season Tampa Bay Lightning of 2018-19 is obvious on the surface.
The Caps are on a blistering points pace, poised to run away from the pack and win the Presidents’ Trophy, even as the Boston Bruins are on a run able to be held up alongside some of the best ever seen.
Monday night’s loss to a lowly Columbus team included, the Caps are still on a pace for more than 126 points, just shy of what the Bolts put up last season. That’s also slightly more than the Bruins’ roughly 122-point pace, but both those numbers would rank as the Nos. 5 and 7 regular-season point totals in NHL history.
The problem with keeping up those kinds of paces, however, is that every regulation loss, and indeed, every loser point you get in OT or a shootout, knocks you way off the pace. These are almost entirely teams that left something like 40 points on the table over 82 games, and a minor setback, when compared with the giants of history, is actually a major one.
Nonetheless, the Capitals are lingering in the conversation for one perfectly clear reason, much like the Lightning did last year: Elite talent is buoying them. The rumors of the Caps’ window to compete having closed now seem very premature, if understandable at the time. Every great player on the team — and there are quite a few of them even now — is out of his prime. With the exception of Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson, everyone in the top 11 in scoring is 27 or older. Most of the true marquee contributors with the exception of Evgeny Kuznetsov are over 30.
The Lightning’s core is quite a bit younger than all that, but top talent is top talent. Would it be surprising to see the Caps slow down a bit as the season wears on and older bodies take longer to recover? Yeah, sure, but for now we can at least have the conversation about their pace, and understand that all these points — 49 already! — are going to pay off come March and April regardless of how they’re playing.
It’s also worth noting that early on, many of the points they left on the table were because Braden Holtby, who’s 30, looked absolutely cooked. His October save percentage was .888 and it seemed as though there was a legitimate goaltending controversy brewing. He made up that ground and then some in November, though, going almost .930, and reverted back to his career above-average self so far in December (small sample, admittedly). On the balance, he’s been right around the league average, and that’s fine.
But for the most part, the Caps are getting wins because their best players are overperforming. Great players do that, obviously, and Tampa’s did last year. But like that all-time great team, a lot of times the underlying numbers were also underwhelming numbers. They played well enough to win most nights regardless of talent, and that talent was what took them from “pretty good” to “all-time great.”
They are not, for example, in the same ballpark as the Stanley Cup-champion Blues, who battled back from the basement through an elite system that maximized possession time and limited opponents’ looks. They get an enviable-but-not-massive amount of scoring chances; the Caps are seventh in both all-quality and high-quality scoring chances per hour, last year’s Lightning were fifth and 11th, respectively. Both relied on the strong conversion rates on those chances that, again, come with high-end talent.
Even still, both had middling expected-goal advantages that you might not expect from teams with this many good players.
That’s something we have to keep in mind about the importance of talent in this league. The Carolina Hurricanes under Bill Peters, for example, looked elite in Corsi, Fenwick, expected goals and so on but didn’t have the raw talent at either end to turn those great looks or stingy defenses into goal difference. These guys absolutely do, and it’s why PDO can be an overly reductive measure of what we’d call “luck” in selective cases.
So with all this in mind, the Caps (and Bruins, for that matter) absolutely have what it takes to hang around the top of not only this season’s standings, but those of the all-timers as well. It’s a pretty random sport so it would be surprising if they kept up these exact paces, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
And that’s pretty cool.
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