The Washington Capitals have become a wildly successful team off the ice with 83 straight home sellouts, significantly increased television ratings in the Washington and Baltimore areas, and a recently completed HBO special (24/7) that showed off the game of hockey like nothing ever seen before. They also have an extremely marketable club led by superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Despite all of the fanfare, however, this franchise will be judged this season on the one thing it does not currently possess: a Stanley Cup.
Owner Ted Leonsis is on record as stating that this season will be evaluated strictly on achieving that goal and general manager George McPhee told those assembled at Media Day prior to the season opener that the regular season didn’t matter much to him, and that this year was all about a long playoff run. The period from October to early April is no longer about scoring records or individual awards or even Southeast Division titles. In short, the organization has learned from past spring failures that the regular season doesn’t buy you any post season guarantees, however, the process that occurs leading up to it can determine how far you go when things really count in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So with those thoughts in mind, it is time to present my fourth annual Caps mid-season grades and analysis blog. It is all about the Stanley Cup, that is the bar set by the owner, so the analysis of the team and the individual player grades will be focused totally on expectations and where they are in the process of maximizing their potential to win it all in June. From a team standpoint we will look at the on ice product and club composition in the analysis while from a player perspective, each grade will be based on what was expected from them this year.
The Capitals have hit the midpoint of their 2010-11 regular season with a 23-12-6 record (52 points) and are just two points off of the pace of the 2009-10 squad that went on to win the Presidents’ Trophy. That Eastern Conference number one seeded team reeled off 14 straight victories during that final 41 game stretch but were bounced out of the post sesason in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. When asked by The Washington Post back in October to provide my three keys to the Capitals season, with the playoff loss to the Habs still fresh in my mind, I listed the following:
1. Health: The team needs to avoid major injuries heading into and during the post season.
2. Balanced Scoring: Get output from multiple lines instead of just primarily from the unit with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
3. Special-Teams Play: Improve on the one goal PP playoff performance and correct a penalty kill that ranked in the bottom third of the league.
So far this team has had some minor injuries and illnesses, but fortunately no major ones to date. Mike Green has battled a sore shoulder and bad knee, Backstrom has dealt with the flu and a bum ankle, and we just learned today that the Great #8 received a cortisone shot to deal with what Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau called “a lingering issue.” These aren’t season jeopardizing ailments, however, it would be good for the organization if the team was in better health than in past years when mid-April rolls around. Those three guys, Green, Backstrom, and Ovechkin, are the most critical to Washington’s Stanley Cup chances from a health standpoint.
When it comes to the second two items, there are still some substantial issues. On the special teams front, the team has drastically improved their penalty killing unit, which was a major weakness in the regular season and playoffs in 2009-10. The Capitals, by being more aggressive, shortening the shifts, upgrading their defense and goaltending, and using more players on the shorthanded unit, have gone from 25th in the NHL at a 78.8% success rate to 4th overall (85.4%), WOW! This has been a big factor in the team improving its overall defense and the goals against average per game has dropped from 2.77 (16th in NHL) to 2.54 (8th in NHL) this season. So if the old saying, “Defense wins championships” still holds true, the Caps have a chance based on that alone.
On the flip side, the offense has taken a nose dive going from first in the NHL notching 3.82 goals a game down to 2.88 per contest (11th in NHL). A big reason for that is the problematic power play, which was 1st in the league at 25.2% in 2009-10 but has fallen to 13th overall (18.5%) this season. Another major factor for the drop in production has been the second line center position. It has been a rotating one with Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Tomas Fleischmann getting the bulk of the opportunities to seize that role in the first 41 games. Fleischmann is gone, he was traded to Colorado for defenseman Scott Hannan and right now, it is Perreault’s job with Johansson occupying the third line center slot. Simply put, the 2010-11 solution to the 2nd line center does not appear to have been found yet.
Boudreau said his club essentially become a one line team in the post season last year and so far the first half of 2010-11 has continued to back that claim up. In addition, the team still has a habit of firing lots of shots at the opposition with a low return, much like in their opening round loss to Montreal. This crew of forwards still has a number of skaters who do not want to pay the price to score the type of goals that win post season games. So either the current players need to step up and start doing that or some of them will need to be moved out because the lack of offense will end up costing this team again, like it did last spring, if the current trend continues.
Now on to the individual player grades, which are based on the expectations for each at the start of the season (after the opening night roster was announced):
Top of the Class: A level
Michal Neuvirth (A): The 2006 2nd round draft pick was expected to be the backup goaltender, and he will likely still end up that way come playoff time, but due to some injury issues with Semyon Varlamov, #30 found himself as the #1 netminder and played extremely well for a player in his first full season in the NHL. Neuvirth started 24 games, went 14-6-3 and had a .911 save percentage. The two-time Calder Cup champion is a fierce competitor who should never be counted out.
John Carlson (A): The 2010 hero for Team USA in the World Junior Championships is also playing his first full campaign in the NHL after coming up from Hershey for the last quarter of the season and playoffs in 2009-10. The soon to be 21 year old has not only played well, but the rookie is 2nd in ice time to only Green on defense! He is also tied for the team lead in +/- at +11. He certainly does not play like a rookie.
John Erskine (A): If I told you that #4 would be 3rd on the team in goals scored by Caps blueliners at the midway point, you probably would have suggested I go take a drug test. Erskine has three goals and 6 assists and is +3 in 38 games. He provides real toughness in the lineup and his skating ability appears to have improved from past seasons. He deserved the recent two year contract extension (reportedly $3M total) he received from Washington.
Honor Society: B level
Karl Alzner (B+): Once King Karl was consistently paired with Carlson, both players have been peforming at the A level. #27, in his first full season in the NHL, is starting to expand his game to include more physical play and an increased presence in the offensive zone. The 2007 NHL lottery pick, 5th overall, is proving to be a top 4 d-man. He is +5 for the season, but +8 in his last nine games.
Semyon Varlamov (B+): Varly is 7-4-2 with a phenomenal .928 save percentage, and that includes the 7-0 drubbing he took behind a shaky blue line in New York in December. The only complaint with #1 is his durability and he is likely the next guy after 8, 19, and 52 that must be healthy for this team come playoff time.
Brooks Laich (B): #21 has 8 goals and 16 assists and is tied with Carlson at +11. He works hard and is one of the few guys on the team that goes to the net. However, given his penchant for crashing the cage, he should have more tallies.
Jay Beagle (B): #83 wasn’t even on the opening night roster but in his nine games up with the Caps they are 5-1-3. He has 2 goals, both game winners, and he has been really good on the penalty kill.
Jeff Schultz (B): Washington’s losing streak almost totally coincided with Sarge fracturing his hand, is that pure coincidence? I think not. When #55 went out, Hannan was forced into a new role with Green and it took those two players several games to figure each other out. The Caps record with the double nickel in the lineup is 20-9-3. He is +5 overall.
Matt Bradley (B): Heart & Soul player who has nine points in 29 games, not bad for a 3rd/4th liner. The Professor brings the intangibles every night. If only we could look up the Caps record when he bleeds for his teammates, because that has got to be one heavily in favor of the Capitals, eh?
Matt Hendricks (B-): Another lunch pail guy who will stick up for his teammates or try and change the game with a fight or big hit. Considering he came to camp without a contract and has four goals and seven assists in 39 games plus 68 PIMs, the club should be pleased. #26 needs to improve on that -5 rating, though.
Mathieu Perreault (B-): MP85 wasn’t on the opening night roster and has only played 14 games after spending most of the season in Hershey. He continues to have some amazing games and others where he disappears. When he is on, he plays bigger than his dimensions, but at 5 goals and 2 assists in 14 games that production level won’t cut it as a #2 center.
Dave Steckel (B-): Leads the NHL in faceoff percentage at 63.7% and routinely takes key defensive zone draws for Boudreau, especially when Washington is shorthanded. Many nights he has looked like the #39 who had a career season in 2008-09. He’s scored four goals and added four assists and he is a -4, those stats can all improve.
Boyd Gordon (B-): Once again slowed by injury problems but the Caps won the first 10 games he played in this season and were 13-1-2 in his first 16 tilts. Overall they are now 13-6-3 with #15 in the lineup. He scored his only tally in St. Louis but it was the game winner. Has three assists and is -1.
Average Joes: C level
Braden Holtby (C+): Given Varlamov’s injury history I expected Braden to get a call up at some point this season but not play so many games in such a short period. The 2008 draft pick started hot, winning his first two tilts (Boston and Philadelphia), but then lost in OT to Buffalo and was bad in Atlanta and New Jersey. In both of those games he played poorly early and the team struggled as a result. He has a lot of work to do to make it at the NHL level but I like the way he’s gone back to Hershey and kept a good attitude. He has shutouts in his last two starts in the AHL.
Nicklas Backstrom (C): He is close to a point a game with 11 goals and 26 assists in 41 games and is winning 53.1% of his face-offs. At +7 he remains a solid two way player. He does have 4 power play markers but I’d really like to see him shooting more often when the team has the man advantage to keep the defense honest.
Mike Green (C): #52′s offensive numbers are down (7 goals, 11 assists in 34 games) and a big part of that is the team’s struggling power play. However, he continues to be among the leaders in ice time at over 26 minutes a game and his defensive zone play has improved recently.
Scott Hannan (C): After coming over from Colorado and being thrust into a new system plus playing extra minutes due to Schultz’s injury, #23 struggled badly in his first eight games with Washington going -9. But in the last seven games he is +3 and has been rock solid as Green’s d-partner. If Hannan continues to play the way he is right now the trade that brought him over will look like a steal when it is all said and done. This is the type of player on the back end that Washington has been missing, especially in the post season.
Mike Knuble (C): Started slow then suffered a fractured jaw but is beginning to heat up. He has only 9 goals in 38 contests and that number must go up for the Caps to have success in the second half and the post season. His speech after the first period in Boston was likely a season turning one. Great leadership there from the veteran.
Eric Fehr (C): 7 goals in 38 games is not the scoring pace the team was hoping for from the former 1st round NHL draft pick. #16, who was the star of the Winter Classic, needs to find some consistency. In the last several games he is starting to get more scoring chances and Fehr attributes that to better health. Go to the net!
Alexander Semin (C): For the first 20 or so games #28 was among MVP of the league discussions. After the last 13 games, in which he has scored 0 goals and looked disinterested on many occassions, the “trade Semin” contingent has gotten louder and louder. 18 goals in 38 games is close to a 40 goal season pace but given the 13 game drought, who knows what we’ll get from the winger from here on out in a contract year for the Russian? Would he be better with a real 2nd line center? Definitely, but if he showed more heart, grit, and determination he could rise above that and really help this team get where it wants to go.
Andrew Gordon (C): Hershey call up played eight games and scored his first NHL goal. He hasn’t received much ice time and needs to continue to improve his skating if he wants to play in “The Show.”
Alexander Ovechkin (C-): So who kidnapped the Great #8 for the last 23 games (only 4 goals)? Is he playing hurt? Is he pacing himself or saving any new offensive moves for the playoffs? Whatever the case may be, this is not the same player we saw the last three regular seasons or playoffs. He has only 2 power play goals on a unit that night after night continues to force him the puck at the point. His passing has improved and he is +10 so it is not like he’s costing his team in his own end, although he can still improve his d-zone point coverage. If his game doesn’t pick up in time for the playoffs, everyone can get their golf clubs out early again.
Jason Chimera (C-): The speedy winger is -6 and only has five goals despite playing in all 41 games. There is no reason why he should not be scoring more. His penalty killing work has been very impressive.
Marcus Johansson (C-): When the Caps drafted MJ90 in 2009 an NHL scout from another team told me that he was a good player and projected him as a 3rd line center. The young Swede is playing his first season in North America on the smaller ice and he has had some great games but mostly he has struggled, especially in the face off circle where he is near the bottom of league (38.1%). Has only 7 points in 28 games and that doesn’t cut it for a guy who has gotten some power play time. I think eventually he will be a solid NHLer, but right now, when the game gets below the circles, his youth and lack of size show up too much.
Brian Fahey (C-): Didn’t play much when called up and looked lost on several shifts in his early games in the NHL. Still, in the 7 contests he suited up for Washington they went 5-2, although he was really bad in the 7-0 loss to the Rangers (but a lot of other guys were too).
Tyler Sloan (C-): 1 goal and 5 assists in 19 games is not bad for a fill in blue liner, but the -4 is not good at all given the limited amount of ice time he has had.
Not Making the Grade: D Level
Tom Poti (D): #3 has dealt with a number of different injuries but given his salary ($3.5M) he was expected to do a lot more. In his 19 games of limited action he has two goals, 5 assists and is -2.
DJ King (D): 8 games played, 3 fights, and a -2. He was touted as a guy who could come in and help make the players feel safer but his play was so poor that he is too much of a risk to put in the lineup.
Coaches (B): The team is still among the top clubs in the NHL, even with an 0-6-2 run, and luckily they’ve had 8-0-1 and 5-0-2 streaks to offset that bad stretch in December. On the positive side of the coaching ledger, the penalty kill improvement has been amazing plus the implementation of the neutral zone trap to the toolkit should yield dividends in the post season. However, a huge negative has been a terrible power play that continues to do the same things that resulted in a 1 for 34 rate in the Montreal series last spring. The offense has disappeared and if they don’t get that on track then they will lose first round again, no matter who they play. The bad news is that despite the recent 5-0-2 run, the team is struggling to score like it did in games five through seven of the 2010 post season and that is why they lost that series, not because of their own defense or goaltending. The coaches need to do their part to help the offense and power play but personnel changes, from the GM, are needed as well.
General Manager (B): The move to add Hannan was an outstanding one despite #23′s initial struggles. The Erskine extension was smart but resigning Poti so early in the season was a bit puzzling given his age and health issues. McPhee has positioned himself to be able to make the acquisition(s) he will likely need to get this team very deep into the playoffs with his salary cap management and organizational depth. The club has top prospects in Evgeny Kuznetsov (C), Dmitri Orlov (D), Cody Eakin (C), and Patrick Wey (D) in the system along with draft picks or other players listed above that could be moved to get that much needed second line center or another scorer. I would venture to say that Kuznetsov is untouchable, since he projects as the future #2 center, but any of the others could be moved if the price is right.
In summary, the Caps have a quality hockey team but after 41 games it is apparent that they have work to do if they want to win the Stanley Cup. There are holes on this team and they reside up front. When the playoff games become tight checking, grind it out tilts, the Caps aren’t going to be able generate the pressure and punish the opposing defensemen with their current roster up the middle. The defense and the goaltending are definitely in very good shape, assuming Varlamov stays healthy. A veteran goalie could be brought in for insurance given the injury history of the young goalies, if the team wants to be extra cautious. McPhee knows that other teams are going to do their best to better themselves. Does anyone really think that Penguins GM Ray Shero is going to go into the post season with his current set of wingers? Definitely not, so given the cap space and the assets he possesses, McPhee needs to work the phones and get the top six forward or two he needs to help the Capitals win their first Stanley Cup.