It is time for my 3rd annual Washington Capitals mid-season grades and analysis of the players, the coaches, the GM, and the owner. Before we get into individual details it should be noted that this 2009-10 Caps team was the fastest to 50 points in team history. Suprising though is that this squad is three points worse than last year’s at the halfway point. The Caps are 24-11-6 for 54 points while they were 27-11-3 (57 points) at the midpoint last season primarily because of a stellar home record. The 2008-09 Caps were a more inconsistent bunch and that carried over a bit in the 2nd half of the season as the Caps took home 51 points in the final 41 games to finish at a club record 108 points. This year’s team has been much more consistent and has led in the 2nd period or later in 36 of the first 38 games. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s crew is significantly stronger on the road as evidenced by their 12-8-3 away record. You haven’t heard the word “road woes” mentioned at all this season.
As for the analysis, I take into account several factors such as points, plus/minus, face-offs, the player’s role on the team (i.e, 1st line or 4th line) as well as their salary. The NHL is so money driven with the salary cap that everything the team does has to take into account the dollars involved so if I give a 3rd line player a better grade than say a first liner you have to realize that expectations and dollars are factored in.
Alexander Ovechkin (33 GP, 26G, 24A, +18) – Grade = A: If not for missing 6 games due to a shoulder strain and two for a suspension the Great #8 would likely top his 65 goals in 2007-08. If he can stay healthy the rest of the way I see him having a really good shot at capturing all four major trophies in Vegas in June for the second time in his five year NHL career (NHL MVP (Hart), NHL MVP voted by players (Pearson), Most Points (Art Ross), and Most Goals (Richard Trophy)). Some will argue that the Caps were 6-2 while Ovie was out of the line-up and say that shows the team can win without him. I won’t argue that the Caps have a good club without Ovechkin but they are not a great squad and Stanley Cup contender without him. You can point to the 6-2 record without Ovie but three of those wins came against a weak Florida Panthers crew while the two losses were to the NHL’s top team, the New Jersey Devils. Oh by the way, the Caps are 1-0-1 against the Devils with the Great #8, with the one loss coming in the shootout. MVP, MVP, MVP. I say formally give him the “C” since it is his team and he is the real leader.
Nicklas Backstrom (41 GP, 15G, 31A, +14) – Grade = A: One of the best centers in the league and a great passer. #19 scored 11 goals in a red hot December and that should help open things up for Ovechkin and his other teammates going forward. Kills penalties and is so solid along the boards as one of the strongest skaters in the league. About the only thing you can pick at is his overall face-off percentage has slightly dropped from 48.7% last season to 47% in 2009-10 so far. However, recently we’ve seen a few goals for the Caps directly off of Backstrom wins from the dot. Another guy the Caps can not do without.
Alexander Semin (32 GP, 14G, 18A, +10) – Grade = B-: He missed 9 games due to a hand injury but still is at a point a game pace. 14 goals in 32 games looks good but he has five games with two tallies meaning he’s only scored in 9 of the 32 games. Still not bad but with his skill and shot you would think he would be more of a force like he was in the Caps-Flyers playoffs series in 2008 and in the first month of the 2008-09 season when he was NHL Player of the Month. He just received a $6M contract for 2010-11. Still takes the occassional lazy/bad penalty. He also seems to be less physical and stronger on his skates this season. #28 used to be a lot tougher to take off the puck, not sure if that is due to injury or a varying lack of desire. Anyways, #28 is a lightning rod for criticism among members of the fan base and the media, at times, but in most instances it is justified. This guy has a ton of talent and could dominate the league, if he had say, Ovechkin’s passion and focus. He is an important piece of the puzzle but is he critical for a Stanley Cup victory? That is debatable, but I would hope that Semin can put together a strong playoffs and put the talk to rest. His agent Mark Gandler says the best of Semin is yet to come, Caps fans have to hope he is correct.
Brooks Laich (41 GP, 11G, 18A, E) Grade = B+: On paper the point totals look great for a player that can find himself on the third line, at times, but the even plus minus is a bit of a concern. #21 is a good team guy and a leader but lately he is struggling to score notching only a goal and three assists in his last 12 contests. Laich is a hard worker and stand up player. His goal scoring success has come from going to the net and he needs to focus on doing more of that in the second half.
Brendan Morrison (41 GP, 10G, 15A, +12) Grade = B+: Coming into the 2009-10 season 2nd line center was a clear hole on this Caps team and #9 has come in, at a discount rate of $1.5M, and filled that gap. The former Michigan star, who dealt with injury issues the last two seasons in Vancouver, Anaheim, and Dallas, has been a great find by GM George McPhee. Morrison is a leader and fits right in with this squad. Winning 50.5% of his face-offs. The grade would have been an A if not for a two points in 12 game stretch that he is enduring right now. The hope is that the undersized center is not wearing down and just in a lull.
Tomas Fleischmann (30 GP, 14G, 10A, +1) Grade = A-: Missed first 11 games due to a blood clot in his leg and many weren’t sure when he would return and if he would be effective having missed training camp. Well “Flash” came back with a splash scoring 7 goals in his first 9 games upon his return. Then he went six games without a tally before notching 7 lamp lighters in his next 9 games. He currently is on a five game goal scoring drought. #14 has improved his defensive zone play and also kills penalties. At his low cost his numbers are superb, but more consistency would get him to a full excellent grade.
Mike Knuble (29 GP, 7G, 12A, +5) Grade = B-: Signed at $2.8M a year for two seasons to help the Caps ability to storm the crease. For the first 19 games, before breaking his finger, he would have earned an A from me for the way he fit in and was crashing the net. But since he came back from injury he has struggled big time with just two goals and two assists in those 10 games. #22 is another leader and solid team guy but McPhee is paying him to score the ugly goal for the Caps in close games and on the power play.
Eric Fehr (30 GP, 9G, 10A, +10): Grade = B: The former 2003 NHL first round draft pick (18th overall) battled early injuries (that has been the story of his young career so far) but he had a 14 game stretch from 11/7 – 12/7 where he scored seven goals and seven assists and looked more like the player selected ahead of Ryan Getzlaf. However, Fehr seems to have forgotten what was making him successful, shooting the puck and going to the net, over the last 10 games and as a result found himself scratched for Saturday’s loss in the City of Angels. It seems like this is a common theme for several Caps forwards but Boudreau and the team needs to see more consistency from #16.
Matt Bradley (39 GP, 7G, 6A, +4): Grade = A: What more could you want from a fourth liner other than maybe better fighting ability and a body that doesn’t bleed so easily? The popular “Brads” is a good skater and fills his role very nicely. He is willing to sacrifice his body for the team at all times.
Dave Steckel (41 GP, 2G, 3A, -1): Grade = C-: What happened to the guy who played so well in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs? “Stecks” still does a great job on face-offs (winning 61.5% of his draws in 2009-10) but he has been prone to some uncharacteristically bad giveaways on the penalty kill. Five points though is just not good enough, he needs to get it going in the second half for Boudreau and be more than just a great face-off man.
Quintin Laing (24 GP, 2G, 0A, +4): Grade = B: The shot-blocking, body sacrificing forward has done what he has been asked to do. Most remembered for breaking his jaw while blocking a point blast in a Caps win over the Rangers back in November. He kills penalties and works his tail off but his skating ability is just below NHL calibre so I am not sure if he stays up the rest of the way if Boyd Gordon remains healthy.
Mathieu Perreault (18 GP, 2G, 7A, +4): Grade = A-: Before the season I thought the 2006 6th round pick would see just a few games with the big club but that was not the case. #85 came up and was a spark plug for several contests before wearing out with just one point in his last 10 games. The undersized forward has the potential to make it in the NHL and has come a long way up the organization’s depth chart. He just needs to mature physically and get stronger going forward. Hopefully he can do that over the summer and that might get him more NHL games in 2010-11. For now he is just an emergency recall should Boudreau need a center (and he will battle Keith Aucoin for that slot).
Remaining forwards with less than 10 games: Keith Aucoin (9 GP, 1G, 4A, -2), Grade = B-; Jason Chimera (2 GP, 0G, 1A, -1), Grade = Incomplete; Boyd Gordon (9 GP, 0G, 1A, -3), Grade = D; Alexandre Giroux (9 GP, 1G, 2A, +3), Grade = D; Jay Beagle (6 GP, 1G, 1A, -1), Grade = B-; Andrew Gordon (2 GP, 0G, 0A, -2), Grade = D-; Kyle Wilson (2 GP, 0G, 2A, +1), Grade = B+; Boyd Kane (3 GP, 0G, 0A, -1), Grade = D-
Mike Green (40 GP, 10G, 29A, +13) – Grade = A: The 2009 Norris Trohpy finalist is leading all defenseman in scoring and is tied for 5th in plus/minus. He leads the team in ice time and logs over 25 minutes a contest. He is physical and is getting better in his own end. The thing he could probably improve on most is taking more shots from the point on the power play, believe it or not. #52 is a player the Caps absolutely cannot do without. Last year he was injured and sick for the playoffs and that is a big reason why they did not knock off the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguings. “Lamborgreenie” was snubbed by Team Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympics so he should be well rested and motivated for the 2010 playoffs.
Tom Poti (33 GP, 0G, 9A, +4) – Grade = B-: Poti is the #2 defenseman on this Caps team in average minutes played but he is also being paid $3.5M a season, second highest as well to Green. Poti is a puck moving defenseman who has seen his share of power play time this year so you would like to see at least a goal or two out of him. He missed 8 games due to an upper body injury. He is pretty solid but has had some sub par outings, with the Columbus game coming to mind immediately.
Jeff Schultz (34 GP, 1G, 8A, +15) – Grade = A: Where else can you find a guy who eats up 18-19 minutes a game, is +15, and costs less than $800K against the salary cap? Good luck in finding another player like that, I say. #55 is a solid puck moving defenseman who continues to improve. He is not physical so he relies on his stick and body positioning to make plays, much like teammates Poti and Karl Alzner. His lack of speed does hurt him at times, though.
Brian Pothier (28 GP, 3G, 5A, +11) – Grade = B: Next to Green, Pothier is the best puck rushing defensemen the Caps have from an offensive perspective. #2 has been good but has missed several games due to injury and was scratched in New Jersey back in November. Before his rib injury he was really playing well but at $2.5M the Caps need a lot out of him. Playing 17-18 minutes a contest.
Shaone Morrisonn (31 GP, 0G, 3A, -1) – Grade = C-: Morrisonn has missed several games due to injury but he plays 16-17 minutes a contest when dressed. He is making $1.975M but he has taken some bad penalties and -1 overall is a concern. He used to be paired a lot with Green but Schultz seems to have gotten that promotion, not a good sign for #26.
Tyler Sloan (22 GP, 2G, 2A, -2) – Grade = C-: He has been scratched quite a bit and did play some games at forward when Washington was short players due to injuries. The low defenseman on the totem poll and is basically injury insurance. Caps clearly think if they tried to send him to Hershey he would get claimed by another team but is sitting so much really helping him, at this point?
John Erskine (28 GP, 0G, 3A, +10) – Grade = B+: How many people realized #4 was a +10, wow! Erskine has been the physical presence the Caps need on the back end and continues to improve. He has had some bad games, such as past Monday’s tilt against Carolina, but overall he has done his job. He counts $1.25M against the salary cap so that is not bad for a guy who can play on the back end and provide toughness.
Karl Alzner (13 GP, 0G, 4A, -1) – Grade = B: The Caps were 9-1 in Alzner’s first 10 games up from recall and he did a super job filling in for Poti. Alzner skates well, is good with his stick, and is super hockey smart. He had a rough game in San Jose this past week, probably his worst of his 13, but he rebounded with an okay one in LA on Saturday. At this point he is too good for Hershey but the Caps have 7 other D-men on the roster counting Sloan so he needs to play. Alzner is still only 21 years old so the team and fans need to be patient with him. This Bears website has #27 sent back to Hershey on Sunday and he is not listed on the current Caps roster on the team website but nothing official has come to me as of late Sunday night. UPDATE: Per the Caps Media Relations department Alzner is still the with the team and there are no plans to send him down.
John Carlson (3 GP, 0G, 0A, E): Grade = Incomplete: The 2008 1st round draft pick is a puck rushing defenseman who just needs to develop more physically before he will be totally NHL ready. He scored the winning goal for Team USA on Sunday night to help them advance to the Gold Medal game of the World Junior Championship versus Canada on Tuesday night (NHL Network).
Semyon Varlamov (16 GP, 12-1-2, .924 save %) – Grade = A-: After a great playoff run last spring he has re-claimed the #1 goalie job from Jose Theodore. Varly is athletic and continues to improve under goalie coach Arturs Irbe, especially with his glove hand. One of the season’s highlights was his great play in the shootout against the Islanders back in November when he stopped 10 straight players en route to a Caps victory. If only he could stay healthy? Varlamov stopped 28 of 29 shots in Hershey on Sunday but preliminary reports are he has another minor injury. Varlamov’s health is a big key to a Caps Stanley Cup run.
Jose Theodore (21 GP, 9-6-4, .896 save %) – Grade = D+: Was given the #1 job back from Boudreau over the summer and after a great first month he has really struggled. His rebound control has not been good and he is being outplayed by Michal Neuvirth right now with Varlamov out injured. GM McPhee paid #60 $4.5M a year to be the bonafide #1 goalie for 2 seasons and he has not done that being replaced by Varly in last year’s playoffs and early this season. At this point, I am not sure he gets a chance to reclaim the #1 job.
Michal Neuvirth (7 GP, 3-4-0, .896 save %): Grade = B: Had a really rough first two starts against Montreal and especially Toronto as he struggled with NHL shooters. On his current NHL recall he has improved thanks to significant practice time against players in “The Show.” His rebound control has been outstanding and the puck has been clinging to him like velcro. Still struggling with shooters when he is one on one but right now he is a much better option than Theodore.
Coach Bruce Boudreau & Staff – Grade = A: The Caps have been the best team in the league in the first period so clearly the coaches are getting this crew ready to play. Bob Woods has done a good job with a defense that many pundits have called the weaker part of this team. Dean Evason primarily manages the special teams and those units have been pretty good with the power play ranked #2 overall (at one point it was #1 in the NHL but it has struggled of late) but the penalty killing is 20th in the NHL at 80% so there is room for improvement. Boudreau has done a great job of picking the goalie that gives his team the best chance to win each night despite the injuries to Varly and inconsistent play from Theodore. He has not had the luxury of having a clear cut #1 goalie like other coaches enjoy.
GM George McPhee – Grade = A: The organization has a lot of depth as evidenced by Hershey’s success and the fact that just about every player that comes up from the Bears seems to find a way to contribute. McPhee was able to finally clear Michael Nylander’s $4.875M salary off of the books in early December. He also then made a great trade from a salary cap standpoint shedding around $4M in salary in Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina and only taking $1.8+M back in forward Jason Chimera. Now comes the hard part for McPhee, does he stand pat or does he make deals at the deadline to put this team in position to win the Stanley Cup? My money is that George is leaning towards the latter scenario, so look for more deals before the trade deadline.
Ted Leonsis, Owner – Grade = A: The Caps are selling out every game, that is all you need to know in order to assess his work. This has never happened in the 35 year history of the team. The games are fun to attend, the team plays an up tempo style, and the organization reaches out and listens to its fans. The Media Relations and Marketing departments are top notch and they are filled with super nice professional people. They are easy to work with and they really know their business.