After Saturday night’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Washington Capitals have hit the season’s quarter pole with a 14-5-2 record, good for 30 points, which is tops in the Eastern Conference. Ironically, after 21 games in 2009-10 the Caps also had 30 points (13-4-4) and we all know how the rest of the season went as Washington went on to win the President’s Trophy and then lost in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Prior to the season, on Media Day, Caps GM George McPhee told those of us assembled at Kettler IcePlex that he wasn’t really focused on the regular season and had his sights set on a long playoff run. Obviously a team has to have a decent regular season to qualify for the post season and the way things are going for the Capitals so far, unless the bottom falls out on the team over the last 61 games, there will be playoff hockey in DC.
McPhee’s words indicated to me that he was going to use the games leading up until the trade deadline on February 28th as an analysis period for his squad. Over the summer the GM essentially chose to stand pat and go with the players that led his club to the best record in the NHL in 2009-10, although he did attempt to sign unrestricted free agent defensemen Willie Mitchell, only to be outbid by the Los Angeles Kings, who offered the d-man a two year contract. Given that situation, we have an idea of an area where the GM thinks his team could use assistance and McPhee has made it clear that if an opportunity to make the Caps better presents itself, he will pursue it.
There has been much debate in the media and blogosphere locally and nationally about what the Capitals need or should do to help them win a Stanley Cup. Clearly their current roster makes them Cup contenders but there are at least a dozen teams who could claim that as well. In The Washington Post on-line season preview, I provided my three keys for the Capitals in their quest to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The rest of this blog will present an analysis on those keys and also address some of the other theories/criticisms that have been mentioned nationally and locally on the Caps.
The first key I mentioned for 2010-11 was that the team needed to be healthy heading into the playoffs. In the last two seasons Washington has started the post season with both Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green nursing injuries or illnesses of some sort. This year the Capitals cannot afford to have their two most important players not close to 100% when April rolls around. In November you can’t really evaluate that, but it should be noted that Green has already missed three games due to an upper body injury. #52 is logging an average of 25:46 a tilt, which currently puts him 6th in the NHL in time on ice a game, and that is expected from one of the top blue liners in the NHL. The Great #8, who missed six contests due to injury in 2009-10, has played all 21 games and clocking in 21:22 on average a night. Ovechkin has put up 10 goals and 16 assists and is tied for 3rd in the NHL in points, trailing only Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby. However, given that the Great #8 already has his trophy case filled with individual awards I imagine the fact that #91 and #87 are ahead of him in the scoring race matters little to him. In fact, based on what I’ve seen from Alex over the first 21 games I wouldn’t be surprised if he is trying to pace himself to get his body and mind ready for a long and physical post season run. As for the rest of the team and its health, the Caps have still managed to lead the NHL in points despite the loss of arguably their second best blue liner in Tom Poti for 16 games and their projected #1 goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, for all but two contests.
After last season’s playoff defeat, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau indicated that a big part of the problem was that his club had become a one line team with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble. Alexander Semin, who scored 40 times in the regular season, was blanked in the post season and assisting that issue was the lack of a pivot to help get him the puck in prime scoring chances once the games got tighter and open space on the ice was severly reduced. Therefore, my second key to the season was to get more balanced scoring, which translates into finding a second line center to play with Semin. So far, McPhee and Boudreau have not been able to find consistent scoring from a unit other than their top line. Some of Semin’s best contests this season, and he is tied with Ovechkin for the team lead with 26 points, have been when he was moved up to the top unit. But as Boudreau will tell you, that makes his club much easier to check in a playoff series so despite the success of 8-19-28 he continues to tinker with his top two units to find the balance necessary for the post season. So far Tomas Fleischmann, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Brooks Laich have gotten shots at the number two pivot spot without much consistency. In my book, Laich is the best fit because he is more physical than the other three, something that is needed badly in the playoffs. However, #21 really is at his best on the wing so at this point I believe the 2010-11 second line center solution lies in a to be determined trade by McPhee, at some point before February 28th.
My third key to the season was improved special teams play. Washington’s power play, ranked number one in the league in the 2009-10 regular season, ended up tallying just once in 30+ chances against Montreal in April. In fact, power play or not, Washington scored only once in each of the last three playoff tilts and while Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak deserves a great deal of credit, it was apparent that the Caps forwards were not paying the price necessary to get the puck by a hot net minder. One of the things the Caps needed to do to improve the power play was to go to the net and get high traffic tallies. So far in 2010-11 they have improved in that area, but the team can still get better. After a slow start to the power play to begin the season, Washington is now fifth overall in the NHL, clicking at a 23.7% rate (they connected at 25% in the regular season in 2009-10), and much of that improvement since the start of the year is due to getting goals in close. Only five of the 18 goals the Caps have scored with the man advantage have come from Ovechkin or Green, the primary point men, meaning the other 13 have pretty much come down low. Laich and Eric Fehr have two power play markers each while Jason Chimera has added one too.
The other half of the special teams, the penalty killing unit, has shown marked improvement after being in the bottom third of the league in 2009-10 and yielding some key goals to Montreal in the post season. This year the unit is staving off 84.6% of the attempts by its opponent, which puts them at ninth in the NHL. Assistant Coach Dean Evason spent a good part of the summer studying film and modifying his PK unit to be more aggressive. In addition, shorter shifts are being employed. Hall of Famer Rod Langway always used to say that you needed your goaltender to be your best penalty killer and so far Michal Neuvirth (12-3-1, .912 save pct.) has filled that role well. Clearly the change in the shift lengths, the new aggressive scheme, plus the play of young defenders Karl Alzner and John Carlson has helped to make the penalty killing crew very successful. In fact, the PK has become so strong that sometimes taking a penalty has helped the Caps gain momentum in a contest when in the past it seemed to put them on their heels. Simply put, through 21 games I would say that the special teams play has improved from last season.
As mentioned above, McPhee did try and bring in Mitchell over the summer and that was an attempted move that made sense. The Caps need depth on the blue line and we’ve seen that issue pop up already with Poti missing all but five games in 2010-11. Last night against the Flyers the fifth and sixth d-men, John Erskine and Tyler Sloan, played only 11:05 and 9:09, respectively in a 65 minute tilt. Thus the top four of Green, Jeff Schultz, Carlson, and Alzner carried the bulk of the minutes. That is okay on occasion, but if done frequently it could jeopardize the overall health of the unit in the long run. Therefore, in addition to another center, I would be very surprised if GMGM does not add at least one defensemen to his club before the trade deadline.
Those who don’t routinely watch the Caps on a game by game basis as much as the local media do, when critiquing the team, will typically take a look at their young goaltending roster and point to that as the team’s biggest weakness. I don’t buy that one bit and personally, when I hear that, I immediately dismiss the credibility of the person providing that analysis. Neuvirth has won back to back AHL Calder Cup Championships so he is battle tested and all you have to do is ask the 2008-09 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins about Varlamov’s play against them in the second round to know how tough he is in the clutch. Varly nearly single handily ended the Pens title hopes in the spring of 2009. Therefore, unless Varlamov can’t find a way to get healthy I don’t see McPhee making a move to bring in a goalie from outside the organization. After all, who would have thought the netminders in last season’s Cup Finals would be Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi? This Caps team has confidence in both Varlamov and Neuvirth so I fail to see how a guy such as Tomas Vokoun, who has never won anything in the post season, could help Washington between the pipes.
In summary, when evaluating where the Caps are at the season’s quarter pole in their quest for Lord Stanley, I would say they have improved from where they left off last April. Their overall team defense seems to have improved (even though their GAA is only .01 better than 2009-10), thanks to a stronger penalty kill and very consistent goaltending, primarily from Neuvirth, and they are doing a better job of scoring goals in the high traffic areas. However, if they want to increase their odds of winning it all, they will need to add some depth on the blue line and find another center to help give them two consistent scoring lines. Fortunately for McPhee, he has the flexibility to do that because his club is under the salary cap by an estimated $4M (only GMGM and team salary cap guru Don Fishman know the actual number). Many other Stanley Cup contenders do not have that luxury so the cap room could be called an “Ace in the Hole” for the Caps GM. What remains to be seen in order for McPhee to improve his squad is what players become available and at what price. Stay tuned.