The Washington Capitals are currently on a six game losing streak as they head into a five game road trip that starts Friday. They currently sit in sixth place in the Metropolitan division and the fans in DC are starting to become frustrated. The fans deserve to be, as the team had possession of second place within the division for such a long stretch during the season, due to the rest of the division struggling early. Now that the Caps have struggled, losing 13 of the last 17 games, they have let the rest of the competition not only catch up, but surpass them in the standings. A season that looked like they were going to be in the playoffs, now looks uncertain as they could risk missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. So what has gone wrong?
Alex Ovechkin is the scapegoat of criticism by the media, especially when it comes to the post season. The experts always criticize Ovechkin for “not showing up” in the playoffs. You can say what you want about that, but the numbers prove he does more often than not. In his career, he has never made it past the second round into the conference finals. He gets the bulk of the criticism for it, but his surrounding cast has never been the best either. This season is a fine example of just that.
It was evident in Tuesday night’s loss to the Ottawa Senators that the rest of the team struggles to score. In their current six-game losing streak, the team has only scored seven goals; Ovechkin has three of those seven. Jason Chimera has two, Brooks Laich and John Carlson have one. As you look at the top six, where is the production you would expect out of players like Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson and even Nicklas Backstrom? Referring to production, the Capitals have scored 134 goals this season as a team. Ovechkin has 35 goals, which equates to 26% of the goal scoring for the team. That is a quarter of the offense to just one player, not one line, one player. He has 35 goals and the next leading scorer on the team is Joel Ward with 13 and Mikhail Grabovski with 12.
So Alex Ovechkin leads his team’s second leading scorer by 22 goals; that is what you call a one-dimensional offense. To put it in better perspective, look at the division leading Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby leads the team with 26 goals, followed by Chris Kunitz at 24 and James Neal with 17. They are the top tier team in the east and you see why with one superstar that has a super supporting cast as well. So who is to blame for the lack of supporting cast that surrounds Alex Ovechkin?
Media and fans have scrutinized General Manager George McPhee for years as he has failed to put together a team that can get to the Stanley Cup. He has made questionable moves in the past and some of them are starting to catch up to haunt the team. One move that stands out is the Martin Erat trade that occurred last season. The Capitals were in a “win-now” mode and tried to acquire a player at last seasons trade deadline that would help them make a playoff push. McPhee took a risk in trading one of the clubs top prospects in Filip Forsberg to Nashville in exchange for Martin Erat. Erat’s role has diminished over the course of the season and he requested a trade earlier this season. His stats so far, zero goals and sixteen assists in 42 games played. Now you can argue that Filip Forsberg has not exactly lighted it up for Nashville, but at least he is a young player that has a lot of upside and potential. So this is one of McPhee’s failed moves that has not worked out.
The biggest decision that McPhee faced in the off-season was whether to give Mike Ribeiro a new deal or let him test the free agent market. Ribeiro came off of a good season, as the club’s second center in his first season with the team. He is 33 years old and is set to turn 34 in February. So a long-term deal was risky with the age he was playing at. McPhee let him walk in free agency and the Phoenix Coyotes signed Ribeiro. At first, McPhee claimed that Brooks Laich was going to be the teams second line center to replace him. Then down the road he signed Mikhail Grabovski.
I was a big fan of the Grabovski signing; as I had written during that time he was a necessary signing with the departure of Ribeiro. I still like Grabovski with what he brings in the offense under Adam Oates. To put this into better perspective, lets look at some numbers. In Riberio’s 48 games played last season due to the shortened season, he recorded 49 points (13 G, 36 A). Grabovski has played 48 games this season and has put up 33 points (12 G, 21 A). The difference in production between the two players is 16 points. That is crucial production that the team so desperately needs right now as they have struggled to score.
I do still side with the Grabovski signing, he is 29 years old and much younger than Ribeiro at soon to be 34. Ribeiro wanted a long-term deal at 33 years of age and that was risky to invest in him. In Grabovski’s defense, he had great success early for a large part of the season, playing along side Joel Ward and Jason Chimera on the third line. He ended up getting switched around to the second line with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer, which was ineffective all around and even was put up on the Ovechkin line.
I like the Grabovski signing, but felt like the comparison of these players stats were interesting to point out and make what you want of it. Bottom line, he was brought in to be a top six player and has shown inconsistency. Sometimes he looks fully capable of it and at other times he does not. As I look at it, I don’t think he is the problem in the top six.
Brooks Laich was an un-restricted free agent after the 2010-2011 season and George McPhee gave Laich a six-year contract extension for $27 million dollars. Laich showed at that time that he was an effective 2-way center that was just about to hit his prime. Since his extension, his first season went well as he played all 82 regular season games and put up 41 points. Since then, Laich has not been as productive. He got injured during the lockout, so during the shortened season, he only played 9 games. He has gotten healthier this season, but still has battled through some injuries. He has played 36 games this season and only has 8 points.
This is the same player that McPhee came out in the media during the offseason and said this was going to be the teams second line center heading into the regular season. Now the Grabovski signing looks a whole lot better especially since he is at least the team’s third leading scorer. And on top of that, McPhee traded away Mathieu Perreault to Anaheim earlier in the season.
Another top six forward that hasn’t put out the best production consistently is Troy Brouwer. If you look at his numbers from the lockout season, it is what you expect from a player like Brouwer on the second line. In his 47 games played last season, he had 33 points. Of those 33 points, he scored 19 goals. So over the course of a regular season, those numbers equate to a 30+ goal scorer and that would be the kind of production you need from a top six player. His production from last season has not carried over into this season. In his 50 games played this season, he has only scored 9 goals. That simply is not enough especially when he has played slightly more games this season than the last and put up 10 fewer goals.
Where the offensive supporting cast is a big part of the problem, it is not all of it. Three Capitals players have requested trades this season, Martin Erat, Dmitry Orlov and Michal Neuvirth. Orlov has since then gotten much more playing time, serving as the second defensive pairing with Mike Green. Orlov is a young player still learning, but consistently makes defensive miscues that lead to problems in the defensive zone. He is yet to show discipline on the ice on a consistent basis.
The goalie situation has been often pointed out as a big problem during the season. I always pointed out that the situation has been overblown and is not the true problem. Holtby started the season and played well for a while, but it became a problem once Michal Neuvirth got injured. When Neuvirth went to the IR, it forced Holtby to keep starting numerous games in a row without getting any games rest. It began to show during games, Hotlby was not the same and he had simply looked overworked.
So Washington was forced to call up Philipp Grubauer from Hershey. The rookie was impressive in net for a while, but it looked as if he was getting overworked as well. Grubauer started 15 games and won 5 of his first 7 games. In his last 8 starts however, he only won one game. Clearly the young goalie was getting overworked, just as Holtby had earlier during the season.
Now Braden is back in net as the starter, with Grubauer being sent back down to Hershey. Holtby needs to start for Washington, it is important for the team’s success. He got the contract extension last season and has shown in the past two Stanley Cup playoffs he can go toe to toe with some of the games best goalies when it counts. He had a solid outing in Tuesday night’s loss to Ottawa, which is a good start for him to regain his confidence. The defense needs to improve substantially in helping him out for the rest of the season, defending the odd man rushes better and clearing the puck out of the defensive zone more effectively. The offense also needs to do their part in giving Holtby some goal support.
Right now it is chaotic for Capitals fans. The team is in a shaky situation, but they have been here before. Last season was similar, with at one point being at the basement of the Eastern Conference behind the Florida Panthers. They dug themselves a hole, but rallied to get into the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Caps this season, they are not in the Southeast division anymore. They are in a tougher division, but the rest of the teams are not far in reach in the points standings. Last season it was Alex Ovechkin, who went on an absolute scoring tear to rally the team to the playoffs and rightfully so won his third Hart trophy. For Washington to make another late season run, it is going to take more than Ovechkin to get them back. He needs the rest of his supporting cast to step up and start producing. If the surrounding talent does not start producing and they fail to make the playoffs, George McPhee will be on the hottest seat in all the NHL. Some of his moves over the course of the past few off-seasons could wound up costing him his job.