Everyone and their brother has a blog post out about “What’s wrong with the Capitals?” Seems like we should do one here too. One need not look too deeply to understand why the Capitals are struggling. It’s not the coaching, though many wanted to scapegoat Bruce Boudreau and hoped that Dale Hunter would ‘light a fire’ underneath these supposedly coddled all-stars. It’s not some mysterious lack of leadership. And though you certainly could if you wanted to, it doesn’t really take any #fancystats to figure it out either.
1) The Alexes aren’t living up to their standard. Alex Ovechkin is 75th in the NHL in scoring with nine goals and 12 assists and is minus-10 so far this season. Since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench, the ‘Great Eight’ has amassed a whopping one goal and three helpers and is minus-3 in seven games. In fact, he’s scored two goals total since Nov. 12, spanning 15 games.
Alexander Semin ranks 238th in the league in points with just 11 (five goals, six assists) in 26 games. He has one point on the power play. He has one assist in five games since Hunter took over, playing to a minus six in those five games. Semin has never shot lower than 14.1 percent over a season since his rookie year; he sits at 8.9 percent today.
Some people think Ovechkin’s nagging thumb/wrist injury is more of a concern than anyone lets on, but then he puts on a display like that goal he scored the other night against Ottawa and you think, “There’s the real Ovi.” But then he disappears like he did in Tuesday’s home game against rival Philadelphia, where he managed just three innocuous shots and two hits.
Semin doesn’t even have a whisper of injury to muddle the situation. He’s just been absent, or more likely, in the penalty box with yet another offensive zone stick foul, the result of reaching for a puck or player instead of skating hard. He’s played his way out of even being a valuable trade commodity, even with his expiring contract.
2) Inconsistent goaltending. You can’t put it any more clearly or succinctly as my friends over at Japers’ Rink put it in their “Noon Numbers” post: When the Caps get even mediocre goaltending this season, they win. The problem is they haven’t even been getting that often enough.
.786 – Caps winning percentage (11-3-0) in games in which their team save percentage is .895 or better. As that save percentage drops below .895, the win percentage drops to .267 (4-10-1).
For the season, Tomas Vokoun has a save percentage of .906, which ranks 26th out of goalies that qualify for the league lead. But as with the first and fifth goals last night will attest, he’s had a proclivity for allowing soft goals, and he’s been very stand-up about accepting responsibility. In his introductory press conference, he mentioned how it would be refreshing not having to play in 2-1 games every single night. But as it stands now, if the coaches had any confidence in the back-ups, Vokoun might not be playing with as much regularity to begin with.
Therein lies the problem: Michael Neuvirth (3.73 GAA, .875 SV%) hasn’t been any better than Vokoun, and Braden Holtby has been languishing in Hershey, perhaps partly due to his belief that he should be with the big club after his successes last season. There certainly have been enough cries in the social media over the last couple of weeks to give Holtby another try, but the Caps have to get Vokoun and Neuvirth straightened out first. They are both better than they’ve shown.
3) Mike Green’s injury. Published reports has Green joining the team on the upcoming road trip to condition with the team, but there is still no timetable on his return as he continues to sit, recovering reportedly from groin and ankle injuries.
In a twitter debate I had with The Washington Times Stephen Whyno Thursday, the beat reporter made a solid point that Green’s injury shouldn’t derail the team. He’s right. It shouldn’t. But it unquestionably has. Green is singular talent from the blue line in this league and the Caps base a lot of what they do off his ability to clear the defensive zone. They also build much of their power play around Green’s deft passing and big shot from the point, which has been missing since the eighth game of the season.
Green’s absence is not unlike a baseball team missing its cleanup hitter. It forces all the other players in the lineup, in this case his fellow blue-liners, one spot up in the order and reduces the team as a whole. None of the other defensemen have Green’s skill set, so everyone is one spot out of place right now. The Caps acquisition last year of Dennis Wideman and this year of Roman Hamrlik were supposed to take the heat off the Caps should the Caps sustain injuries to key defensemen like in last year’s playoffs, but Hamrlik has been a complete disappointment thus far (one goal, no assists, minus-11) and Wideman, though moderately productive scoring (5 G, 15 A), has looked lethargic and uninterested in his own end on too many occasions.
Are there other factors that are affecting the Capitals right now? Sure. They aren’t getting much production from Marcus Johansson. Same with Cody Eakin and Matthieu Perreault, who looked smaller than normal out there against Philadelphia Tuesday. The whole team is trying to adapt to Hunter’s (and new defensive coach Jim Johnson’s) tweaks in the systems. But if the team’s best players aren’t playing like it, the Caps are going to continue to struggle. The offense is far from the most pressing problem though, as the Caps sit sixth in the league in goals per game.
It’s not even Christmas yet, but it’s right around the corner. This is the time when NHL GMs really start looking at their rosters, trying to decide if they’re true contenders, playoff also-rans, or building for the future. The Caps really could settle into any of those three categories right now unless they get their act in gear, and you have to figure that GM George McPhee won’t go on too much longer without making some sort of personnel moves.
Against Philly, the Capitals were flat-out beaten by a better team. They played well the first ten minutes, but after the first goal trickled past Vokoun, they were beaten. They were handled physically, subjected to tossing 30 foot wrist shots in Ilya Bryzgalov’s general direction. There was no traffic. There were no screens. There were no second chances. Those things aren’t about talent. Those things are about desire, and the Caps didn’t show any of it against a fierce rival.
The Caps have a long way in the standings to get back to where they want to be. They aren’t out of anything… yet. There’s still time to right the ship. But as Yogi Berra might say, it gets late around here early. The Capitals just can’t have any more efforts like the one against Philadelphia, shutting down at the first sight of trouble. It’s okay to get beaten giving full effort. It’s completely something different giving up.