July 22, 2014

Caps at the midway mark: What’s right and what’s not

After the Washington Capitals 41st game of the season, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, their record stands at 20-15-6, 46 points, “good” for second place in the decidedly mediocre Metropolitan Division. Remember all the jokes that used to be made about the Southeast Division? Yeah, well the new Patrick Division has nothing to snicker about this season, as none of the teams except Pittsburgh would qualify for the playoffs at this point if they played in the Atlantic Division.

They are playing at a 92-point pace for a full season, which in most previous seasons would have had them on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

Fortunately for the Caps, they just have to be good enough to gain one of the top three spots in this motley crew of a division. Unfortunately, having lost their last three in a row, five of six and seven of 10, the margin between them in second place and Columbus in seventh is a mere six points. They are, as they say in finance, trending poorly.

Of the Caps’ 20 wins this season, only 12 have come in regulation or overtime — 25th in the league — with the other eight decided in a shootout, basically a crapshoot. Trim out the overtime wins, and the Caps have won a mere 10 games in regulation this season of the 41 they’ve played. That’s not just bad, it’s embarrassingly so. Remember how you felt about the Florida Panthers and their rash of overtime and shootout wins a couple of seasons ago. Yeah.

With all of this in mind, let’s now take a look at what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong so far this season. We’ll break things down into four categories: Offense, Defense, Goaltending, and Coaching/Administration.

OFFENSE

Overall, the Capitals are ninth in the league in goals per game with 2.85. That’s pretty good. But the power play, humming along second in the league at 25 percent, is masking the Caps dirty secret: their 5-on-5 goals for/against is 0.91, 22nd in the league, which gels with their generally crummy possession numbers at even strength. They are 12th in the league in total shots on goal per game — again, pretty good. But not great, considering the other side of the ledger. And again, the power play masks the deficiency at 5-on-5.

Individually, Alex Ovechkin far and away leads the league in goals scored with 31, 12 of which have come on the power play. He also far and away leads in shots on goal and total shots taken and is shooting at 14.4 percent, a not-unusually high percentage for him. Unfortunately, Ovi’s plus/minus says the exact same thing as his possession numbers: when he’s on the ice, both teams’ chances of scoring a goal raise dramatically.

The drop off after Ovi for goals is a steep one. Joel Ward is second on the team in goals with 12 — his third highest total already in his sixth full season in the league. Nick Backstrom is playing at an elite level, with 10 goals and 35 assists, good for fourth in the league. And late free agent pickup Mikhail Grabovski is 11-19-30 bouncing back-and-forth between three different lines, so he’s well on his way to earning a multi-year contract in the offseason after being the forgotten one at the dance last summer.

After that, things get murky.

Troy Brouwer took a long while to get going, but at 9-10-19 he’s right about where you’d expect him to be. He’s scored 40, 36, 33, and 33 points the past four seasons, so he’s right on pace. Anyone expecting more from him at this point is delusional. Eric Fehr, after being completely ignored in November, is 6-11-17 in 32 games, .531 points per game, a 44-point pace over 82 games. These are your second line wingers.

Marcus Johansson, who for a while was among the league leaders in assists, has completely disappeared again. Until Thursday’s two assist performance against Carolina, he’d gone five games without a point. The 23-year-old has three goals and six assists in his past 20 games. He’s not really all that young anymore, so we’re just about to the point where this is what you expect from him. It’s third-line production at best for a guy that’s spent the bulk of the season as the first-line left wing, usually a star’s position.

Brooks Laich has missed 13 of the team’s past 15 games, and has been completely absent on the scoresheet when he does play, with just six points in 27 games. Accumulation of injury has turned a once very useful and flexible player into someone the Caps simply can’t depend on right now.

DEFENSE

John Carlson made the U.S. Olympic team. Does that say more about Carlson or the U.S. Olympic team? In his defense, Carlson has made strides this season to being more of the two-way player the Caps envisioned he would be. His seven goals, four on the power play, have him on pace for easily the highest goal output of his career; he’s only two away from his career high of nine in 11-’12. He’s also become much sturdier on the back-end, teaming with Karl Alzner as the top penalty kill pairing, and has eliminated a lot of the silly mistakes that plagued his game as recently as last season. His biggest problem now is he’s not the greatest passer, but I think that’s more concentration than ability.

Alzner is a good, reliable, steady stay-at-home defenseman. He gets overrated in these parts because he’s the most adept on the team at that unglamorous task. He is not what they call a “shutdown” defenseman. He’s not physical or intimidating, and his strength at times leaves his work along the boards and in the slot lacking. But he’s positionally sound and a smart hockey player, making the most out of what he has.

After those two, however, come two players with major flaws and a group of others that quite frankly don’t belong in the National Hockey League, which is far and away the Caps’ biggest problem.

When Mike Green was scoring 70 points a season, you could overlook any other flaws in his game. He had a singular talent in the league for two seasons. But that, now, was a long time ago. Injuries have ravaged the player that was once one of the most dangerous in the game. Between his skill, speed and puck-handling, he was a unique talent. Now, he’s a shell of what he once was.

Third and fourth line wingers skate around him. He seems uninterested in playing his gaps and responsibilities. He routinely still leaves himself open to the big hit along the boards. And Carlson has eclipsed him as the lone defenseman on the power play. On top of all that, he’s taking penalties this season at a rate like no other time in his career, left to reaching and grabbing where before he could skate into position. He’s a liability almost every time he steps on the ice.

Dmitry Orlov is going to be a good hockey player. Will it be here in D.C.? Who knows. But he’s getting a chance to play now and with any young player (80 games in three seasons) he’s going to have ups and downs. He’s electric carrying the puck, something his current head coach and defensive assistant don’t like in their system. He’s prone to forget assignments and jump into the play instead. And he repeats mistakes, something that drives coaches crazy. But he’s one of the few Caps defensemen that can move the puck and make an accurate exit pass, and he won’t shy away from contact.

John Erskine is playing on one leg and is no longer an NHL caliber skater. Steve Oleksy was a nice story last season — the journeyman who finally got his chance due to multiple injuries — but there’s a reason he’s bounced around so long in the minor and independent leagues — he’s simply outclassed at this level. But unfortunately for the Caps, the rest of the defensemen on the roster are either not in any way ready (Schmidt, Carrick, Wey) or similarly flawed (Strachan, Urbom).

This team actually misses Jack Hillen.

GOALTENDING

Raise your hands if you had Phillip Grubauer as the team’s undisputed No. 1 goalie at the 41-game mark.

Liar.

Grubauer, the just-turned 22-year-old goalie has started 10 of the Caps last 12 games. He has a .932 save percentage and 2.20 goals against, so he’s acquitting himself well despite the Caps penchant for allowing more shots than they take. Will the .932 stand all season? No, of course not. But he’s playing well given the opportunity.

Braden Holtby, more than Grubauer, was victim to the sheer number of shots he faced much of the early season. Despite a .915 save percentage, he’s allowed 3.00 goals against per game. This is a result of seeing so many more shots a game. Of goalies that have played 20 games or more this season, he’s third in the league in shots against per 60 minutes at 31.3. He’s had his moments where he’s fought it, but he’s hardly the Caps worst problem. In fact, he held them in games the first two months of the season until late November-early December when he lost the coaching staff’s confidence. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s hiding or dealing with an injury either.

Michal Neuvirth is the invisible man. He’s played in just seven games, none since Nov. 22 despite being back on the roster the past two weeks. His trade value diminishes daily.

COACHING/ADMINISTRATIVE

Adam Oates drew a lot of praise last season for resurrecting Alex Ovechkin and the Caps’ power play. He also got good marks for his rapport with the media and for his hockey intellect. Rightfully so. He played the thinking man’s game and continues to do so as a coach. Now that he’s coached this team for a full season’s worth of games, there are positives to draw from but the jury is definitely still out.

The power play, despite struggling a bit in December, still is second in the league. At 5-on-4, the Caps skill has room to shine. At 5-on-5 though, that shine completely loses its luster. The Caps are 20th in the league at 5v5 goals for with 69 and 22nd in 5v5 goals against with 79. They are 27th in the league at 5v5 shots against per game with 32.2 and 20th in 5v5 shots for per game with 28.7.

That’s right, at 5-on-5 the Caps are one of the 10 worst teams in the league in all four categories, down with the dregs of the league that won’t qualify for the playoffs. We know the defense is bad… we can see it with our eyes. But the offense is just as bad 5-on-5, it just gets masked by the efficiency of the power play.

Consider it for a second. How can the same team that scores at a 25 percent rate with the extra man struggle even for shots at full strength? The simple explanation is that they don’t work hard enough at full strength to get into position to shoot. Or that they’re “too cute” and looking for the perfect play instead of throwing it on net and hoping for traffic, a redirect or rebound. Or yet, they haven’t mastered (or are suited for) the systems that Oates, Calle Johansson and Blaine Forsythe are trying to implement. Those are the simple answers. Are they the right ones?

As far as their own end, the Caps braintrust would rather defensemen get rid of the puck quickly instead of carrying out of the zone, primarily to reduce the amount of physical punishment by forecheckers, something the Caps have had trouble with. But the Caps lack the necessary skill with most of their blueliners to really make this strategy pay off and it reduces two of their players’ (Green and Orlov) strong suits. A lot of times, the defensemen are simply left to dump the puck to center ice, leading to turnovers and odd-man opportunities the other way, with the Caps forwards standing at the other blue line watching in horror.

As far as administratively, we’ve seen some curious internal personnel moves. Connor Carrick made the team out of training camp, but quickly proved he wasn’t ready at full speed. Martin Erat spent much of the first 25 games on the fourth line until his trade demands forced the team to play him with fellow skilled players in order to showcase him. Still without a goal, he has nine assists in his last 15 games since he was moved primarily to center. Dmitry Orlov was similarly buried, only in Hershey, until the Caps could no longer deny his existence — he’s now logging top-4 minutes. Eric Fehr spent most of the month of November eating nachos in the press box. As did Jay Beagle, who finally got a chance to play when Laich got hurt again. They are wasting a year of Tom Wilson’s contract playing him seven minutes a night.

And Aaron Volpatti continues to get a sweater despite everything else.

All the while, no outside moves have been made, other than claiming Alexander Urbom off waivers from New Jersey.

SUMMARY

The Capitals are fortunate to be in second place in the disappointing Metropolitan Division. There’s really no other way to say it right now. At full strength, they’ve been one of the 10 worst teams in the league. It’s due primarily to Alex Ovechkin, the power play, some timely goaltending and the shootout that the Caps aren’t looking up at the rest of the division. There’s a good bit of talent here, but it’s not enough to overcome the deficiencies in the roster, lack of execution and sometimes questionable utilization.

Combine that with the fact the team has played its last 23 games in the Eastern Time Zone and managed to lose ground to the first place team in the division and to most of the teams trailing them, and it only gets worse. The Caps play 10 of their last 14 games on the road. They’ve already missed their chance to put hay in the barn.

Unless the Caps play dramatically better at full and even strength in the second half of the season, it’s my opinion they are going to struggle to make the playoffs. And even if they do manage to get in, they certainly won’t have ample power plays and the shootout to fall back on.

Comments

  1. Ray in Bowie says:

    We have the most irrationally optimistic fans in the league. This team lost its chance to be elite when they had the equivalent of a sex change operation after the 2009-2010 playoffs instead of correcting what caused the problems in the first place-
    1. Lack of crease traffic.
    2. Low-percentage passing.
    3. Defensive breakdowns.
    4. Untimely penalties.

    It’s pretty much over unless the existing roster or call-ups show more promise than they have thus far.

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