September 21, 2019

Secondary scoring remains Caps’ biggest weakness

Marcus Johansson - Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Marcus Johansson – Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

What is the biggest weakness of the Washington Capitals?

It’s a simple question, but an important one. The playoffs have a way of exposing every weakness of every team very quickly. Knowing what those weaknesses are can help determine who the true Stanley Cup contenders are.

With nine games left in their regular season schedule, the Washington Capitals sit in a playoff position with a four-point cushion. To put it simply, they are the seventh best team in the Eastern Conference. But why?

Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom lead the NHL in goals and assists respectively. Both players are among the league’s top-five in points. As a team, the Caps rank eighth in the NHL with 2.85 goals scored per game ahead of teams like Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks (2.81), the Chicago Blackhawks (2.74) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (2.74).

Defensively, the Caps rank seventh with 2.41 goals allowed per game. Braden Holtby has established himself as a true No. 1 netminder with a 2.18 GAA and .924 save percentage.

The Caps also have the second best power play in the league at 24.9 percent. Their penalty kill rate of  81.2 percent is only average at 16th, but this is balanced by the fact that they are only eighth in the league in penalty minutes.

The more advanced stats don’t reveal very much either. The Caps rank 13th in the league in 5-on-5 Corsi-For percentage. At first glance that seems fairly accurate given their place in the standings, but the Caps’ 51.3 percent is actually better than the three teams with the most points in the NHL, the New York Rangers, Anaheim and Montreal.

So the Caps are a top-10 team in terms of offense and defense, they have two of the five best offensive players in the league this season, they are getting good goaltending, great power play production, take few penalties and are an average possession team. Yet, they remain a wild card team, the seventh best in the conference, and are struggling to keep pace with the surging Ottawa Senators.

What gives?

Something else is holding the Caps back and to discover what that is, we need only look back to the trade deadline.

The NHL trade deadline provides an interesting insight into what the front office of each team is thinking;  what are a team’s specific areas of need, are they thinking about the draft, do they think they have a legitimate shot at winning the Cup, etc.

Based on what the Capitals did at the deadline, it appears they felt their biggest weakness was secondary scoring.

Trading a No. 6 defenseman for a No. 6 defenseman and a fourth round pick looks like a minor tweak. Trading a second and third round pick for Curtis Glencross is much more telling.

Everyone knows there is no set right wing on the top line, but with Ovechkin and Backstrom producing at the rate they are, this specific position was not a priority. It does, however, reflect  the more general problem of secondary scoring.

Ovechkin leads the Caps with 73 points this season, followed by Backstrom with 72. John Carlson (47), Marcus Johansson (39) and Mike Green (39) round out the top five. The gap between the top two and the rest of the team is not surprising — not everyone can be superstars like Ovechkin and Backstrom. The problem is the team has become completely reliant offensively on that duo which has been evident during their recent struggles.

The Caps have only managed a 6-7 record in their last 13 games and this is a major reason why. In those 13 games, the Caps are 4-2 when Ovechkin scores, 2-4 when he does not, and 0-1 in the lone game he did not play (March 5 against Minnesota, the Caps managed only one goal). Likewise, the Caps are 5-0 when Backstrom has at least one point and 1-7 when he is held off the scoresheet altogether.

This is a major problem. Yes, stopping Ovechkin and Backstrom is easier said than done, but shutdown pairs like New York’s Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh have had success against Ovechkin in the past including the Caps’ most recent playoff series in which Ovechkin was held to only two points in seven games.

Given that the possibility of a rematch with the Rangers in the first round is a very real one, this does not bode well for the Caps’ chances.

The best way to avoid a tough defensive matchup is to split up a line. In 2012, head coach Dale Hunter put Ovechkin and Backstrom on two separate lines in order to avoid both players from being shutdown by Zdeno Chara.

The problem for the Caps is that is not an option this year. While most people roll their eyes at the mention of Alexander Semin, his inclusion on the roster gave the Caps a major scoring threat other than Ovechkin and allowed for flexibility. He could play with Ovechkin taking some of the pressure off or he could be another threat for Backstrom to set up on another line.

The Caps don’t have anyone like that this season.

Taking Backstrom off Ovechkin’s line would mean defenses could focus squarely on Ovechkin. If he’s not scoring, who else can the Caps turn to? Is there anyone on this roster who would truly worry defenses if Ovechkin isn’t producing? The answer is no.

Glencross is an important addition, but not important enough. For much of the season, the second, third and fourth lines have not shown enough offensive potential for a deep Cup run. Where will the Caps turn to if Girardi and McDonagh shutdown Ovechkin? How will the Caps generate enough offense to beat Carey Price or Ben Bishop?

The simple answer is that they can’t.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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