I was almost tempted not to put my thoughts down on the mid-season for the Capitals. Not only because of my disdain for the National Hockey League and their handling of the lockout but perhaps as much so because of the spectacularly underwhelming play of the Caps through the first half of the truncated season. To call it a washout might be an understatement this year. It’s been so disheartening I was tempted to draft a wrap up of my fall-back team, the Montreal Canadians, because at least there were some exciting things to write about. Then, I thought better of it. I signed on to this mess over 20 years ago and I’m not about to turn a blind eye now.
Overall, I would give the team a middle-of-the-ice mark for the season. They aren’t good. They aren’t bad. But they aren’t playing a full sixty minutes night-in and night-out to really give them continuity. They are adjusting to their third rookie head coach in three seasons and forth system over that same time frame. They are adjusting to new players as well as the loss of a few potent cogs that made them powerful in the past. They are playing. But just not well enough to get out of the cellar for any number of reasons.
The bright spot of the season so far was the game in Boston. The not-so-bright have been many of the points left on the table losing to teams because they don’t play a full 60 minutes and watching Ovi literally rot himself into fester in the sin bin.
If there’s one thing you can give Leonsis, McPhee and the rest of the management is they aren’t looking to throw their hands up in the air and blow the team up just for the sake of doing that. While some of their commitments might be questionable, at best, generally speaking they are supporting the transition and giving their vision a chance to gel rather than panicking. They could call a few guys out more than they have and they could probably be more supportive of a few guys more than they have but the one thing you can’t really say is they are negligent in their responsibilities. Again, not every decision makes sense to the outsider but with so many fans calling for a wholesale fire sale coming into the trade deadline they seem poised to hold the course for a longer term view of the team
Really can’t say anything particularly bad about the coaching staff so far. A slow start in trying to teach a system to a mismatched, ragtag troupe of traveling troubadours they’ve manged to finesse some improvement out of the players.
The real issue seems to be in eliciting on-ice execution beyond the press-stated buy-in of the changes. Sometimes it really does seem like players are just out there aimlessly doing their own thing. They get caught in awkward changes, they miss opportunities, they are flat-footed and disillusioned… and that’s assuming they are on the ice and not in the sin-bin. You’d think they were giving away free PBR in there the amount the barn door is open and the coaching staff seems almost unable to answer for it.
Beyond that they’ve made the best out of a team depleted with injuries and under manned in talent in key positions while trying to draw together something that actually looks like it could become an effective puck moving system down the road. It strikes a balance between the overly suffocating defense Hunter was known for and the complete run-and-gun assault BB brought to the ice for so many years. It is a hybrid of so many things we’ve seen before while not being solid in any one area and this might be why adoption seems to be so much slower for the Caps than say what the Habs are experiencing with their new coach this season.
The Front Six
I discussed the Washing out of Washington‘s forwards in the January post and I haven’t changed my mind in regards to this. There are three, maybe four guys who are top six forwards on this team and they are struggling to fill in the gaps with undermanned, overwhelmed guys who don’t have enough experience or enough prowess to make significant progress.
Centers – Finally, we can say there are two solid pivots on the team and although Backstrom is having an average year Ruberio is absolutely an inspired addition to the squad giving the Caps such a true 1A/1B pairing up the middle that they really have been able to rotate them in the position almost effortlessly. Well with as little effort as the wingers will let them.
Wingers – Alex Ovechkin continues to, well, disappoint. Some nights he seems more adept at sitting in the box than pinching in on the point for one of his legendary one timers. Some games he’s shown flashes of brilliance other games it looks like his skating on a Louisiana pond midsummer. Brower isn’t lighting up the lamp either which is frustrating because he was brought in to add some veteran “grit” to the top line in the vein of a Mike Knuble. He still sound and looks like a leader for the team but sometimes his play is more reflective of a dud forth liner than the stud from a Stanley Cup winner we were supposed to get.
After that it might actually be the surprise production of Eric Fehr and Wojtek Wolski that should really round out the top wings. Despite the seemingly senseless pine-riding of Wolski he’s put up some of the strongest numbers overall on the team and Fehr is actually beginning to look like a late blooming power forward. When he came up in the Caps system in the mid-2000s there was a hope for this kind of production but how he’s achieving it now is fun to watch.
The bottom Six You mean everyone isn’t in the bottom six?
Center – Despite the depth the Caps have ridden with center’s effective ones haven’t been easy to come by and the injury to Brookes Laich is significantly hurting the teams middle production. He’s such a versatile player that there just isn’t a replacement for. Mathieu Perreault has made nice strides attempting to up his game but at times still seems to under perform the hopes at times while Marcus Johannson seems to have regressed and his performance has been further complicated by concussion symptoms as of late. Matt Hendricks pivots the forth line most nights and has been good enough in that role, if only the rest of his line was as predictable as he is.
Wings – Chicken wings on chicken little is what the bottom of the pecking order are. Apart from Joel Ward there isn’t much to write about and at Ward’s salary that’s pretty disheartening actually. His former linemate Jason Chimera has shat the bed this season undoing every positive that was heaped upon him for his ability to step up at times last year. Jay Beagle was a big role player last year but doesn’t seem to have the emotional jump on things he once did. Joey Crabb has become a monumental waste of space, so much so that Aaron Volpatti is skating. There’s actually so little current depth on the wing it’s almost unfathomable at times and nothing from Hershey has really provided any extra spark for the forwards.
Top four D there are top four d?
Well on the plus side Carl Alzner is a stud. No two ways about it, he might be the most predictably solid player on the ice night-in and night-out. And then there’s Tomas Kundratek. Yep. You guessed it another shining product from the Caps system being called up and making noise. He already has a goal and six assists primarily while quarterbacking a potent power play unit and his work behind the blue line is solid for a rookie.
On the minus side Orlov and Green are injured and Carlson might as well be injured with his play some nights. Ok, maybe that’s not giving JC enough credit and there was bound to be some regression after his supremely hot start in the NHL but the residual effects of his regression are hurting the team particularly more because of the thin defensive corps and the need for him to play the role particularly of Green during his absence (damned that Wonky Groin). It isn’t that his box score numbers are bad, it’s his mental lapses. Regardless, as you’ll note, there’s only three active skaters in the top four!
The other four D
Let’s start with the injuries on the back-end: Big John Erskine was making quite the comeback after seeming to spend more time riding the pine the paroling the blue line he found a home in Oate’s system. Then the upper body injury IRed him. Jack Hillen was supposed to add some depth to the corps. He’s only added depth to the IR. Tom Poti was trying to make a return after a prolonged two year injury only to see himself land on the IR with back problems. (If you’ve lost count, that’s five Caps D not skating)
What’s left is the underachieving Jeff Schultz and two call ups Cameron Schilling and the unfathomably successful Steve Oleksy whose presence in the wake of injuries has provided more than just depth, it’s actually been a little extra spark behind Kundratek
Do you know how many goalies the caps have started the past few seasons? How many they’ve started since franchise legend Ollie the Goalie retired? Yeah, it’s an unfathomably large number making up the merry-go-round in the crease. It has yet to stop turning this season as three young Caps products man the pipes.
Braden Holtby sometimes looks genius, like posting three shutouts… and sometimes looks, well, his .909 svp says it all. He’s still only 23 and is rocking the red without a veteran around him, without a D corp in front of him and while battling to maintain is feeble hold upon the #1 spot. He deserves better than he’s gotten this year but if he he is to lead this team from the net he has to step up and really steal a few games for the team despite the lackluster play in front of him.
Michael Neuvirth is yet again battling for his place in goal. First with Varly, then with Volks, and continuing now with Holts and right under him is yet another goalie. In some ways this has been his job to lose and yet again he seems to have lost it. The injury that sidelined him hasn’t helped but it’s far from the excuse for his shoddy play. Again, he’s only 24 and has a lot of potential and room to grow but it’s hard to see him claiming a place as the sole netminder anytime soon.
Philipp Grubauer – yes, we really ARE discussing a third goalie right again on the Caps (deja vous all over again). Philipp arrived from Hershey to back up Holts during Neuvy’s injury and his 60 saves in 2 appearances wasn’t too bad to watch. He looks a little undersized and at only 21 definitely inexperienced but his ability to maintain his edge facing what he did on the call ups bodes well.
1. Did you count the injuries to the team? Several forwards, over half the D and a goalie. You know that can’t be helping the cause for Oates.
2. Did you count the kids playing this year? Three goalies, five blueliners and a few on offense under 25. And you thought the team was maturing.
3. Did you count the number of players who are direct from the Caps system? Yeah, I don’t want to do the math either. I’ll give you a hint, once again, it’s over half the official roster, right around 50% skating each night (more lately with the callups), which exceeds the league average by quite a bit.
4. Have you looked at the team penalty minutes? If you want to know why things go south in a hurry during games start there. They might only rank 18th but the timing and the types of penalties will make your head shake, including the number of 2-men in the box scenarios.
5. The Alex Ovechkin bashing is a broken record. The switch to Right Wing is going to take some time. The Oates system is going to take some time. The ability of this guy to be who he once was? Well, his fellow countrymen Kovelchuck and Federov made mid-career changes and we all know Stevie Y did in Detroit as well, is Ovie ever going to turn it around and follow their footsteps and not, say Pavel Bure’s slow burnout.