After a fun-filled, high-flying win for the Capitals at the Winter Classic and a invigorating run of something like 15-1-4 in a recent 20 game stretch, the final few leading into the All Star Game break were one-point heart breakers to say the least. Yet as we pull into the halfway point of the season it’s a somewhat happy time to be a Caps fan.
The modern Caps endured their share of trials and tribulations. From a rotating cast of inexperienced coaches many of whom hailed from within the Caps system in some way, to a rotating cast of goalies many of whom the team drafted and developed themselves, to a rotating cast of first line wingers and second line centers and blue liners called up from Hershey. Leaving the most stable parts of the team players who came up through the Caps system in the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, Mike Green as well as Brooks Laich (minus the original draft status) and Eric Fehr (minus the short detour). That core, along with the likewise home grown successes over the last half decade of John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle and believe it or not Marcus Johannson and Braden Holtby (yes, we’re onto five years of NHL appearances for both!) are finally maturing next to imports from early in their tenures Joel Ward, Troy Brower and Jason Chimaira.
Yes, you read that right. That’s 10 guys out of the 13 established Caps straight out of the system. The trend continues, of course, with Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick’s rookie season last year combined with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Nate Shilling coming up this year all expecting to put in full seasons as well as third on the depth chart backup Grabauer. They’re paired with some of the biggest offseason acquisitions by the Caps in probably ten years with the controversial Brooks Orpik and his Penguins buddy Matt Niskanen as well as the less splashy acquisition veteran back goalie Justin Peters.
Basically, there’s an outside chance that the top six for the Caps could see up to five of them being home grown players, and of those, up to three of them being under 25, while on defense, four of six, or five of seven are likely to be homegrown with at least half that number likely being under 25. The team is still heavily skewed toward it’s own, home grown talent, it’s quite the roster of talent to have grown, despite having lost Filip Forsberg, Symeon Varlmov, Matteau Perrault and even the enigmatic Alexander Semin along the way mind you.
But, the biggest change was in leadership under the direction of GMBM and especially 15 year NHL vet HC Barry Trotz.
The results? Well, on traditional boxcars: 14-13-9 good for 57 points, 4th in the Metro but within striking distance of 1st and 7th in the conference boasting an 8 point cushion and tie breakers in hand. The Caps are top ten in the league for Goals per game and shot suppression resulting in a +17 overall differential, with a +9 at evens is good for top half of the league boardering top third. From the more advanced metrics perspective the 51.9 score-adjust Corsi For% this year (against 47.8% last) is a major improvement boosting the team into the top half nearing the top third as well and the Fenwick numbers, as you would expect, follow suit. As a matter of fact, their improvements across the board rank them in the top 15 in nearly every single positive metric with the one notable problem being ability to draw penalties, and they’re pushing top third in many making them perhaps the most vastly improved team in a year-over-year comparison.
This, of course, translates into some fantastic personal numbers: Ovechkin is currently #3 in goals, one behind the tied leaders and he leads the league in Power Play Goals, Game Winning Goals, Shots on Goal and Shot Attempts while his 16 assists put him just outside of the top 100, but on primary at evens he’s in the top 40 while ranking in the top 5% of forwards for difficulty in quality of competition and taking some of the tougher assignments this season for zone starts as well. Oh, and his +/- is at a positive and is within career averages after taking a bath last season due to systemic changes and garnering a lot of unwarranted critiques of his game. His partner in crime on the top line, Nick Backstrom, once again is quietly running up his own numbers tied with Evgeni Malkin for assists in the top five, only three behind the venerated Sid Crosby, who he happens to be tied with in Goals while his 47 total points has him tied for tenth overall and tied for fifth at evens.
Not to shabby across the blue line either as Carlson is fifth in the league for defenders for points while Greeny is tied for 18th, while Carly is second in goals and Greey is tenth making for the only two defenders on the same team to put up those kind of numbers and both sport positive +/- cutting the double digits. Notable too, for Carly, he’s in the top 5% on taking the tough assignments as well, making his offense contributions even more notable. Holtby’s .921 svp is tied for 3rd (with the venerable King Henrik) among goalies with 30+ starts this season while is 2.26 GAA is tied for 4th (also with the Rangers Lundqvist).
What’s more fun is the Caps are sporting 6 forwards with double digit goals, 10 guys riding double digit assists making them both the goals and assists leader as a franchise (and, by seeming default, the only team also sporting double digits for both) so the burden is not always on the the top guys even if those guys are doing their part as elites.
The Power Play continues to hum along at a Top Three in the league 24.4% while the PK improved out of the bottom third to 79.5% shadowing the middle of the league while being in the top third of the league for Time Shorthanded and top quarter for time down by two. The latter half of those stats might not seem like much, but if the Caps can improve their time short handed differential it would likely improve their PK pct and give their now effective even strength squad even better an opportunity to operate.
Numbers aside, what is really to love is the attitude that seems to ooze from the squad. When guys like Ernskine, Orlov, Wilson, Carrick and others went down (Caps are currently #8 in man games lost at 166), when Fehr, Johannson, and Chimaira as well as new young guns Burakovsky, Wilson, Kuznetsov, Shilling and Carrick were sent to the press box or to a quick swing through Hershey, when the team went on a couple of game losing streak there wasn’t a bitch or sigh to be found, they didn’t panic and reduce themselves to bad habits and they didn’t become undone it unlike what might happen in years past or on other teams. They simply mustered up the notion they needed to play better, tightened up ranks and went to work.
These Caps have their difficulties. They still don’t know who is playing opposite wing to Ovechkin or playing second line center on any given night. They still play down to the dregs of the league and play up to the elites rather than playing night-in and night-out the same style. They still take bone-headed penalties and inopportune times. They still have mental lapses where they will take their foot off the gas for an entire period at a time. And, they seem to be somewhat snake-bitten outside of regulation (thankfully there are not shootouts in the post-season). They’re probably only one major injury away from feeling very short-benched.
But, even when you account for all the shortcomings the Caps both look better on paper and more importantly to fans and opposing coaches actually watching them play.
A lot of this has to be credited to Trotz connecting with the team as a whole. His work ethic of playing 200-foot hockey, his philosophy of playing up to individual and team strengths rather than changing players, his no bullshit communication style that tells it like it is and his ability to blend modern techniques like referencing advanced stats when necessary with quirky one’s like working with Mitch Korn with traditional ones not only gives the Caps a new look in games, it gives them an entirely new feel at Kettler too.
Trotz has the team working together in both directions. They push opposing teams to the outside which helps limit the rush and hems teams to the wall rather than allowing them into the slot as often. On the whole in both directions they hit more. They play for turnovers more and because their defense includes crafty puck movers they have the ability to spring board more plays the other direction and press once in the offensive zone to take calculated risks better. As a team they seem to shot a lot more too.
Next to that, the blue line is secure for a change thanks to some wheeling by their new general manager. They can roll three qualified and balanced pairings almost effortlessly most nights. That’s a huge bonus and something the Caps haven’t had since their last run at the Cup in the late 1990s. Is this as good a d-corps as the Caps had in their defensive heyday? Probably not but the expensive additions of Orpik and Nisky seem to be paying off with early rewards. These two guys have deeper playoff experience than any Cap not named Brower and come from a culture of winnings unlike anything any current Caps player has ever experienced. They bring with them not only an on-ice presence but a locker room one that appears to compliment the existing core very well so far.
Is Orpik still a top pair D-man? The raw numbers say probably not, but there’s still something to his abilities on the ice that seems to make the whole unit better when he’s out there throwing his massive frame into opposing forwards like a slow moving freight train. It gets the other guys hitting harder and more often not only on D but on the entire team to the point where it’s almost like an (unspoken) competition between Oprik and Ovi to see who can line up the most or the hardest hits on a given night. And, as noted to exhaustion, he brings leadership and experience the team needed with his multiple Stanley Cup finals appearances (and 2009 win) particularly to a young(er) and less experienced Blue Line.
For the second half of the season, here are my biggest questions moving forward:
What will happen at the trade deadline? There’s ample documentation that deadline deals rarely have the dramatic effect, even if there are amazing stories like Gabby in LA. While in the off season the Caps made big moves there’s a feeling they are only a piece, or two, away from the ideal team. Personally, I wouldn’t interrupt the budding chemistry the team has short of an long term injury replacement but maybe it’s because I’m gun shy after watching GMGM get burned so many times in the past.
What that ideal team actually looks like though is still a question – is it the long coveted second line center, or a top line winger to stop the carousel there, or a consistent back up in goal, or a bruiser on the forth line who can strengthen the PK, or more playoff experienced depth on the blue line?
Will it come by moving free-agent to be Mike Green which could weaken the overall offense and strength in the third pairing or will it be unloading some combination underused and underperforming guys like Chimaira, Hillen, Ernskine, Peters that would free up both cap space and opportunities for young players or would any of the prospects who comprise the future of a franchise that’s become very good at developing talent be on the table as well and if so, who and why?
What will the Goalie situation be? Holts is playing a truckload of games right now taking double digit starts in a row and manning the pipes during back-to-backs. He’s never had a full season at #1 and there’s no telling what the effect will be. He might find the workload suits him fine and gives him the confidence for a deep playoff run, or he might tire at some point and peter out when he’s needed the most. What will happen with Peters who seems to be foundering miserably in a Caps uniform putting up career lows across the board. Will the Caps sacrifice the development of highly touted prospect Grubauer in the AHL to have him ride the pine in the big club most nights instead of playing nightly or will Copley or Anderson make their way up for that role? If any of them do what kind of workload will they receive and how will they fair in a tight playoff race?
How will the Metro, and to a degree the conference, really shake out? It is unfathomable how well Pittsburgh is doing in light of the injuries they’ve sustained. It isn’t just the man-down games they’ve had, it’s been who they lost and how well they’ve accommodated the situations that’s just insane. While I fully expect them to limp into the playoffs still reeling from the injury bug there’s something eerily dangerous about a team that thrives on that agony even if MAF is unsustainably overplaying right now and a notorious playoff fart.
The two New York teams are both equally dangerous in their own way. It’s frightening because the Isles are a classic foe of the Caps from the 80s Patrick Division days repleate with more recent painful memories of Halak manning the pipes for them while the Rags have become a more recent adversary no one wants to see in the playoffs particularly if a game seven is on the line. While on paper the match ups are tight, the reality hasn’t necessarily been that on the ice. The Rangers are red hot right now and even if they cool off are would be playing a difficult game to counter. The Isles have been consistent all season and between player additions and systemic improvements represent one of the most dramatic turn arounds from last-season.
Thankfully the rest of the Metro isn’t as frightening with a 12 point cushion on Philly as the next closest team the entire bottom of the division sports a negative goal differential bolstered by both a lack of consistent goal tending and thin blue lines. Even if one of them went on a tear they have a lot of ground to make up both in the standings and on the ice and some big regressions by the Caps