We’re just passed the halfway point of the 2009-10 hockey campaign for the Washington Capitals. Successful? In many ways, absolutely. Joining me on the breakdown is Adam Proteau, writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com, who kindly offered up some of his own analysis of the Caps season so far.
Overall, impressive. The Caps have hit 50 points faster than any other incarnation of the team before and are definitely on pace – barring a complete and total Jagr-esque breakdown – to end in one of the top four playoff seeds.
“They’re looking like a complete, versatile, dynamic team very early on in the year,” says Adam. “I thought it would take them longer into the season to fully assimilate Seymon Varlamov and some new veterans and function as an effective unit of a championship caliber, but I think they’re there already.”
So how strong is the team? “I’m not a stats geek by any stretch of the imagination, but the one that stands out for me is 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio; last year, the Caps were fairly good with an average of 1.10 (good for eighth place in the league) – and two of the seven teams above them were Pittsburgh (in sixth at 1.18) and Detroit (fifth at 1.20),” Adam says. And I agree – when you look at this year’s number, it’s a great indicator of how well the Caps have meshed with all their component parts.
“I think it’s safe to say a team’s play at even strength says a lot about its players. So now that the Caps currently lead the league in that category with a whopping 1.41 average – ahead of Chicago’s 1.37 and San Jose’s 1.35 – I’m convinced they are as dangerous a threat to win a championship as any team in the league,” Adam confirms. “Doesn’t mean they’ll win it, of course. But there are worse labels to have.”
Preseason fear for many was that the Caps were perhaps too reliant on their star winger Alexander Ovechkin. Early on, Ovie missed six games due to a shoulder strain and then followed that up with a two-game suspension for a knee-on-knee incident that called – briefly – into question his recklessness. I’ll admit that I instantly reflected back to John Buccigross’ comments on this blog that Ovie’s zest for aggressive play may come back to bite him and the team.
Not so fast, however. During the injury stretch, the Caps managed to showcase over ten different scorers and absolutely hammered their opponents. Several players stepped up and everyone took notice: the Capitals were indeed a team, and not a bunch of players surrounding probably the greatest talent in the league at the moment.
The 6-2 record the Capitals compiled while Ovie-less is indeed an accomplishment. Let’s just keep in mind that three of those wins were against a pretty weak Florida team and the two losses were to New Jersey, the current Atlantic Division powerhouse. The Caps are definitely a better team on the ice with Ovechkin, no question.
But there are other players that could be construed as “cannot do without” on the squad. Nicklas Backstrom streaked through December with 11 goals and is a solid penalty killer. Summer acquisition Brendan Morrison has been a force reborn this season, tearing off a solid 10 goals, 25 point season so far and more importantly, has become a great on-ice leader. His bargain-rate contract is proving to be one of GM George McPhee’s better steals this year.
The Caps defensive corps has been holding its own and then some this season. Mike Green remains a viable and dangerous offensive threat from the blue line and still hits – hard. He leads the team in ice time and is a major force on the power play unit. In addition to Green, three other defensemen have a +/- rating in the positive double digits: Jeff Schultz, Brian Pothier, and John Erskine. While each of them do have their off nights, they are a strong core to a solid defense. And considering the Caps’ main weakness in goal, it’s a necessary strength.
The Caps most glaring weakness – pointed out at the beginning of the season and still very true at the halfway point – is their goaltending. Jose Theodore, serving out the last year of his contract, has been underwhelming (and many hockey followers have pointed out this is normal for him). Theodore’s rebound control is just awful and has resulted in a lot of unnecessary goals. He’s pretty much lost the #1 job once Semyon Varlamov returns from injury – which may be another two weeks, according to ESPN.
Injury aside, Varlamov has proven to not be a “playoff fluke.” With a .924% save percentage and a 12-1-2 record, he’s been the Caps diamond in the rough this season. Provided he stays healthy, he will once again be key to a deep Capitals playoff run. “Seeing if he’s got the makeup to carry the burden is going to be fascinating, because no matter how good the offense is, it’s all for naught if you don’t have goaltending – and if that situation destabilizes for the Caps, I think management will be forced to deal away a good chunk of talent to get it,” says Adam. “But again, no pressure.”
Michal Neuvirth has had some troubles adjusting to NHL play but his rebound control is solid and at this time, is a better backup than Theodore.
Coaching and Management: A
McPhee continues to impress, clearing Michael Nylander’s albatross-like $4.87M salary from the books and pulling off a nice trade with Columbus by acquiring forward Jason Chimera for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina. “One of the increasingly rare occurrences where two teams found a fit for each other’s need,” says Adam about the recent moves. “I think the Caps wanted some cap flexibility, the Jackets wanted a fill-in for Rostislav Klesla and some leadership values – and most importantly, each GM had a Jim Rutherfordian sense of not waiting until the trade deadline to make a move.”
And seeing the move through a team lens? “The salaries of the players involved are relatively inconsequential, and though those players all could be productive for their new teams, it isn’t likely they’ll be instrumental to any new successes those teams enjoy.” For the Caps, however, the little extra breathing room may be what McPhee needs to pull off a key trade and get a great backup for Varlamov in time for the playoffs.
Coach Bruce Boudreau and his coaching crew continue to impress both on and off the ice and, unlike other teams in DC, will be coach here for a long time to come.
Outlook: Extremely Positive
With a compressed schedule to make room for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and the Eastern Conference race tightening up, consistency is going to be key for the Caps. Adam clued me in on some key matchups ahead on the schedule.
“Their March 14 tilt against the Blackhawks will be a must-see, if only to see what both powerhouse franchises look like in the wake of what should be a punishing Olympic tournament,” he said. “Two weeks later, they’ll have a serious test of both offense and defense when the Flames come to Washington. And of course, their April 6th road date with the Pittsburgh Penguins will qualify for ‘until I erase’ status on DVRs across the continent.”
Grabbing a game may prove difficult, however. The Caps have sold out every game so far this season and will most likely continue that trend. Key matchups have few tickets remaining and even online brokers have seats only in the $136 and up bracket. While catching the game online or via Comcast is a no-brainer, the atmosphere these days in the Verizon Center is astounding during a Capitals game. If you’re one of the lucky few to attend, enjoy it.
Speaking of which, Adam does have one big disappointment from the season so far. “Frankly, with the way things are going for Ovechkin & Co., I’m disappointed the President hasn’t yet made it out to a game. Granted, he’s probably got more important matters that need attending, but considering the state of sports in [DC], he could use some of the Caps’ mojo.”