Halfway There: Capitals Midseason Review

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At the beginning of the season, many fans of the Caps pretty much wanted to fast-forward to mid-April and get going with the playoffs. Going into this year’s campaign, the Caps looked pretty good on paper and were predicted to be yet again runaway winners of the Southeast Division and one of the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference.

Now? Well, it’s not all doom and gloom – but reality has definitely sunk in.

The Caps currently sit second in the Southeast Division, one point behind the current leader, Tampa Bay. And two points behind the Caps? The surprisingly strong Atlanta Thrashers. This year’s division race will not be a repeat of last year, when the Caps had sealed their division title before the Ides of March with a thirty point cushion. It will come down to the wire again, much like 2007-08, when the Caps wrested the title from the Carolina Hurricanes on the last game of the season.

When comparing the first half of this season to the last two, the Caps are virtually in the same spot. Currently sitting with 52 points this year, it’s only three points less than last season and five points less than two years back. True, it is “less than,” which annoys many fans to no end. But considering the adversity and issues the team has had to deal with so far, the fact that they’re not less than 10 or 15 points back is something to take a bit of pride in. Or is it?

Let’s break the team down so far and see what we can see.

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Offense (C-)
No, it’s not a misprint there; the Caps offense is woefully underperforming. Compared to preseason expectations and the sheer load of talent on the ice on any given night, the Caps should be near the top in all stat categories, right? Well, they’re not. They’re 10th in the league in goals per game with 2.88, trailing the likes of the New York Rangers (2.90) and division rivals Tampa Bay (8th with 2.95 G/G) and Atlanta (6th with 3.07 G/G), despite putting nearly 33 shots on goal a night (5th in the league, tied with Philadelphia). They’re taking shots, no question – team captain Alex Ovechkin leads the league so far in shots in goal with 188 – but they’re not finding the back of the net as they were in the past.

Part of the problem is the lack of performance from the Caps’ top four point scorers: Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green. Ovie has only 14 goals so far this year, compared to 30 last season and 27 two years back. In fact, all four have fewer goals, down 23 as compared to this time last year. Semin seems to be the biggest disappointment in the first half; this is his final year in his contract, yet he’s not playing like it. After a hot start, he’s sitting on a 13 game goal drought and has only 10 points since November 20th.

Rumors have swirled recently regarding trading Semin for another quality defenseman or possibly a playoff-hardened goalie. (Some have suggested a swap with Boston for netminder Tim Thomas, also in the last year of his contract.) Caps management can’t be pleased that Semin’s lackluster play of late is somewhat devaluing his trade value and at this point in the season, it’s really hard to justify Semin’s return to the team next year for any length of time.

It’s very possible that as Coach Bruce Boudreau has altered the Caps offensive attack into a more conservative style – which reduces the number of rushes and odd-man attacks that excite the crowd at the Verizon Center – has discombobulated the more high-octane shooters. If that’s the case, give it a little more time; Boudreau’s strategy shift isn’t even a month old.

What has saved the Caps from utterly collapsing in offense has been the astounding and pleasantly surprising play from its third and fourth liners like Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson. Since his call-up in early December, Perreault has been a tour de force on the ice, notching 5 goals (7 points) and a +6 rating. Johansson has also notched 7 points and has shown some grit pushing himself into the opponent’s crease and trying to create opportunities in front of the net.

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Defense (A)
Again, no misprint. Going into the season, the Caps’ blue line had a big, fat question mark on it. With little movement in the off-season, there was some question as to whether the Caps would address their most glaring weakness from seasons past, and in what way.

Early on, it didn’t look great. The Caps blew a few two and three goal leads at the start. As the season progressed, they progressively got better. Currently eighth in the league in goals against per game with 2.54, they’ve only allowed 104 goals on the season so far, 9 less than last season. And they’ve only allowed 5 or more goals in only four games this run, as compared to 7 last year. More importantly, the eight guys on active defense duty are a combined +20 for the season so far.

The numbers speak of a maturing process. With the acquisition of veteran Scott Hannan in early December, the Caps have a nice veteran core with Tom Poti. Three of the eight are under 25 years of age. Most pleasing is the pairing of rookies Karl Alzner and John Carlson. While rocky at the start, the two have turned into Boudreau’s “go-to” team when pairing up the defense against an opponent’s top line and are the only defenseman on the team to play all 41 games this season. The last three games, they faced Pittsburgh’s Crosby line, Montreal’s Cammalleri line, and Tampa’s Stamkos line – and have not been on the ice for a goal against in any of those contests. More telling, over the last 9 games, they’ve piled up a respectable +7 (Carlson) and +8 (Alzner) rating. Their play of late has been inspiring and bodes well for the Caps’ long-term future on defense.

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Goaltending (A-)
With no clear number one netminder, the Caps still rotate playing time between Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Neuvirth started the season heavy in rotation due to nagging groin issues with Varlamov; Neuvirth won 12 of his first 15 games, posting a .945 save percentage and a goals-against average of only 2.26. In 26 games so far, he’s got a respectable 14-6 record and .911 save percentage. He’s also in the top four in GAA and save percentage in the league; clearly, Neuvirth has stepped up his game.

Varlamov has played 14 games on the season so far, with a 7-4 record. His GAA is better than Neuvirth, with a 2.08 GAA (versus 2.56) but his play tends to be more streaky, with win streaks of 3 and 4 games and one losing streak of four.

While it would be nice for one of them to really step up and be a number one goalie, the Caps are in a good position with both in net. If anything, the solid play by both makes them attractive trade bait as the trading deadline approaches, which could net the Caps a final piece that just might be the key to a successful Stanley Cup run.

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Special Teams (B)
Coming off a dominating 25% success rate on the power play last season and seeing many of the same faces on the PP this year, it’s quite a shock to find the Caps at a paltry 18.5% at the midway point, sitting near the middle of the league. Only 28 goals in 151 chances is not enough to win a long playoff campaign, and it’s the main component of the Caps’ game that needs an immediate fix. With all of the big four underplaying, it’s easy to see where the power play fails to convert. Astute observers notice that Ovechkin plays for the majority of each power play, which tends to see his teammates focusing on getting him the puck in the slot, rather than putting bodies in front of the goaltender and scraping in those much-needed “ugly goals” that are necessary for winning teams. The Caps still tend to play the edges and rarely get up and close to the goalie (unless their name is Mike Knuble) for redirects and rebound grabs. It’s a situation that has to change, and soon. Once they quit trying for the highlight goal and get their hands dirty in the crease, the power play will start clicking.

On the opposite end, the penalty kill is just dominant. One of the other questions we had in our season preview was how the Caps’ PK would do after last year’s abysmal numbers (78.8% success, 25th in the league). Right now, the Caps’ PK is fourth-best in the league, killing 85.4% of their short-handed situations, and have even generated a respectable 5 goals when down a man. Much of this has to do with the great performance by the Caps’ blue liners and a determined stodginess in refusing other teams to capitalize on penalties. If only the power play could reciprocate, the Caps’ special teams would be a scary mess for opponents.

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Coaching (B)
There was a time in the not-so-distant past that many were questioning how much longer Boudreau had in the capital. It’s a moot point now; in the last few games, Boudreau has rolled out a decidedly different strategy for the Caps, one that is more playoffesque in its tactics and very different than the normal ‘run and gun’ fans are used to seeing. While much of it is very reminiscent of the New Jersey trap of the previous decade, it has helped the Caps end an ugly eight game losing streak and right the ship. And that’s key, especially if the Caps want to actually progress farther into the playoffs than before.

Boudreau is an impressive 164-68-34 since his arrival three and a half seasons ago, but a horrifying 13-15 in the postseason. With three seven-game series collapses, the Caps are in a position where they need to push all the way to the Stanley Cup finals or face some major changes. Success in the regular season only goes so far; it’s the post season that makes or breaks a coach’s career and reputation.

The losing streak was a big hurdle, and one that Boudreau cleared well. It was arguably the biggest adversity of his Caps’ coaching career so far and through the HBO 24/7 series that recently finished airing, we saw much of how he handled it and the team. Suffice to say, he did very well (despite the seemingly unending supply of f-bombs, used in all manner of ways, much to many an English teacher’s horror) in pulling the team out from its funk.

Boudreau can be counted on to tinker with his lines on the fly in any given game, sometimes to great effect and others to some spectacular failure. There is currently no real set combination at this point, something that most teams have figured out by now, and it’s most likely one of the biggest contributors to the poor offensive play of the team. His willingness to adjust his strategy to a more defensive-minded one so early in the season may well play out to be one of his best decisions; the more prepared the Caps are for ‘playoff style hockey’ by the time April rolls around, the better off the team will be. This of course depends on if he can maximize the talent still sputtering on offense, but how he handles that is also a test for the coming postseason.

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Front Office and Future Watch (A+)
I’m not afraid to admit it – I’m a huge George McPhee fan. His poise and shrewdness can sometimes baffle, but so far he’s made all the right calls. The Scott Hannan trade, nabbing the gritty defenseman from Colorado in exchange for a sputtering Tomas Fleischmann, was a great move, especially since it was so far removed from the March trade deadline. Sticking by Boudreau during the losing streak will most likely prove to be a smart decision as well – provided the adversity the team struggled through actually does make them stronger. Streaks like that can go one of two ways: a blip on the timeline of a team’s success (see 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks) or the start of a catastrophic breakdown (see 2010-2011 New Jersey Devils). McPhee is a problem-solver; he, more than any of us, knows what the Caps’ problems and potential is, and will make the moves to fix them. If he doesn’t, expect a replay of recent playoff “success” at the Verizon Center.

What McPhee deserves the most credit for, however, is the amazing success the Caps have had in their scouting and drafting over the last several years. Witness the performance of Caps draft pick Evgeny Kuznetsov at the recent World Junior Championships: the Russian center had three assists in the win over Canada and finished as the tournament’s second-leading scorer with four goals, 11 points in seven games. By all accounts, Kuznetsov was one of the best performing players on the ice; his play even impressed Ovechkin.

Cody Eakin, another Caps selection on the Canadian side, was one of the team’s best performers in the championship game. Both Eakin and Kuznetsov were late-round picks and the Caps organization has been pleased with their performance at World Juniors. Even U.S. defenseman Patrick Wey and German goaltender Philipp Grubauer had strong showings. The strong depth sitting in the Caps pipeline bodes well for the future of the team, even as they’ll readjust the rosters in the coming years due to the NHL’s stringent salary cap rules. Depth of talent is a strong pillar of today’s NHL dynasties, and the Caps are settling into that mold well with the strong drafting decisions made by McPhee and his team.

So overall, the Caps – while looking a little less dynamic and stellar than in years past at this point in the season – still remain a strong contender for the postseason. While no longer a lock for division or conference champ, the team can still go deep into the playoffs and have a good shot at bringing the Stanley Cup here to DC. It really depends on how well and how fast the offense can adjust to Boudreau’s new way of thinking, and if the team can settle down long enough to let new habits take over.

We’ve still got four months to go, after all.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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