Hey Capitals: Where are your superstars?

Photo courtesy of
‘Ovechkin Tosses First Star Puck to Crowd’
courtesy of ‘clydeorama’

The Capitals have to figure that eventually, something has got to give.

In seven games in the month of January, the Capitals have scored 14 goals. That is two goals per game and even those have been a struggle. Yes, coach Bruce Boudreau changed his game philosophy in mid-December to be more defense-oriented, but he was probably counting on at the time of the switch that Washington would also be enjoying the fruits of the labor of its superstar point scorers. After all, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom all scored over or near 80 points in 2009-10 (with Backstrom and Ovechkin both over 100) and there was a reasonable expectation for them to perform to similar levels this year. The team is not greatly changed, the same coach is in place, Verizon Center is still continuously sold out and there is motivation after two-straight years of disappointing playoff defeats.

So, D.C., where are your superstars?

Ovechkin is due for 29 less points this year than last (109 to 80), Backstrom 28 (101 to 73), Semin 22 (84 to 62) and Green 39 (76 to 37). That factors out for a whole season to be 116 points less between the Capitals’ top four players. That is the equivalent of a great season for any NHL superstar or about three Brooks Laichs.

Washington beat Ottawa on Sunday in the Battle Of The Capital Cities, 3-1 in front of the 86th consecutive sellout at Verizon Center. It was boring hockey for much of the game. The type of mid-January affair where the wheels on the buses spin but nothing happens until one team grinds the other away or somebody makes a mistake. The Capitals trailed the Senators 1-0 after two periods and it was another ho-hum affair in Chinatown for a team that has seemingly lost its electricity.

That is not to say that the Caps cannot be electric. The third period showed that as Laich was given a gift in the slot in front of Ottawa goaltender Brian Elliott to tie the game. A Washington power play 45 seconds later led to rookie defenseman John Carlson tallying off a feed on a face off, and it was 2-1. Jason Chimera used Elliott as a pinball a little later in the period to seal the deal. The Caps won because they wore Ottawa down and were opportunistic with their goals in the third period. If Ottawa had been equally opportunistic the first two periods it could have been a 4-3 affair, in the favor of the Canadian contingent.

Yet, it was a game that was a good microcosm of what ails the Caps right now. They are a battered team missing some of its scoring pop with Semin and Eric Fehr out with injury (Fehr may be done for the season) and except for a couple quick strikes here and there, they can be a very boring hockey team.

Is this really what has become of Capitals’ hockey?

Rookie center/forward Marcus Johansson started the game on the wing with Ovechkin and Backstrom. Yes, Marcus Johannson. He of all 32 games NHL experience  with six career goals to his name. The organization likes him (and there are some things to like) but for Johansson to be so far up the depth chart, there is something amiss in the nation’s capital.

The fact of the matter is, the Caps just do not have the type of scoring depth that they have had in the past, or even earlier this year. Couple that with the new defense-first policy and it makes for a team that can be boring and low on scoring.

Which is exactly when you need your superstars to play like they are superstars.

Which has not been happening in Washington of late (in any sport, really).

“I think people are obsessed with it [Ovechkin’s lack of goals] because they want to come and see Alex score, you know?” Boudreau said. “Believe me, there is nobody in the world who wants to score more than Alex. He had some great looks, he had some great chances and it is not for lack of will, it is not for lack of want but at the same time he is the first one jumping up and down when we win the game.”

And the Capitals won on Sunday in spite of production from their superstars. Backstrom did win the faceoff on the powerplay that set up Carlson, but that was the only point between the three of their stars in the game (Semin is still out after taking that “hip to the thigh” last weekend). Ovechkin had a chance on a rush breaking towards the net but was stuffed by Elliot. Washington was able to win because their grinders were better than Ottawa’s grinders. Considering that the Senators are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, that is no surprise.

“Ovie is just one step … he had a great chance coming in to the goal himself,” Chimera said. “They are going to go in, we are too talented a team not to score goals it is just a matter of doing the little things. We went to the net better tonight, I think, in those goals and in the second period there were two or three shifts were we had two guys at the net and guys just blasting away at the points. That is what we need to do.”

The question right now is: are the Capitals really too talented not to score?

The top six forwards right now consist of: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Laich, Johansson, Mike Knuble and Matthieu Perreault. That is two rookies, two career NHL grinders (Laich and Knuble), one NHL superstar (Ovechkin) and one top-tier center (Backstrom). When you look at the talent on those top two lines, it is not all that different from any other team in the bunch that is the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Too talented not to score? The Capitals rank 14th in the league in scoring. After 46 games they are what they are — a middle of the road team with potential that struggles offensively and defensively and will need some luck to not only win their division (the Lightning, who the Capitals cannot beat recently, are in the driver’s seat) but win a playoff series.

One of the key words about the Capitals? Potential. The roster still has the superstars. Ovechkin and company have the potential to come around and carry the Capitals. The superstars need to be superstars when the time comes for great players to do great things. General manager George McPhee has a a choice to make in the next month before the NHL trade deadline. There are teams willing to sell and right now Washington could use another top-six forward with some scoring pop.

Does that mean that the Capitals should be buyers at the deadline? That remains to be seen. If McPhee thinks he can win with the rookies (Carlson, Karl Alzner, Perreault, Johansson) and AHL call-ups (Jay Beagle, Andrew Gordon et al.) then he should hold ground until Semin is healthy and productive again (healthy probable, productive, that is a different story) and see what happens.

The window for Washington is more narrow than the most fans think. Ovechkin is locked up long term, but Semin is in a contract year and the core of this group of Capitals will be very different this coming fall.

Correction: This post was corrected at 5:41 p.m. on Jan. 17 to fix the name of the Capitals’ general manager. It is George McPhee. Not Bruce McPhee. Thank you.

Here is Boudreau’s post game presser after the win verse the Senators.

Dan Rowinski

New England raised, transplanted in Virginia. Sports writer who has spent several seasons on the NHL beat covering the Boston Bruins along with stints writing about Boston College, Red Sox, Capitals and Nationals. Has worked for the New England Hockey Journal, WEEI.com, Fire Brand Of The American League, TBD.com among others. Also a technophile covering technology for ReadWriteWeb. Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Rowinski or email him at dan (at) welovedc.com.

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