A year ago, the Capitals were the high-flying, big scoring red machine that cut through the Eastern Conference regular season like scissors making a paper snowflake. They led the league in scoring with 313 goals and were buoyed by the best top line in the game in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin.
This year has not been so kind.
The difference is striking, on the ice and by the numbers. Washington’s struggles on the ice have been well chronicles and denizens of the Verizon Center hope they have been remedied with the additions of another puck moving defenseman (Dennis Wideman) and a bona fide second line center (Jason Arnott) brought to D.C. at the trade deadline.
Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Last year the Caps scored 3.82 goals per game, more than half a goal higher than second place Vancouver at 3.27. The top line of Ovie, Backstrom and Semin tallied 3.93 points (goals and assists) per game. The top eight scorers on the team averaged 7.86 points per game. An amazing seven Caps scored more than 50 points with six of them above 20 goals.
Where has the production gone?
The second question is much more difficult to answer. Overall, the top two lines have not been in sync and the cue comes from Ovechkin. Ovie is scoring a half a point less per game than he was last year (1.51 to 1.02). He has not been the high-energy thumper that the league feared in previous years and he often looks more like Randy Moss on ice than say, Jerry Rice. If Ovechkin is not in the play, he is following it. His originality on offense is lacking. Ovie’s go-to moves –the swim move or toe drop and drag down the left wing – does not result in a quality shot as often as it used to. Ovechkin does not look as quick or as strong or as interested as he has been through is career. It is possible that he has been slowed by injury but it might also be that he is slowed by his massive celebrity. Perhaps both.
Partners in crime Backstrom and Semin are down as well. Backstrom is down about half a point a game (1.27 to .82) and Semin at a lesser clip (1.15 to .84). Put the three together and their total production is 1.25 points less per game (3.93 to 2.68).
That is why the Caps have gone from first in the league in scoring last year to 23rd.
So, the easy answer as to why the Washington offense is sputtering is that the teams stars, those counted upon to be the shaft the drives the truck, have been comparatively mediocre to what Caps fans have grown accustomed.
But that is only part of the story.
Washington has lost significant production on the second line as well. The second set of scorers from last year, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble and Tomas Fleischmann, averaged 2.18 points per game. Fleischmann, of course, has been shipped to Colorado in the Scott Hannan trade and the Caps have not been able to replace that production. Last year Flash was the sixth leading scoring forward on the team with 51 points (21 goals, 28 assists) and averaged .73 points per games played. This year the sixth leading scorer on the team is actually the stalwart of the third line, not even on the second unit, in Matt Hendricks who is averaging .33 points per games played.
The numbers show a lack of depth and the dearth of options for a legitimate second line center for most of the season has been a big reason for it. The two rookie centers that have been playing the role, Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, have combined for 33 points in 89 games. Laich and Knuble have suffered because of it. Even if you figure in some natural regression for the two from great seasons last year, they are still lower than they probably should be at this point.
There is a term in baseball that applies well in hockey to the loss of production due to loss of depth. It is called bullpen chaining. In baseball a bullpen is anchored by the closer and the relievers leading up to him are considered a bridge. Each reliever has a specific role – set up men, specialists, mid-inning relievers. In a perfect world, each reliever would play his role through the entire season effectively and in good health.
This does not often happen. When a reliever goes down, as they inevitably will, the chain is shortened and the link replaced with a weaker piece. Every man steps up a position in the system and the entire unit is a little weaker.
That is basically what has happened with the Caps. They entered the season without a decent option for a second line center and the original option – Flash – was sacrificed for defense and the offense has suffered for it. Last year the Caps were built well on two solid top lines and complimented well with role players on the bottom two lines. With Eric Fehr, the seventh best point scoring forward last year and a 20-goal man, missing time this season has exacerbated the problem. This year the top line has struggled while the second two lines have been more of a muddled mess of juggling between forwards at the six different spots.
That has also hurt the power play. The last several seasons the Caps scored on the man-advantage at a 25 percent clip, tops in the league. This year they are down to 15 percent. That averages to a difference of .38 goals per game that over a full season is 31 less goals, a significant amount. The problem with the power play is a different article entirely (for instance, the silly insistence of coach Bruce Boudreau Ovie playing the point taking him out of play half of the time), but it is worth mentioning in a discussion about the lack of Washington offense.
The Caps have 15 more games to straighten out their problems before the playoffs start and the additions of Wideman and Arnott have looked decent so far. Time will tell if Washington can pull it together to make a run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.