There are a lot of teams in the NHL who would be (or are) thrilled to start the season with three wins in their first four games. And maybe the Washington Capitals are one of them. To be sure, points in the standings are easier to come by in October than in March. But for a team of whom great things are expected, wins and losses aren't going to be the sole basis on which the team is evaluated... at least until April. So here it is the second week of October and the Caps are in pretty good shape, even if "things aren’t entirely hunky-dory".
With that in mind, we thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the Capitals early season "concerns" and try and figure out which ones are legitimate worries, and which ones we should expect to work themselves out.
(1) The power play is struggling
Why it's a concern: After the Caps dominated with the man advantage in 2009-10, clicking at a 25.2% rate last season (Montreal, at 21.8% was second), a 2-for-17 showing through four games might not seem like all that big a deal. And it might not be. But the reality is the Caps have now scored on just three of their last 50 powerplay opportunities, dating back to the start of their series with the Canadiens. Has the League figured out how to stop Washington's powerplay? If so, can Bruce Boudreau make an adjustment, and how effective will the team be after they reset?
Why it's a concern: In the early going, the Capitals are winning 46.2% of their faceoffs, better than just five other NHL teams, and the problem is virtually team-wide. The usually reliable David Steckel and Boyd Gordon have won 50 and 41.7 percent of their respective faceoffs, while Marcus Johansson and Tomas Fleischmann are at 35.7 and 42.9 percent. As noted by J.P. on Wednesday and the Post's Katie Carrera yesterday evening, faceoffs mean possession, and if the Capitals don't get better at them, they're going to be at a disadvantage, especially in their own end.
Why it's not a concern: David Steckel and Boyd Gordon have been consistent performers in the faceoff dot, and faceoff ability is a skill that doesn't tend to regress to the mean, so they should be fine. Given that Johansson's a rookie and Fleischmann has spent very limited time as a center at the NHL level, there's no reason to think they can't improve.
(3) Defensive Depth
Why it's a concern: As it stands right now, the Capitals are committed to playing either John Erskine or Tyler Sloan every night. And that's when the team's healthy. If the team's missing more than one guy - as they might be tomorrow, with Mike Green out and Tom Poti still day-to-day - the team's looking at Brian Fahey, Sean Collins, or Lawrence Nycholat ( Patrick McNeill is still hurt, but will be another option down the road). Is that a situation a team with Stanley Cup aspirations should be happy with?
Why it's not a concern: It's October, and there's plenty of time for the Caps to add another NHL-caliber defenseman or two (or three), or even have a guy make unexpected progress and establish himself before the postseason starts.
(4) The Second Line Center Situation
Why it's a concern: Tomas Fleischmann has a decent amount of skill and should be able to produce offensively, but he also has a history of inconsistency, has faded towards the end of the year each of the last two seasons, isn't a very good defensive player, and has five points in 22 career playoff games. Marcus Johansson has, all things considered, looked solid this season, but doesn't look close to being ready for second-line duty. And before you point out that the Capitals have enough talent elsewhere to be successful with an underwhelming second line center, remember this: Tampa Bay had Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, Carolina had Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour, Anaheim had Ryan Getzlaf and Andy McDonald, Detroit had Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Pittsburgh had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Chicago had Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Dave Bolland. In the post-lockout NHL, every Stanley Cup winner has carried at least two good centers.
Why it's not a concern: As is the case with defense, there's still plenty of time to find an answer, either from inside or outside the organization, and the odds are a heck of a lot higher that someone who's already with the team will lay claim to the job, be it Fleischmann, Johansson, or Mathieu Perreault.
(5) Semyon Varlamov's health
Why it's a concern: In three years in North America, Varlamov has yet to make it through a full season without missing time due to injury, and last season never seemed to get back on track after missing almost two months with a groin muscle injury (Varlamov's save percentage before the injury was .924; after his return it was .885). Although Varlamov looks ready to get his 2010-11 season underway after missing the Caps' first four games with his injury, it wouldn't exactly surprise anyone to see him land on IR again.
Why it's not a concern: At this point there's not any way to rationalize or explain away Varlamov's injury history, no matter how much we want to believe it's not going to be an issue. That concern, however, is mitigated by the fact Michal Neuvirth has played so well in Varly's absence, meaning another stint on the shelf probably won't do the Caps in.
(6) Nicklas Backstrom's slow start (point-wise)
Why it's a concern: It's not.
Why it's not a concern: He's still Nicklas Backstrom.
At this point in the season, whether a problem is something to be genuinely concerned about is a function of how long it's been around. A sample size of four games are essentially meaningless, and anything that has only been a problem for the last two weeks shouldn't be considered anything more than a bump in the road. The problems we were talking about last spring and over the summer? Those might be another story.