Rarely has there been a season heaped with higher expectations for the Washington Capitals than the one that kicked off a little over a month ago. So with a quarter of the 2010-11 campaign in the books, how have they lived up to those expectations so far? We take a look at the season to this point, and how the team - and the individual players - have performed.
Question 1: As usual, analysts were saying goaltending was a "weakness" coming into the season. Have the goalies, all three that have dressed for the Caps, lived up to your expectations, exceeded them or fallen short?
David M. Getz: I've been a little bit pleasantly surprised with Braden Holtby because, even though his ascent has been impressive, I didn't think he'd quite be able to hold his own in the NHL just yet. I still don't think he's quite there, but I do think he's pretty close. Naturally, I've been a bit disappointed - though not necessarily surprised - at the fact Semyon Varlamov's struggled with injuries.
Michal Neuvirth's been a lot better than I could have hoped for. His numbers aren't phenomenal, but his numbers also don't tell the whole the story. He has regularly single-handedly kept the Capitals in games, and even helped them steal a few. Don't get me wrong, I certainly felt he was talented coming to to the season, but to be that good, that often, while his teammates struggled? That's something I didn't expect.
Stephen Pepper: I agree on Neuvy's ability to keep the team in games at times this season where they might not have deserved to stay in them. What's most impressive to me is that he's been so consistent amidst an overwhelming #1 NHL goalie workload.
I have to say that I predicted well before the season began that Neuvirth would get the majority of starts for the Caps in 2010-11, on account of Varlamov's health and Neuvirth's demonstrated ability to play efficiently and confidently for a championship team, both in the regular and post-season. I didn't think that Varly would make it through the season without at least a few extended groin-related setbacks. And on that front, it's no wonder that Neuvy has a multi-year contract and Varly does not.
Becca H: I don't think any of us was particularly surprised that Varlamov's tendency to get injured popped up again this year – what surprised me most about that was how soon it happened. And it's frustrating, because in his (admittedly limited) appearances for the Caps, both in preseason and the regular season, he looked pretty good.
Beyond that, though, Neuvirth has - overall - been as good as expected, if not better. Which is good, because while Holtby's fast start initially led me to believe that the goaltending situation was well in hand his recent struggles have shown him to still be very much an AHL goaltender. Not unexpected, but troubling if he's backing up Neuvirth on a regular basis. Get well soon, Varly.
J.P.: Obviously Neuvirth had an unreal October (probably literally), Holtby's had his moments (both good and bad), and Varly's been hurt. But one thing that I think has become pretty clear is that, for the most part, these goalies are only going to be as good as the defense in front of them. That's not to say that there won't be games they steal (Neuvy did it several times during that first month) and games they let in more than they probably should.
But if this defense (and that includes the forwards - we're talking team D here) can't focus and keep shot totals and scoring chances down, it's probably not going to matter who's in goal or how well he's playing. The entire team needs to buy in here.
Question 2: Of the two deficiencies in the lineup, lack of a designated 2C and lack of defensive depth, which has been the bigger concern so far? Which will be the bigger issue down the road if not addressed?
JP: Jeez... gun to my head, I'd probably say second-line center. Don't get me wrong, seeing Tyler Sloan get a sweater every night doesn't give me the warm and fuzzies (to say nothing of those Brian Fahey games). But here are some forwards and their goal totals through 22 games: Brooks Laich (5), Eric Fehr (4), Mike Knuble (3), Tomas Fleischmann (4) - all 20-plus-goal guys last year, none on pace for that this year. Part of the reason is the team's inability to find consistent offensive production at second-line center, and the result has been near-constant line-juggling, even above and beyond Bruce Boudreau's normal shake-ups.
Moreover, it's the harder of the two problems to address. While neither the defensive depth the team needs nor the viable 2C option are currently in the organization (sorry, Mathieu Perreault fans), it's much easier and cheaper to find serviceable NHL blueliners than Cup-contender-worthy second-line pivots.
DMG: I'm going to have to disagree with you on that one, J.P.. Second line center is a major issue right now, but I think it's still possible the team could work out a solution in the postseason, be it Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault, or someone else. Unlikely, but possible. A deep playoff run with John Erskine and Sloan as the team's sixth and seventh defensemen? That I don't think is possible.
JP: Well, last year's Blackhawks used seven defensemen in the playoffs, and one of their top-six spots was roughly eight minutes per night. The Flyers also used seven, with a top six spot getting less than seven minutes per night and another at ten minutes. In other words, those teams leaned heavily on their top four or five blueliners, and I think that in Mike Green, Poti, Carlson, Schultz and Alzner, the Caps have five they can lean on. Add another top-four guy and they're in great shape, but they can easily find a Nick Boynton or Lukas Krajicek or whatever to fill out the depth - those guys aren't likely to make or break your season.
On the other hand, you look at the centers those teams (and other recent and current contenders like Pittsburgh, Detroit and others) have played and not a single one of them had a second-line center that wasn't as good as Johansson or Laich or Perreault. That second-line center is going to get big minutes and is going to have to produce to take pressure off the top line, and we all saw what happened when that didn't happen last spring.
BH: I’m actually going with DMG on this one. I think both need to be addressed further down the line, and I think both will. For now, however, the lack of defensive depth is taking its toll on the team in general and the defensemen we have specifically. When one of them gets injured, the burden on the others to play more minutes or fill roles that are out of their capabilities can cause them to not perform as well – obviously injuries happen and when they do, someone always has to step up, but it shouldn’t have to have this much of an impact this early.
Look at what happens when, for example, Carlson is asked to fill in for Green, or when multiple guys are injured (as they could be right now). We don’t need them to play their best right now – guys like Laich, Knuble, Fehr, etc. will play better when/if they’re given a legit 2C to play with, but that can happen closer to the deadline when playing your best hockey is more important. The concern right now is that overusing guys, forcing them into minutes beyond their abilities, forcing Green to skate 30+ minutes a game, could lead to them wearing out well before the playoffs.
Pepper: Count me in the 2C question mark is worse camp. But not by much. The lack of defensive depth is equally disastrous in the post-season. As much as we've bemoaned Varlamov's health concerns in goal, Tom Poti's reliability is far from certain in that same regard. Leaving the team with Jeff Schultz and Mike Green, the latter's playoff performances being, for injury reasons or otherwise, mediocre to put it charitably, and behind them, a very young tandem with no playoff experience beyond an adrenaline-fueled first round last spring.
But for the reasons J.P. mentioned - the necessary line-juggling chaos at the top two trios and consequential inability of the secondary scorers on this team to get on a roll (or vice versa) - the lack of a solid second pivot is starting to instill some nasty habits that will no doubt cripple the team's hopes of a deep playoff run. If someone doesn't emerge. I shudder to think about how crucial MJ90's development is to a successful second season.
Pepper: Ovechkin's struggles have been shocking, and demoralizing to watch. The Captain's leadership both on and off the ice has turned what was an important "certainty" for this team into a dark cloud of doubt.
I'm not at all surprised about Semin's play to this point. But I am surprised that Sasha has stayed healthy, since he's missed at least seven games during the months of October and November in each of the last three seasons.
JP: For me, it's Ovechkin's failure to get on track. We've seen Alex Semin have hot streaks before and I'm not convinced that this one is significantly different than any of those (and don't look now, but he's minus-4 with one assist and four minor penalties in his last three games, so he'll need to nip this little downturn in the bud and fast).
But to see Ovechkin struggle has been more over the past few years. Is it a motivational issue? Health? Who knows. And if coasting through the fall gives him a little more left in the tank come springtime, that's great. But selfishly, I want to see the best player in the world be the best player in the world every time he steps on the ice, and he hasn't been so far. And that's surprising.
BH: I'm going the wishy-washy route and saying…both. Probably slightly more surprising to see Ovechkin stumble so hard out of the gate (and yet still put up points, which is just a testament to how good he is even when he's bad), and I'd agree that selfishly I want to see the best player be the best player – especially considering the performance of other stars to this point like Stamkos and Crosby.
But I think Semin's all-around play has been much improved and I actually do see a difference between this "hot streak" and previous ones – the little things like the back-checking, the smarter plays, more physicality, etc. are setting it apart for me. Even his recent stretch of "bad" games haven’t seemed as bad as they do on paper. And I know how much some people love this argument: he still looks good to me even if the stats don't always reflect it. Two not-so-great games before, but he had five shots on goal against New Jersey, and he was one of the few guys who was still moving his legs in a losing contest.
DMG: I'm going to go with Ovechkin's start. Nothing Semin does surprises me at this point.
Question 4: In your opinion, how has the rookie tandem of John Carlson and Karl Alzner performed to this point?
BH: I've been really impressed by Carlson and Alzner so far. They're not a top D pair yet but I certainly didn't expect them to be, and considering the situations they've been thrown into - Carlson having to step in for Green and Poti, Alzner being saddled with whatever defensive partner is left over when things get shuffled around, etc. - they've exceeded my expectations. And the best part is that, as one would hope but as is never a guarantee, they've gotten better each game. Even with the occasional step back they seem to be learning at exactly the right pace.
Pepper: Carlson and Alzner are emerging into, if not a solid "shutdown" pair, a good plan B. It's essential to have stability in two pairs, and 52-55 was the only regular pair towards the end of last season. Stepping aside the issue of whether a playoff shutdown tandem should be comprised of a 20- and a 22-year-old, respectively, with 72 regular season and 8 playoff NHL games collectively behind them coming into this campaign, they've shown marked improvement through the first 20, which is all we can ask for.
JP: If I was grading them, I'd give them a solid B. Thirty-three percent of Alzner's minus games have come in the last two, and Carlson is plus-9 while shouldering a heavy workload (especially when Green was out and as Poti continues to be out). I probably expected slightly more offense from them, but that will come. They're by no means out of place taking regular shifts in the NHL.
Question 5: What has been the most pleasant surprise of the season? The biggest disappointment?
JP: Pleasant? Neuvirth's October. Not only because it helped the team enormously, but given the route he has taken to get to the NHL (contra Varly's path), it's nice to see him prove that he can handle what's thrown at him - and a lot has been.
As for disappointments, Ovechkin is the easy answer, but I'll go with Varlamov's health. Kid needs to get - and stay - healthy, both to help the team (and reduce Neuvy's workload) and to get his career back on the impressive trajectory it was on prior to injuries hitting hard last December.
BH: The most pleasant surprise for me has been the performance of Matt Hendricks. His invitation to camp was unexpected, but the way he performed in training camp and the way he seemed to fit so seamlessly into the lineup made his signing anything but unexpected. He's added a welcome level of grit to the lineup, adds another dimension to the third and fourth lines and seems to be very well liked by his teammates. Plus I just like watching him run up and down the bench whenever someone on the ice scores.
As for the biggest disappointment, I won't shy away from the easy answer like J.P. - it's absolutely Alex Ovechkin. We've seen flashes of what he can be, but one of the great joys of being a Caps fan is watching him every night and we've been deprived of that so far this year. The explosiveness isn't there, the physical side of his game is more subdued and he's shied away from his usual goal-scoring instincts. It's frustrating because we have no idea what the issue is, whether it's a mental issue or an injury or what, so it's hard to really judge what the solution is. Obviously he's an immense talent and it's not really a question of if but when he'll break out...just waiting for it to happen.
DMG: For me, that most pleasant surprise have been Neuvirth. I won't rehash how good I think he's been, but he's the one guy who's gone beyond not only what I expected, but what I thought was reasonable to expect.
Pepper: Most pleasant surprise? I'm with Becca: Matt Hendricks. Exactly the type of player that the team has lacked over the last few seasons. The Caps haven't scored enough ugly goals since Chris Clark was dealt, and Hendricks has the ability to chip 'em in.
Biggest disappointment? Poti's continued injury concerns, especially after the multi-year contract he just signed. The team desperately needs the elder statesman on defense in the regular lineup.
Question 6: Using the metric of your choice, grade the team's performance overall.
BH: I'd give the team a solid B to this point. There are areas that need improvement and holes that need to be filled, there needs to be greater focus and a higher compete level all the way through a game, but there does seem to be some growth over last year. The last few games aside there's more of a dedication to the little things, Semin's playing well in Ovechkin's "absence", the young defensemen are playing as well as could be expected, the goaltending has been (mostly) good and at times stellar, and the team is right where they need to be standings-wise - which puts them in a great position while they tweak and adjust the rest.
Pepper: If we're talking about the regular season as a preparation for the playoffs -- a lengthy trial run of getting the team's game together and getting everyone to "buy in" prior to the start of the second season -- I'd give the team a C. The improvement and effort required to do what we all hope the team is capable of doing in June is just not there to this point. The first game against the Flyers, the game @ NYR, and the second versus Buffalo stand out as gutsy, playoff-caliber performances. But the team follows up strong defensive performances, and three forward lines getting consistent offensive opportunities, with a game like, well, any one of the last three. So far, I don't see a lot there to convince me that the team won't again suffer another upset come playoff time.
DMG: In absolute terms, I'd give them a 'B+'. They haven't been as good as their record suggests, but all things considered they've been very good.
Relative to expectations, or their potential, though? A 'C'. There's been as much good as bad and, like Pepper, I don't have a ton of faith that the issues that hurt the team last postseason won't re-emerge.
JP: I think it's hard to give them anything other than an incomplete. How much do a couple of stinkers in November with your third-string goalie in net matter to a team that's once again poised to run away with their Division? How much do wins in which they let teams come back from multi-goal third-period deficits matter? Or games won purely on skill and not so much on effort? I don't know. And we probably won't know for some time yet.
This past trio of games notwithstanding, they've been racking up points in the standings, doing what they have to do... for now. And they've shown glimpses of how good they can be. So since my "incomplete" won't sit well with you guys, I'll give them a B/B- as a team, a grade that considers both effort and results, recognizing full well that if the former doesn't improve, the latter won't be what we all want come April and beyond.