With just a little over a quarter of the season gone, it's as good a time as any to weigh in on the Caps' performance so far...
Q1: What has been the biggest surprise so far for the Caps, pleasant or otherwise?
Rob: It’s Marcus Johansson by a mile. Heading into this year nobody had him tied for fifth in the league in assists, with some MVP-caliber company. He leads the team in even strength assists and he’s on the top power play unit, which hasn’t suffered the drop off many people feared/expected. He’ll always be subjected to dismissal because of his linemates, but there’s no evidence that he’s a passenger on a line with two elite players. He’s got the top individual assists percentage on the team at even strength, and his individual points percentage is second only to Ovechkin’s perfect score. He’s been involved in the play, making things happen, and he’s had some great anecdotal moments. The Caps just gave him a prove-it bridge contract, but I don’t think even an optimist could have expected him to prove it like this.
Peerless: I’d agree that Johansson qualifies as the most pleasant surprise, but I’ll put in a plug for Joel Ward. He is on a pace for personal bests in goals and points overall, and he has held his own as a part of the Caps’ most consistent line at even-strength. His ratio of 5-on-5 Corsi events for and against have been 50 percent or better in 13 of 21 games, and he has had a knack for drawing penalties without taking them. His work is not flashy, but it has been of the blue-collar sort the team has had only inconsistently in recent years.
Muneeb: Like Peerless, I agree that it’s Johansson, but I want to give some love to another name as well: Nate Schmidt.
When the Capitals signed him in April, I thought Schmidt would need at least a few weeks to adapt to the professional game. But the 22-year-old Minnesota product played well enough to be the first call-up on the blueline, and it took fewer than three games before he earned enough trust from the coaching staff to play top-pair minutes with Mike Green. He now averages the second-most even-strength minutes per game on the Caps blueline, and to the tune of its best Corsi rating to boot. While he makes his fair share of rookie mistakes, doesn’t yet take a regular shift on either special teams unit, and hasn’t looked as good recently without Green on his right side, given the Caps’ severe lack of depth at left defense, having someone step into the top-four on that side and not look overwhelmed is a welcome sight.
JP: Three pleasant surprises so far... I suppose everything that’s gone wrong has been expected (or at least feared)? While I’m tempted to stick with the trend (Jason Chimera’s even-strength production, Michael Latta’s play and the penalty kill’s proficiency leap to mind), I’ll be the voice of negativity and go with Martin Erat’s lack of offense.
Yes, Erat has bounced around the lineup (worth noting, though, that his most frequent five-on-five linemate has been Nicklas Backstrom), and his underlying numbers have generally been good. But he has just six points on the season, all assists, half of which came in one game, and all coming against either Columbus (four in two games) or Philly (two in one game). So for those of you keeping track at home, that means in 35 games since being acquired from Nashville, Erat has one goal and has been held off the score sheet 30 times. He’s gotten on the board, on average, once every seven games. Say what you want about his deployment, his lack of power-play time, his possession metrics, etc., that’s just not good enough for a guy who was scoring at more than a half a point per game clip last year and more than three-quarters of a point per game for the two seasons that preceded it. And, yes, it’s surprising. Unpleasantly so.
Oh, also Mike Green leading the League in shots-on-goal without a goal. That’s surprisingly lousy luck.
Becca: It probably sounds weird to suggest, but I'm going with Nicklas Backstrom's performance so far. We obviously all know how talented he is, so it shouldn't really be a surprise, but it wasn't all that long ago that he - like Alex Ovechkin - was struggling. And while Ovechkin gets most of the spotlight and the attention for turning things around and performing at such a high level, and while he certainly deserves praise for adapting his game, watching Backstrom through these first 22 games has really been something special. He's scoring 1.09 points per game, his highest rate since his 101-point season back in 2009-10, and his assists-per-game rate of 0.86 is his highest of his career... and it's not like these are your everyday assists, either. He's already got several highlight reel-worthy helpers on the season.
And since we've mentioned Chimera and Ward and the third line as a whole, it can't hurt to throw Mikhail Grabovski's awesome performance over the last month into the mix. He may not be filling that second-line center role we thought he would (...yet) but he's already got more points in 22 games than he had in 48 last year. Take that, Randy Carlyle.
Q2: Is it better to leave Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer together on the "second" line and hope they develop chemistry at some point, or break them up and risk throwing off the other three fairly successful lines?
Rob: As long as the third line is going to score like a first line I think you just leave that line together. It’s clear that the fourth line isn’t an option for either Troy Brouwer or Brooks Laich, and the other two lines are both scoring effectively. It’s unlikely that juggling the top three lines is going to create a better three-line mix, so just leave it. But I’m not hoping for any "chemistry" between Laich and Brouwer. The only hope is for Laich to just work out of his funk and start playing like he did before his injury. Once that happens, there will be more options for Adam Oates to work with, and the third line probably won’t be scoring at the same rate (spoiler alert: they will come back to earth). Brouwer is what he is and he’s playing how he plays.
Peerless: I can’t help but think Brouwer is this year’s Chimera, a guy who follows up a career year with the cruel joke of the pendulum swinging wildly in the other direction. It is one thing to tolerate that on a third line, or bump that player to the fourth line, but on the second line it is a problem. But in a way Brouwer’s performance is not all that surprising. Despite his top end numbers last season his possession numbers were not all that hot. And this year, they are not all that good, either. The strange part of his production so far is that as a matter of efficiency, his performance is not all that much different from previous seasons. He’s shooting to a 15.2 percentage that is not that far off his 17.1 percent last year. His shots on goal are down, though, about 40 percent on a per game basis.
In Laich’s case I have to think that it is a case of rust. Dealing with injuries is a new wrinkle in his career - until last season he missed just four games in his previous five seasons combined. He has the same shooting issues as Brouwer, his shooting percentage (9.4) being close to his career average (9.9) but lacking volume. If they can generate some more offense in terms of getting shots on goal, I think this can sort itself out. In that case, I think it argues for keeping them together a while longer to see if that happens.
JP: I went into it a bit yesterday in the Mailbag, but I don’t think you can keep these guys together. Individually, they’re fine as the third-best (or most skilled) player on a line. They’re passengers, and not necessarily in a derogatory way, indeed in some ways like a Mike Knuble (whom the Caps seem to miss more than you’d have thought). But together they’re somewhat redundant and neither creative nor skilled enough to make a line work, regardless of who the third skater on the line might be. At this point, I’d split them up and see if maybe Laich can do some good on a shutdown third line between Chimera and Ward (those guys aren’t going to keep scoring forever, y’know), and see if Erat- Mikhail Grabovski -Brouwer works as a second line.
Becca: I'd agree with JP here - I just can't fathom why Oates has insisted on keeping the two of them on the same line. I've never liked Brouwer and Laich on the same line, I see their styles as too similar and not complementary to each other's strengths. Too often they go to the same place on the ice and that puts a lot of pressure on whoever is skating with them - Erat, for the moment - to get the puck to where they are or keep it in the zone should they both lose a board battle. Yes, the idea of breaking up the other lines makes me wary... but as JP pointed out, Laich could work well with Chimera and Ward and I'd love to see Erat and Grabovski together.
And what about Eric Fehr? Why not give him a shot and put one of the guys not performing in the press box for a game or two?
Q3: Through 22 games, the Caps’ penalty kill is one of the League’s best, operating at just over 86% so far - a dramatic turnaround from where it has been in recent years. What do you see as the biggest reason for the PK success so far? How sustainable do you think this is (i.e. is it likely to stay in the League’s top ten for the remainder of the season)?
Rob: In reality, the biggest improvement on the Caps’ PK has been Braden Holtby. They may be executing the penalty kill system better now than last year, but they also have the top PK save percentage in the league. They give up a ton of shots, so it really is just Holby locking it down on the PK.The 35 consecutive successful kills helps the picture, but if they can’t find a way to keep teams outside of the offensive zone they are going to start giving up more goals on the PK.
Peerless: Why are they successful? Volume. Eleven times this season they held opponents to three or fewer power play opportunities, and in those games the Caps are 30-for-32 (93.8 percent). In ten games they allowed four or more power play opportunities and are 43-for-52 in those games (82.7 percent). More opportunities mean more opportunities to tire a PK and introduce more opportunities for puck luck – deflections, fortuitous bounces, etc. Manage the opportunities, and I think the PK will be just fine.
JP: Rob and Peerless nailed it. That .928 save percentage at four-on-five is absurd (especially since it’s higher than their five-on-five save percentage) and bound to regress in a big way - the last time the NHL played a full season, New Jersey led the way with a .917 mark, and over the three year span prior to this season, Los Angeles was the only team above .900 at .903. But if they can keep opponents’ opportunities down, that will certainly cushion the landing. If I had to guess, I’d have them outside of the top-ten in efficiency.
Q4: Personnel additions/subtractions aside, what do you see as the one area in which the team needs to improve?
Rob: They still need to improve at even strength. They are riding some unsustainable shooting percentages and if they don’t start spending more time controlling the puck they are going be hurting when the percentages adjust. Granted, the team’s possession numbers would look a bit better if our friends from Question #2 could pick up the pace, but nobody is clearly winning possession battles in a way that puts the percentages in the Caps’ favor. From a statistical perspective and a common sense perspective (more time with puck means less time opposing forwards have to attack the suspect defensive corps) they need to start playing better at even strength if they want to keep winning games.
Peerless: Their first 20 minutes. Only five times in 21 games have the Caps taken a lead into the first intermission. There are eight teams that have done it less frequently, but seven of them are out of the playoff mix at the moment. Seven teams have scored fewer first period goals than the Caps; five of them are out of the playoff mix. The Caps have been outshot in the first period 15 times in 21 games and have been outshot 229-188 overall in the first 20 minutes. If they improve here, other things might fall into place as a product of putting opponents in a position of having to take more chances later in games.
JP: Defensive-zone play and exits. We talk plenty about the virtues of carrying pucks into the zone versus dump-and-chase, puck possession and so on, but it all starts on the back-end and the Caps have been woeful there. You want more carry-ins? Sorry, not going to happen when it takes 45 seconds to clear the zone. You want better possession numbers? Not likely when Options A, B and C are chipping it out rather than breaking out cleanly and under control.
Is it a personnel issue? A system issue? Coaching? All of the above. And until it gets better, don’t expect any drastic departures from what we’ve seen since over the past ten months.
Becca: All of the things mentioned above, and one more - consistency. No team ever plays at a high level (or even at the same level, high or low) all season, but the good teams will put up strong performances more often than not and the Caps just don't seem to be able to carry over the good things from one game into the next often enough. Shot-differential aside, Sunday we saw them put together one of the better games of the season against a tough opponent; it wasn't the lopsided game that the score would suggest but it was a well-played game, an entertaining game... and then three days later against a slumping division rival they looked unmotivated (for a game that should have required little in the way of motivation) and unprepared. Until they can find some sort of rhythm, they'll be what they are now - a mediocre, .500 team.
(All photos by Clyde Caplan / clydeorama.com)