Today's question is a straightforward one - which Cap is most-improved since the end of last season?
Kevin: I'll (happily) take the bait and say Alexander Ovechkin. His even-strength points-per-60 are dramatically up. His primary assists-per-60 have more than doubled, and his goals have obviously spiked as well. He's drawing more penalties, and now when he does so it brings the League's most dangerous powerplay unit onto the ice - a distinction helped in no small part by Ovechkin's League-leading 16 power-play goals, a mark that puts him only one PPG behind...the Boston Bruins. Last season, Ovechkin tallied all of 13 times on the power-play, in 32 more games played.
A big knock on Ovechkin during the struggles of years previously is that his possession numbers were down. After continuing to struggle in the wonderful world of Corsi at beginning of this season, as he wrangled with a new position and an, um, interesting bevy of linemates, Ovechkin has righted the possession ship, at least relative to the rest of his team when he's not on the ice, bringing last year's -3.4 CorsiRel up to a 3.1 this year. His even-strength shooting percentage is up from last year's 8.75% and is now hovering around the 11.25% mark, and with the sheer volume of pucks he's heaving at the net - at 214 total shots (4.6/game) he leads the League, and by more than an order of magnitude (last year Ovi didn't crack the top-five in shots (303, 3.8/game)).
Bear in mind that while Ovechkin is accumulating these numbers with a great increase in offensive zone starts from Dale Hunter's questionable usage of the superstar last season, he's also doing it with the largest percentage of defensive zone starts he's had in the past six seasons. This ain't Ovi brought back to life. This is Oates's Ovi. Ovi 2.0.
Becca: Troy Brouwer. He had a decent first year with the Caps, but this year he seems to have found his stride as a second-line winger and power play wizard, and has come through when the Caps have needed him to - particularly early in the season. He's really turned himself into a player that the team's needed him to be; he may not drive the play, but not everyone can be a driver - and he's learned how to help the play get where it's going, which is just as important.
It seems to come down to usage and confidence for Brouwer, which obviously goes back to the magic man behind the bench. Adam Oates has given Brouwer a new job: that of the designated shooter on a line with two playmakers, something vastly different from his days alongside the Ovechkins and Patrick Kanes of the world. And he's responded, clearly feeding off of his new role. Instead of getting his chances off of the rebound or as a result of his linemates being neutralized, Brouwer's being actively set up to put the puck on net; instead of having to carry the puck into the zone for Ovechkin, he's being allowed to find space for himself while others do the carrying (much like the aforementioned Ovechkin). And he's become just one more weapon in a fully stocked arsenal on the power play, offering up a big body and big shot right in front of the net and in the slot to not only create a screen but create options for the quarterbacks.
The numbers alone are pretty amazing. Through 46 games he's pulled himself to within a stone's throw of career-high numbers he established in almost twice as many games. His goals-, assists-, points- and shots-per-game are all well above any single season mark in his career; ditto with his goals/60 at both even-strength and on the power play.
And while the numbers themselves are good, what's more important is how consistent he's been and how productive he was when the Caps needed him to be. He (along with Mike Ribeiro) were carrying this team offensively before the top trio's resurgence - and he's continued to produce since (albeit with a bit of a lull that extended to the whole second line), playing a big role in the Caps' run to the division title. In fact, only twice this year has he gone at least three games without a point. Whether or not all of this is sustainable long-term is another issue, but that kind of consistency and those production levels could go a long way to making this team a threat in the playoffs.
Geoff: The most improved player on this year's roster is (now) starting goaltender Braden Holtby. Entering the lockout-shortened 2013 season, coming off of an impressive fourteen game playoff run (7-7/.935/1.95), this was Holtby's year to establish himself as Washington's go to guy.
Holtby came into this season with 21 regular season games to his credit, 14 wins in those contests. Through Tuesday night's game against the Jets, Holtby has more wins (22) this year than he had starts before this NHL season. His 8-win/1-loss April has catapulted Washington to the top of the Southeast Division, allowing a meager twenty goals on 314 shots (.936 S%) along the way. His play this past month has surpassed last year's .922 regular season in a similar number of decisions; Holtby is trending in the right direction as April (and the regular season) comes to its close. While his season average of .919 is a personal NHL low it is understood that he has faced three times as many NHL shots as ever before (1,089 this year), making a dip in percentages likely. Despite the multiplied workload Holtby's numbers remain above the league average in several key netminding categories; games played, wins, save percentage, and shutouts (and assists). All of this is even more impressive considering that Holtby has faced the seventh highest amount of shots-against in the league, stepping up to meet the competition all year.
Much of Washington's success has been (properly) focused on the triumphs of Alex Ovechkin, but Holtby has been the last line of defense (and oftentimes the decisive factor) in 84% of Washington's 25 wins. Without marked improvement from their goaltender, the Capitals wouldn't have the luxury of looking at the Winnipeg Jets in the rearview mirror, the Capitals bonafide number one earning that view with his stellar play throughout 2013.
JP: My most-improved did most of his improving over the course of this shortened season, and in just about half of it at that: Marcus Johansson. Sure, he's had a pretty cush assignment, riding shotgun on a line with two of the League's hottest (and, oh yeah, best) players. But he's more held his own with 20 points in 23 games (with only three coming on the power-play) since returning from the concussion that sidelined him earlier in the campaign.
And it's not just his box cars that are looking better, his possession stats have dramatically improved as well (and note that that includes his brutal start to the year) and his speed and skill have helped open things up for Ovechkin to be more dangerous at even-strength. As the captain told Kevin a couple of weeks ago, "He's grown up like a pro, like a person, and you can see. He makes great passes, and his ability to skate is unbelievable."
Has Marcus Johansson finally arrived? It seems more like it every night.
Rob: Alex Ovechkin? The guy who has two media-voted MVP awards, three player-voted MVP awards, two Richard trophies, and leads all active players in goals-per-game? He's the guy who is "most improved"? His skill has always been there, that's undeniable. His production has improved over the last couple years, but he's always been Alex Ovechkin. Did we re-calibrate the bar so low that Ovechkin playing like Ovechkin is "most improved" worthy? Nope. Sorry.
The argument for Braden Holtby comes down to opportunity. He already had incredible numbers, and had shown the ability to carry the team through a playoff series. His numbers were so good that people thought them unsustainable. This year he increased his sample size, and his numbers haven't regressed as much as most probably expected. He's showing he's got the chops to be a number one NHL goalie. But did he improve? Not really. He just got more ice time and continued to show that his prior performance may not have been a fluke. The Caps would not be where they are (in all likelihood) without Holtby's strong play, but I'm not seeing the case for "most improved."
Troy Brouwer? Notwithstanding that Becca only chose him to troll me, he seems like the same player he's always been, with a shooting percentage that won't continue. There's no doubt he's been a very valuable player for the Caps this year, I just don't see the true improvement. Without a shooting percentage that's four points higher than his career, he's not looking at a likely 20 goal season (he'd have four or five fewer goals). He's been put in a position that is very favorable to him, and he's come through for the team. Make no mistake, that's great. But, like Holtby, it's still a product of opportunity, rather than truly improved play.
Marcus Johansson has been a possession sieve throughout his tenure in the NHL. He's somehow still produced. It's been a constant debate on our site, and in the comments, regarding whether Johansson's points production should suffice as an indication of the player, or if his horrific possession stats were going to come back to bite him. Well he's finally gotten about a quarter of a real season's worth of quality possession play, and we are going to anoint him "most improved"? That says more about the quality of the field, and our expectations, than it does about any improvement. He's always produced (5th leading scorer from his draft class), so I'm not sure that the 20 points in 23 games is an indication of his improved play, rather than riding the Ovechkin/Backstrom gravy train (have a cigar, Marcus). If he were able to maintain positive possession numbers over a longer period of time I might buy his case, but at this point I'm skeptical and I'm concerned this might just be a hot stretch. Hopefully he can keep it up, but I can't dub him "most improved" at this point.
In short, you are all wrong. But there is a common theme through most of these players. Who got Alex Ovechkin to adjust his game, and bring his production back to what we were formerly accustomed to? Who got Troy Brouwer into the slot in a new PP formation, allowing him to use his natural skill set more effectively? Who put Johansson on the top line left wing, and (presumably) instructed him to use his speed to open space for his talented linemates? The one place where the Capitals are drastically improved this year is behind the bench.