During the off-season leading all the way up to opening night on October 1st the over-whelming majority of Capitals fans, writers, bloggers, & hockey analysts had this team pegged as fringe play-off contender (Not a fringe Stanley Cup contender). Realistically, if you went through their roster this team just didn't have the horses to keep up with the elite teams -- barring any dramatic breakout seasons -- or survive in a new division facing tougher competition.
Everyone seemed to see the Capitals struggles coming from miles away. That is everyone except Ted Leonsis and the rest of his Washington Capitals staff. As it has been well covered Ted Leonsis was quoted saying that he did not see any weaknesses on this team and thought his team was so deep that injuries could not be an excuse. REALLY? REALLY????@!!
How is it that so many other people could clearly identify the Caps short-comings during the off-season/training camp, but the people who have the most insight into this organization could be so far off from reality?
The Caps were a team that rode an incredible hot streak to barely qualify for the post-season last year and were moving to a new tougher division, but very little was done in the way of making any improvements to the roster. Ribeiro was let go and the Caps were fortunate enough to sign Grabovski at the last second to replace him as their second line center. Could you even begin to image how the season would have gone if we'd gone into the season with Brooks Laich as our 2C? It'd have been a disaster, although we'd probably still have Perreault.
During the off-season Japers Rink wrote a great article breaking down our roster and comparing it to our competition. Using stats and metrics it was predicted that:
1. Top line of Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin was excellent last season (especially down the stretch), but their success was mainly driven by a high "on-ice shooting percentage" rather than possession (the most reliable predictor for future success). The theory was this top trio had enough skill & fire power to maintain the high "on-ice shooting percentage" to remain a successful unit, but if they could possess the puck more they could be dominant.
What happened? As shooting percentages in hockey are largely very unpredictable often varying from year-to-year the Caps' 1st line saw a significant dip in their "on-ice shooting percentage" from well-above average to well-below average. Outside of Alex Ovechkin, whose personal 5v5 shooting percentage was decent, the top line had an abysmal 5v5 "on-ice shooting percentage". To make matters worse the top line received below average goaltending posting some of the lowest "on-ice save percentages" on the team. Although to be fair all the blame should not be put on the goalies (even if Caps' management believes that is the case). Some should be attributed to a porous defense and at times lazy back checking from Ovechkin, both of which were well documented. The latter being made into a far bigger issue by the media than it should have been.
Backstrom and Johansson were both snakebite in terms of shooting percentage at even strength, but they also probably looked to pass first too often rather than calling their own number.
Next season the Caps need to make sure the top line is designed to once again dominate possession and has enough scoring power to take some pressure of Ovechkin and provide him with a little more space on the ice. I have always been a big MoJo supporter, but I was disappointed that he was not able to take his game to the next level and I am starting to resign to the fact he might not have another level. He will be one of many Caps that have a lot to prove next season.
2. Second line of Erat-Laich-Brouwer. With the departure of Ribeiro the Caps called on Laich to fill the 2C void. This line was seen as won that would both largely struggle to possess the puck and create enough scoring chances for a 2nd line. While this line was given some time together and struggled as predicted, the Caps fortunately signed Grabovski as many fans had hoped. That led us to our initial 2nd line Laich-Grabovski-Brouwer, which became known as the "Black Hole Line" as any line that featured Laich and Brouwer was referred. Enough said. Throughout the season there were numerous 2nd line combination none of which provided the necessary secondary scoring the Caps needed. The most successful was probably Fehr-Grabovski-Brouwer, which I am still confused as to way it was broken up.
Regardless of who's on the 2nd line next season this is a huge area of concern for the Caps. They have not 2 dynamic scoring lines since Alex Semin walked and in today's NHL having scoring depth is so vital.
3. Caps' 3rd line of Chimera-Perreault-Fehr/Ward, was seen as the biggest strength of our line-up during the off-season. The line posted strong possession metrics, plus/minus ratings, and were capable of scoring while making life difficult while sustained zone time. Perreault seemed to finally find his niche within the Capitals line-up as a playmaking 3C that drove possession. However, all that changed when the Caps decided they didn't want Tom Wilson to get "bad habits" in juniors (whatever that means) and decided to play him 7 minutes a game as their enforcer. Keeping Wilson led McPhee to trade away Perreault, who by the way is just entering his prime at 25 and is on a ridiculously good contract with a cap hit of $1.05MM that was set to make him a RFA at the end of the season. The Caps got a 4th Round pick for him, after developing him for sooo long and he finally seemed to find his niche in the NHL, we traded him for crap.
All this being said the Caps 3rd line was still the teams biggest strength and might be the best 3rd line in the NHL. It didn't seem to matter who centered Chimera and Ward that line was great all season. Still frustrated about trading Perreault who would have been much better suited than Beagle, Laich, or Erat to fill in on a scoring line should Grabovski get hurt. (Perreault's stats in Anaheim 69GP-18G-25A-43Pts- +13, 13:52 TOI / Plus he drives possession and wins face offs).
4. 4th line Volpatti-Beagle-Fehr/Ward. Predicted to be a solid line as Oates will likely play Fehr or Ward at RW. Beagle is great at face offs and can kill penalties. Volpatti is just there. Again, the Perreault trade and Grabovski signing had impacts throughout the line up with our 4th line being Erat-Latta-Wilson. This is actually a pretty awesome 4th line except Erat was none too pleased with his role and demanded a trade. Plus an ineffective 2nd line and injuries provided Erat with opportunities to play in a top 6 role. Had this 4th line remained intact I think they could have been one of the best 4th lines in the league. Ended up being LW-Beagle-Wilson and they were defensively solid and a decent energy line, but nothing special.
The Caps have plenty of talented physical young forwards who should be given an opportunity to develop on the 4th line next season. Volpatti needs to go via waivers and Chris Brown & Michael Latta should be given the chance at the role. I love Beagle and his work ethic, but Latta is solid defensively, wins face offs and hustles just like Beagle, but has more upside to his game especially offensively.
Defense: No need well documented as the team's biggest issue. They made a mistake resigning Erskine and desperately need another top 4 shutdown defenseman to pair with Green or Carlson. The hope was McPhee would target one via the trade market, but they command a lot in return.
The Capitals blue line is by far and away the team's number one area for concern. They need to acquire that physical shutdown top 4 defenseman in the worse of ways. The developments of Orlov, Carrick, Schmidt and Wey should be positive despite their struggles at times this season. As young talented blueliners they should only get better and provide the Capitals with a pretty deep blue line.
Goalies: Holtby (Starter) / Neuvirth (Backup) Another position of relative strength at a very affordable cap hit. Future looked bright in net for the Caps and it was predicted that they would need to shine in order for the Caps to be considered any type of threat. Oates forcing the goalies to change their styles led to problems and many deflating soft goals that had a major affect on his goaltending tandem's confidence. Plus an injury to Neuvirth (shocker) during a time he was starting to gain Oates' confidence led to Grubauer being recalled and running with his opportunity.
This led to a 3 headed goal monster that Oates managed absolutely horrendously. It ended with Holtby & Neuvirth's already shaken confidence dropping to an all-time low, created a little bit of controversy, led to a trade demand, and it showed Holtby that the organization might not be committed to him long-term. The only good is it gave Grubauer some experience and allowed the Capitals to see what he's capable of at the NHL level.
Next season the Capitals need to commit to Braden Holtby as their #1 goalie. He made adjustments to return to his previous style that seemed to pay dividends down the stretch and will hopefully carry over into next season. Either bring in a veteran goalie to back up Holtby or let Grubauer start getting seasoned in the NHL.
Back to the point of this post. I didn't take a genius to see that this Capitals team had:
- A very offensively talented top line that relied on shooting percentages rather than possession, which can be a dangerous game to play considering how unpredictable shooting percentages can be from year-to-year even with all the offensive talent in the world.
- A second line that would struggle to score and win the possession battle.
- An excellent 3rd line, which might be the Capitals biggest strength as a team.
- A solid, if unspectacular 4th line.
- A defense with 3 legitimate top 4 options, with a significant drop off after them. A huge weakness that has needed to be addressed for some time. Until then the Caps' defense will struggle.
- A young, talented goaltending tandem, but still relatively inexperienced and unproven.
- Trading Perreault was a mistake and the return of a 4th round pick for him is terrible. I don't necessarily put that all on GMGM because Oates was pushing hard for keeping Wilson around and it forced his hand to move someone. I'd honestly rather have seen us move Jay Beagle's $900k contract since we acquired Latta and at least waited until their was a market for Perreault instead of just giving him away.
- A top line talented enough to be dominant but hasn't been under Oates, a non-existent second line, an excellent 3rd line, decent forth line.
- A porous defense with 3 legitimate options that would be an issue all season if it was not addressed.
- Talented, but largely unproven goalies being asked to all change the playing styles that got them to the NHL.
- An unproven head coach entering his first full season after needing an incredible stretch run to make the playoffs before once again flaming out in the first round.