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Rink Roundtable: Midseason (And Then Some)

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[Ed. note: We had originally planned this as a mid-season post, a way to get everyone involved and to touch on some deeper issue beyond a cursory look at the team at the season's halfway point.  But, for a number of reasons (including the length of the discussion), we're getting this out slightly later than we originally planned.  Nonetheless, the commentary on the team's performance is all still valid, and the added quality and content was worth the wait in our opinion.  Enjoy - and be sure to let us know what you think.]

DMG: With the season at its midpoint (in terms of games played for the Capitals, any way) and a new year upon us, now's as good a time as any to evaluate where the team stands; what they've done right, where they could stand to improve, and what it's going to take to bring the Cup to Washington. 

To start things out, I guess the question, then, is how would you rate the team's season thus far?  Use any metric you like: letter grades, scale of 1-10, plain old text - whatever strikes your fancy.

Becca H:  On a scale of 1-10, I'd say this team is around a 7.82 (give or take a hundredth of a point). 

Every hockey analyst with column inches to fill has spent the last few years talking about the weaknesses of the Washington Capitals, the things that keep them from being a legitimate Cup contender - goaltending, defense, or a combination of the two. It's an easy answer, but not really the right one. The weakness of this team lies in their tendency for mental lapses. Bad penalties at inopportune times, relaxing with a lead, taking weaker teams too lightly - all have contributed to losses this season.

That being said...when they're focused, when they play as a team and commit to the system both offensively and defensively, they're good. Scary good. They don't sacrifice offense for defense or defense for offense; the two just flow together seamlessly. We saw it against Buffalo, against New Jersey, in the first San Jose game, the first game of the season, and in many other games this year - especially recently.

The most promising thing about this team is the way they've gathered points. They've had dominant performances where it feels like they deserve more than two points for a win, and they've had lackluster performances in which taking the points feels almost like stealing. They've won with Alex Ovechkin and without, when scoring in bunches and when scoring in...well, smaller bunches, at least. And as the season has progressed they're developing that killer instinct that so often was missing early on - a promising thing to see the later we get into the year.

Stephen Pepper:  I agree with the mental focus point.  This team is scary good, moreso that any Caps team in the history of the franchise.  As an armchair observer and intermittent rec player, it's easy for me to sit back and criticize occasional lapses in an 82-game schedule.  But the fact is that Championship teams arrive at a higher level of consistently sharp play than the 2009-10 Caps have yet to demonstrate.  (Post-Ovechkin's anointing as captain, however, we've seen a dramatic shift in that direction.)  Points and standings wise, this squad has fully met, if not exceeded, my expectations to this point.  Certainly for a team largely intact from last season, that had to withstand an abrupt fall from such an emotional high in mid-May of 2009 to start all over again with regular season Game 1. 

Otherwise, I'm more and more convinced as the season progresses that this team has all of the tools, and maybe even a surplus of talent, to win the Cup.  Especially after considering our Caps-centric views on the Spector Eastern and Western Conference trade bait lists and assessing what the potential "upgrades" might be.  If anything is most concerning to me today, it's goaltending.  But that's an issue of Semyon Varlamov's health and durability, not performance during the season to date.

Tuvan Hillbilly: Since I'm getting ready to do annual reviews at my daytime job, I thought I would grade the Caps using the same dimensions I would grade my direct reports on. Each dimension is graded on a scale from 1 (why are you still here?) to 5 (you walk on water). A 3 rating is an average rating for someone meeting the position requirements, neither excelling nor struggling.

Technical proficiency/quality of work: 4.  While you have shown instances of brilliance and are doing an overall above-average job, there are still times when you make mistakes which I find puzzling and inexcusable. You have demonstrated to me that you have amazing ability, I just want to see you apply it more consistently.

Teamwork/Flexibility: 4. Kudos for your willingness to try out all sort of new combinations, but understand that the reason behind this is that sometimes your team combinations aren’t working. But when they do, you are the best. A 5 rating on your next review is definitely within your grasp.

Procedural Knowledge: 5.  I know you know your job. Just don’t think you ever have to stop learning. And never, ever, underestimate the competition.

Communication: 4.  For the most part you are doing a very good job, only the occasional miscue keeps you from being at a 5 level.

Attendance: 4.  Just show up for every game, that’s all I ask of you.

Adherence to policies and procedures: 4.  Sometimes some infractions of the rules are unavoidable, but keep committing avoidable infractions and you’ll be down to a 3 rating.

J.P.: I give the team a solid B+. When healthy, they've been dominant for decent stretches. When not healthy, they've... been dominant for decent stretches. I guess what keeps them out of the "A" range for me right now is that they haven't put together too many 60-minute efforts (it seems like one every ten days or so), have had some discipline issues that linger from last year, and haven't quite developed the closer mentality/killer instinct I think we'd all hoped they'd have by now.

But it's the regular season, and they know how relatively little any one of these games means (and still have managed to open up a 12-point division lead and posted a stellar record). Efforts like they put together against Buffalo and Jersey last week and some of the earlier wins show that this can be an A+ team, they just aren't every night, and that's probably OK... for now.

DMG:  I'm more or less in the same boat as you, J.P..  I've liked what I've seen out of the team as a whole - certainly it's hard to complain about where they are in the standings, guys like Varlamov, Tomas Fleischmann, and Eric Fehr have exceeded my expectations, and the team's discipline is more under control than it was last year.  That said, I'm still seeing far too many of the problems we saw last year: players not getting the puck in deep, too much fancy passing, failures to clear the defensive zone, a failure to adopt a more defensive style when protecting a lead, and tendency to coast.

All told, I'd give the boys a 'B' relative to my expectations at the beginning of the season.

J.P.:  No doubt the three guys you mentioned exceeded expectations... at times. But didn't you expect Flash and Fehr to be inconsistent, overall? Didn't you expect Varly to be somewhat injury-prone?

DMG:  Absolutely, but Fleischmann with 14 goals in 30 games, Fehr with 19 points in 30, and Varlamov with a .924 save percentage is better than I would have expected from them.

I've also been encouraged by the progress I've seen in how they're playing.  Both Fehr and Fleischmann are more willing to do to the net, and Varlamov has cut down on his tendency to over-commit to a play and bail himself out with his athleticism.

J.P.:  I'm with you on Varly, but Fehr has done little more than showing, pardon the pun, flashes similar to what he's done in the past. Take out his impressive seven-game scoring streak and he has four goals and five assists in 23 games. He needs to remember what he was doing during that hot streak (i.e. going to the net, forechecking... and backchecking), pronto.

But that's getting a bit into the weeds. Where were we?

DMG:  Well, since we're hitting on the topic anyways, I'll pose the following questions: are there are only players whose play you've been particularly impressed with this season?  Or, going to the other end of the spectrum, anyone who has really disappointed you?

Pepper:  Fleischmann has impressed me the most.  But I'm sure that my expectations for him to this point, coming off an extended health-related absence and missing training camp, were less than those of management.  To a lesser extent, John Erskine has impressed me.  Some nights could be forgotten, but in many others during this campaign, he's looked to me to be worth every one of those 125,000,000 pennies per season.  I think he matches favorably against most other third-pair D in the league.

I was most disappointed in Chris Clark's apparent inability to grab additional minutes, averaging the fewest shifts per game of any non-Hershey call up.  But that's water under the bridge now . . .

J.P.:  I'll go with one of each. I've also been particularly impressed with Fleischmann. He seems to be a stronger, more willing version of himself, and that's definitely a good thing. Honorable mentions to Matt Bradley (cult hero) and Varly, who rebounded from a bad end to the playoffs and start to the season brilliantly.

On the flip side of the coin, I've got to admit that I've been a bit disappointed in Mike Green. I'd hoped for fewer mental lapses and a bit of an evolution in his game, defensively, and haven't seen it. That said, I still have the utmost faith in him getting there. Guess I'm just impatient. Honorable mentions here to Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin. Perhaps I've had unrealistic expectations on all three, though.

DMG: I share your disappointment with Green.  Honestly, I wasn't expecting him to produce at the level he did last year, because that's just so far beyond what defensemen do these days, but I was expecting him to come back and play better defense.  Yet, to me, he's looked worse than last year and all too often it seems like those mistakes are avoidable cases of bran cramps or being too casual with the puck, rather than the inevitable miscues that come from playing defense in the NHL.

I've been more disappointed with Tom Poti and Erskine.  I know Poti's never been a top-tier defensive guy, but with his experience and the fact that he's not being asked to do a ton on offense I would have at least thought he could be a minute eating guy that I felt comfortable with, but honestly it's gotten to the point where I'm a little anxious whenever he has the puck in the Caps end and doesn't have a clear path to carry or pass it out. 

Erskine looks like he has regressed to me.  When the Caps first picked him up I figured he was a placeholder for the rebuild, but over the next couple seasons I thought he really improved his positioning and skating to the point where he was a legitimate NHL defenseman.  To me he now looks like a guy in over his head.  You know that guy you play with and say "He's a nice guy and all, but he should really be playing C league rather than B league"?  To me, that's Erskine this year.  He looks like he should be playing at the level below this one.

That said, his numbers are pretty darn good, even if Boudreau does protect him by playing him against poor competition, and it's hard to argue with success.

TH:  I'd also pick Fleischmann as the one I'm most impressed with. Of course I'm tainted with his fantastic performance the other night, but he has really stepped up his game all season. I'm not so down on Green. He's not playing up to his potential, but I don't think he is far from it.  Maybe I'm just feeling generous today, but I can't think of any serious disappointments on the team right now. I would tell Quintin Laing that I love his enthusiasm and willingness to sacrifice his body, but would prefer that he save that up for the playoffs, where it will have the most impact (no pun intended).

BH: As far as disappointments go, I'm going to single out two of my favorites:  Semin and Jose Theodore. Both of them have been given multiple opportunities to step up and be The Guy, and neither has taken it. Each of them is, in his own way, an enigma both on and off the ice; both are immensely talented and often over-criticized (yes, even Theo). And while I will defend each of them ad nauseum and continue to stand by them regardless, I'm really disappointed that I haven't seen more from them.

On the flip side, I'll echo everyone else in saying that Tomas Fleischmann has been a pleasant and extremely welcome surprise. He's really starting to evolve into the type of player he was in Hershey, into the type of player that Boudreau's been telling us he was all along. In a strange way that freak blood clot in his leg was probably the best thing to happen to him - he got stronger, and with the strength he gained confidence with the puck, and with confidence he's become a pretty lethal offensive threat in his own right.

I'd also throw Nicklas Backstrom into the mix as someone who has impressed me, although it seems strange to say that somehow. Every season it seems he takes another step forward, and this year is no different. Aside from his ever advancing creativity with his play, and his willingness to shoot the puck more, Backstrom's become more physical and plays with more of an edge. But most surprising is the leadership I'm starting to see from him - it's quiet and understated (especially next to a particularly loud Russian) but it's definitely there. Nice to see.

DMG:  To Pepper's earlier comment, I don't think there's any glaring hole in this team, but I think there are certainly areas that can be addressed.  Why don't we finish up by talking about that: at this point in the year, what do you think the Capitals are going to need to do to give them the best chance to win the Stanley Cup without, of course, hurting the team too much in the long run?

TH: The team has shown they have the skills and performance ability to beat any team in the league. If they want to and if they are healthy. I’m with Pepper on the goaltending health issues. I think a healthy Varlamov can take them deep, if for no other reason than I really believe the teams simply plays better when he’s in net. Which leads to the issue of drive, desire, will—whatever you want to call it, it’s that ethereal quality that BB knows you can’t turn on or off like a spigot. The boys need to start girding their loins well before the playoffs begin, so they go into the first round with wild eyes, nostrils flaring, and screaming "No pasarán!" at the top of their lungs.

Pepper: A top four defenseman with significant Stanley Cup Finals experience.  That would definitely shore up the collective mental focus and stamina through a full second season.  I'm thinking of one who is toiling away in California and might have one more championship run left in him . . . 

BH: Upgrade the defense - I've stood by this group of blueliners for a pretty long time, and I do think they're a very talented group that doesn't get enough credit. But I'd love to see someone come in and provide a veteran, calming presence for the defensemen. In short, they need whatever the defense's answer is to Sergei Fedorov

Feds' greatest contribution to this team during his brief time here wasn't his offensive production (although it was timely) - it was his ability to come in and have instant respect, instant credibility. The name "Scott Niedermayer" has been tossed around a bit of late...think of the impact someone like him would have on guys who idolized him growing up, like Mike Green and Karl Alzner

Of course, to get him and not hurt the team long-term, the price would have to be right. Neuvirth, a prospect (not named John Carlson) and a pick would seem to be a reasonable trade.

Beyond that, this team doesn't seem to have a lot of spaces to fill. If McPhee were to pick up more sandpaper or figure out something with the goaltending, great; but what the team really needs to do is just play their roles. The grit, the offense, the leadership, the defense, the ability to win and do so convincingly - all of that is in the room. It just needs to come out.

DMG: I'll throw my hat in the "defense upgrade" ring too because the Caps need a way to take some pressure off of their current defense corps.  Almost to a man, the team's blueliners are being asked to do too much.  Mike Green's played more than thirty minutes in three of the team's last four games, Tom Poti's getting 21:11 a night, 3:21 of it shorthanded, and taking more shifts per night than any other defenseman, and Jeff Schultz has been the team's second best defensemen this season and, as much as I like the guy, that's asking more of him than should be asked.  I look at those numbers, the roles these guys are playing, and their overall talent level, and it just doesn't seem to be enough to bring the Cup to D.C..

Depending on what exactly's going on behind the scenes the team might need to add a veteran backup goaltender (Martin BironJohan Hedberg?).  Boudreau doesn't seem to have any faith in Theo right now, and if that's the case the team needs to add someone else to mix.