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Are the Caps Closer than We Thought?

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After a rocky road to start the season, it looked like the Capitals had taken a major step backwards. A closer look shows that might not be the case.

Paul Bereswill

Two weeks ago I had an ugly thought.

Not only is this team not good, I reflected over a Wednesday morning cup of Joe. They’re not even close to being a contender.

It was admittedly the bitter and rash thinking of a jaded fan who had just watched the Capitals waste their best chance of the season to climb back into the playoff hunt by losing three in a row to the Islanders, Rangers, and Hurricanes, and getting outscored to the tune of 13-3 in the process.

It didn’t seem rash at the time, though. How far the Caps had fallen from spring 2009, when they took the eventual Stanley Cup champs to a 7th game in the 2nd round, or the following year when they were borderline unstoppable until running into a hot goalie in the playoffs. We had a core unit of superstars. They were young, and they would be Caps for a long time.

What followed? Failure. Turnover. Then some more of each, until we finally arrived with Adam Oates at the helm. And alas, how did this season begin but with another healthy spoonful of failure. A slow start from the captain, awful penalty killing, shoddy goaltending. You were there for it, so I don’t need to drag you back through my own acerbic recollection.

Simply put, the Caps roster looked exactly like what it was: a Boudreau roster, that had been stretched between conflicting philosophies over the prior year and change, now trying to execute Oates’s game.

As much as I think Adam Oates is the right man for the job, I wasn’t ready to embrace the thought of another rebuild. Not if it meant watching the primes of our core players hollowed out to husks, while we looked bright-eyed to the future...again.

But once the premature, impulsive, woe-is-me cloud of dejection faded, and was usurped by a gale of optimism following a string of fine performances by the suddenly healthy Capitals, I began to realize that things weren’t so bad. In fact, they look pretty good.

Let’s dive a little deeper, starting with the middle of the team.

(By now, you probably know how to read this. Here's a basic guide: little red bubble means bad. Big red bubble means very bad. Little blue bubble means good. Big blue bubble means very good. High means tough opponents. Low means easier opponents. For a more comprehensive analysis, head over here, where we conducted, uh, a more comprehensive analysis.)


[Visualization courtesy of Rob Vollman, who just released customizable player usage charts. Awesome.]

Guys like Joel Ward, Nicklas Backstrom, and Eric Fehr are taking tough minutes and turning them into positive possession time for the Capitals. Troy Brouwer, who faces the toughest competition of all Caps’ forwards, leads the team with 7 even strength goals. That’s impressive.

Though none of these players’ successes have been particularly noisy, their contributions to a seemingly mediocre team should not be overlooked. In terms of possession, all of these skaters are outplaying the opposition’s best forwards on a nightly basis. That might not be a complete groundwork for success, but it’s at least the first few lines drawn on a blueprint.

Next, let’s have a look at John Carlson and Karl Alzner, once married, now divorced but still friendly. And, perhaps, the two biggest reasons why this tumultuous season remains afloat, despite the choppy waters. Simply put, Carlson and Alzner have been beasts. They’re playing the toughest minutes of all the D (with Erskine in the mix too), and beating them handedly. And they’re doing it apart from each other. What’s that mean? It means that the Capitals have two young defensemen, championing different line pairings, who are capable of taking the opponents top skaters head on. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Carlson is perhaps prone to the highly visible gaffe here and there, and his start to the season was as awful as the team’s collective effort. But he seems to have found his footing under Adam Oates and Calle Johansson, and is handedly proving that he’s capable of being a 24 minute-per-game guy. Oh yeah, and he’s only 23. Draft pick status: hit.

As for Alzner, he’s continued to be the rock he’s always been. Four systems and three coaches in two years? No problem. Locking up Alzner should far and away be this team’s number one priority.

So the middle of our lineup is stouter than a Russian imperial, and we’ve got two rocks on the blueline. So what about the rest of the lineup. Those pesky first and second liners. The ones who are supposed to, you know, score.

Is Alex Ovechkin silencing the critics or what? Mike Milbury took a healthy bite of crow in front of a national audience earlier this week, saying "Alex Ovechkin is great again", which leads to me to one of two conclusions: 1) Ovechkin has been great, or 2) the Russian government finally succeeded in shooting a mind-control device into Milbury’s skull while he slept.

The easy knock on Ovi is that his scoring on the powerplay is skewing his goal numbers, which really isn’t any knock at all. For the last two years the ever-swirling narrative around this team was, "How do they get Ovechkin going again?" Blanketed beneath that media-friendly (and abused) topic was another issue: "What happened to the Capitals powerplay?" After boasting the best man-up unit in the league in 2009-2010, they regressed to 16th in the league the following year, and then to 18th the year after that. The two questions are not unrelated.

Boil this team down, its primary ingredient is Alex Ovechkin. If a re-fueled powerplay is the catalyst in Ovechkin’s performance, so be it. He trails only Troy Brouwer with his 6 even strength goals besides, and he’s done it while learning the nuances of a new position. Indeed, if you’re to attribute Ovechkin’s high shooting percentage on the powerplay as "lucky", then you’d be well off recognizing that his luck at even strength has been poor and will likely even out, just as his powerplay sniping will.

And, for what it's worth, Alex Ovechkin is drawing far and away the most penalties on this team, so there's something to be said about how he's creating the very opportunities he's capitalizing on.

Boil this team down, its primary ingredient is Alex Ovechkin

Let’s drop from the top of the roster to the bottom. Braden Holtby looks like he’s a franchise goalie. In 44 career regular season games, Holtby has put up a .922 save percentage and a 2.36 goals against average to go along with this 7 shutouts. That’s one shutout every 6.2 games. Not too shabby. Henrik Lundqvist, perennial Vezina candidate, boasts a .920 career save percentage, and a 2.27 goals against average. Holtby’s sample size is obviously smaller, and by more than an order of magnitude, but as an early measuring stick, the returns are promising.

That’s a lot of solidity throughout the lineup, which is saying something given the obstacles of inconsistency the Capitals have faced.

This team is better than their record indicates. They’ve played most of it without a top six forward in Brooks Laich, and a top four defenseman in Dmitry Orlov. They did it while learning a system on the fly that’s nothing like the one they played in last year, and with their most prolific player on the opposite side of the ice.

Now they’re healthy and have grown more accustomed to Oatses’s game. The result? Winning. Thirty-two games into Oates’s first season, and we’re probably only now getting our first glimpse of what the coach envisioned for the team when he signed on. Amazing what a few healed-up groins and an unconcussed domepiece can do for a lineup, huh?

They’re not there yet. Marcus Johansson is probably not a long term answer in the top 6, and what the organization decides to do with Mike Ribeiro will go a ways in identifying where they believe they stand. Ribeiro is a tremendous asset at the deadline, but he's also been a tremendous contributor to Adam Oates's vision. A tough and telling decision looms.

But with a trio of young forwards due up (or over, in the case of Evgeny Kuznetsov) to the big club sooner than later, and all projected as top 6 talents, a team that’s taking well to its head coach, a rejuvenated superstar, and a franchise backstop for the first time since Olaf Kolzig undid his padstraps for the last time, this team might not be so far away as we once thought.