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Rink Roundtable: At the Quarter Mark

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Weighing in on the Caps' play through a quarter of the 2014-15 season, and what that tells us about the road ahead.

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When the Caps play host to the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night, it will be Game #20 - roughly a fourth of the way through the 2014-15 season. That seemed to be as good a time as any to reflect back on the first 19 games of the year and the play of the team so far under new head coach Barry Trotz.

Q1: With about a quarter of the season gone, what in your mind has been the biggest difference - positive or negative - about the 2014-15 Caps from the 2013-14 version?

The Peerless: The biggest difference to me, in a perverse way, is how such a change in philosophy from last year to this can have so little difference (so far) in terms of wins and losses. Last year, the Caps were poor at 5-on-5, were inconsistent on the penalty kill, had cringe-worthy possession numbers, and were 11-8-1 after 20 games. Today, we have a team that has been much more consistent in winning possession battles, has cleaved more than seven shots a game from where they were after 20 games last season, and plays with more aggression (though last year's passive bunch set a low bar). And yet they are just 9-7-3.

On one hand, one might say that to the extent the Caps are "playing" the right way, a correction is in order that would be reflected in an extended run of success. On the other, we are almost 20 games into the season, and the Caps have yet to put anything more than a three-game winning streak (and they've only done that once). They seem prone to one major gaffe per game that undoes a lot of the good work they did in the contest to that point, just enough to de-Corsify outcomes.

J.P.: It's easy and obvious, but the biggest difference is the defense, and it's very much a positive. At this point last year, the Caps had already dressed Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, Jack Hillen, John Erskine, Tyson Strachan, Alexander Urbom, Connor Carrick and Steve Oleksy - ten different blueliners, only four of whom are regular NHLers today. So far this season, they've had five rearguards play every game, and another that has played all but one. They've been deeper, healthier and, most importantly, better - the breakouts are organized and clean(er), they've dramatically reduced the shot volume their netminders have faced, and the penalty kill is worlds better than it was. Obviously not all of that owes to the six guys on the back-end, but this blueline makes last year's look like an AHL group... which half of it basically was.

Becca: I'd agree on the defense, because there's no getting around it - occasional mistakes aside, this blueline is head and shoulders above the group we watched last year. But I think it goes beyond that, to the way the team is playing as a whole. Yes, there are off nights, and not everything seems to be clicking quite yet... but there have been glimpses of it, and the end result is simple: they're fun to watch again. They're aggressive on the forecheck and the backcheck, they're blocking shots but also jumping into the play and taking risks, and they're making games interesting (although granted, interesting isn't always a good thing).

Rob: The biggest difference is just how coherent the team is. There is more structure defensively, better support on the breakout, and an organized and determined forecheck. There are still some wrinkles to iron out, but the team is much more disciplined and aggressive in all three zones than we've seen in several years.

Q2: Who has been the quarter-season MVP for the Caps?

The Peerless: There might be some thought about Marcus Johansson with his surprising start, or Nicklas Backstrom for being the glue that holds a lot of this team together, or Alex Ovechkin because he is Alex Ovechkin. But I'll go out on a limb and say Mike Green. There are 119 defensemen in the NHL having been on the ice for more goals scored against than Green (through Wednesday), about half of all defensemen who have dressed. Considering that there are only 179 defensemen who have dressed for 10 or more games, and that Green has been derided often in his career as needing an introduction to the art of defense, that's a nice ranking to have, even if it has slipped a bit in recent games. It has not taken much from his offense, either. With a 3-9-12 scoring line in 18 games, he is on pace for a 14-43-57 season.

He has been consistent, too, not having gone more than two consecutive games without a point, and he has only four "minus" games this season. He seems to have found a place, if less of a star in his own right, then as a mentor who can make things comfortable for a youngster while still maintaining a high level of performance. He and Nate Schmidt seem to do just fine as a defensive pair.

J.P.: How about the job that 19-year-old rookie Andre Burakovsky has done? He basically came into camp as a longshot, beat out a trio of contenders for the second-line center gig, and all he's done is posted a Corsi-For percentage of around 55 and the most even-strength points on the team (10) entering Thursday night's game. Burakovsky may not be The Answer at second-line center, but he's at least remove that question from the list of daily laments early on.

Becca: I am going to say Marcus Johansson, because I think he's found another level to his game that we've been waiting for since he was drafted... but I'll cheat and say the entire second line of Johansson, Burakovsky and Troy Brouwer instead. They've hit a few bumps in the last few games, but overall they're doing a really nice job of giving this team something they haven't always had - a consistent second wave to follow the top line, another trio that you have to pay attention to whenever they're on the ice. Between Johansson's skating, Burakovsky's vision and Brouwer's physicality and net presence, they've been able to establish a presence in the offensive zone and really wear the other team down. And they're getting rewarded.

Rob: My answer would have been Burakovsky, but I'll go with Johansson. He's not riding shotgun on the top line anymore, and yet he's still second on the team in goals (who saw that coming?) and he's been a key part of the secondary scoring (insofar as there is secondary scoring right now) keeping the team afloat while the team gels around the new systems and new personnel. Johansson has taken Trotz's coaching to heart, is using his speed in an assertive manner, and shooting the puck. It's hard to ask more from him, and without his newfound approach to the game, the Caps would probably be in a much deeper hole.

Q3: What concerns you most about the Caps going forward? What are you most optimistic about?

Rob: The biggest concern is that even with the new, structured defense and the strong possession play, the team cannot seem to cut out the major defensive gaffes. They are still consistently letting opposing players skate down the slot wide open. The attention to detail has almost predictable lapses, and those mistakes will erase puck possession advantages in the course of a single game. The cause for optimism is that the possession numbers are strong and that as the players get the systems down and get used to playing with each other more they'll be able to limit those major mistakes. Or Braden Holtby will start bailing them out more on those mistakes. Either way, once those pucks stop ending up in the back of the net, the Caps should be better at holding leads and ultimately win more games.

The Peerless: What concerns me about this team is history. This is a club for which a combination of lack of focus and bad habits has combined over the past several years to make for some frustrating hockey and lack of playoff success. I worry that those demons will seep into their play if they continue to be unrewarded for the good things they have done in terms of possession and shot suppression under Barry Trotz.

My optimism is that I think the first 20 games are really a shakedown cruise for this club. Perhaps the gaffes are the product of not yet being in that place where players intuitively do the right thing in a Trotz-coached system consistently, that there are levels of production yet to be reached (having goalies play giveaway with the puck...that's something else). If that is the case, it seems entirely reasonable to me that playing as they have the first 20 or so games, with its near-.500 record, will be followed by a 20-game stretch in which they play essentially the same game, but realize something more like a 12-6-2 record. That is what eliminating those big mistakes can mean.

J.P.: What worries me most right now is that the team's player evaluation (and, perhaps, system) seems to be grounded a bit too much in old school hockey orthodoxy. In a vacuum, it probably wouldn't bother me that they gave Brooks Orpik the deal they did or that they're underutilizing Eric Fehr or that they're giving Jay Beagle too many minutes or that Tom Wilson is on the top line or any number of other questionable individual decisions. But taken together, it paints a pretty clear picture of what the team values and what it doesn't, and I'm not sure that what they value are the things that contribute the most to winning games.

Then again, perhaps it's just Trotz setting the tone early in his tenure and all of this will make them a tougher team in April and beyond... which brings me to my optimism. This is a solid, deep roster with a good coach and a changing culture. All the ingredients are there, and if they can get through some early bumps in the road relatively unscathed, it could be a team that surprises a lot of onlookers. The Caps haven't been better than the sum of their parts in a long time - that could change under Barry Trotz.