As we move past the halfway point of the season, odds are that the Caps team we're seeing right now is pretty close to what they will be for the remainder of the year - or at least closer to it than what we saw over the first month.
So with that in mind, how are we feeling about where they are... and where do we think they're heading?
Q1. What do you like most about what you've seen from this team?
Becca: There have been adjustments and growing pains with this new system throughout the year, and a lot of factors go into why they're having success of late, but one thing that has been consistent from the start (at least to my amateur eye) is how they're playing without the puck.
Back in training camp Barry Trotz talked about them having the puck a lot, and when they don't have it, focusing their energy on getting it back right away. And since Game 1 (with some bumps and exceptions along the way, of course) they've been doing just that - the speed with which they close in on an opponent with the puck, and force a play or a pass or a turnover, is really fun to watch... and it's how Eric Fehr, for one, has seemingly scored all of his goals this year.
They just don't seem passive anymore - which makes them both difficult to play and fun to watch on most nights
Adam: The team's improved puck possession has definitely been the highlight of this season so far, well at least from a numbers perspective. Assuming the Capitals' numbers stabilize, they will have had one of the biggest year to year improvements in the history of shot attempt tracking. Some (or most) of that improvement can be attributed to the dismissal of Adam Oates, but let's not sell short the work of Barry Trotz and his coaching staff.
Rob: The team speed and organization while on defense. It's probably the most coordinated and aggressive we've seen during Alex Ovechkin's career. The prior defensive postures were more passive and reliant on collapsing to the slot. Trotz has them attacking without the puck.
Kevin: The thing I've liked most about the team is balance. In the past, the Caps have been reliant on portions of their game to be productive- most notably and obviously the power play under Adam Oates. The year-over-year turnaround has been pretty remarkable, as they've for the most part sustained their success on the power play from the last year, and made tremendous progress at five-a-side in several different facets: goal differential, possession (51.9 score-adjust Corsi For% this year, against 47.8% last via war-on-ice), and shot suppression.
They're getting offense from the blue line, as well as secondary and tertiary forwards- guys like Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson, and Joel Ward. Heck, even Karl Alzner's teein' off like Al Iafrate back there. With this iteration of the Washington Capitals, you just never know what the score sheet is going to look like (while still expecting to see - and usually seeing - the regulars).
All that makes for a fun hockey team to watch.
Peerless: What I like most are two things that really go hand in glove. First, the players appear to have been receptive to the way the coaching staff wants them to play. Early on, as one might expect, the team looked confused at times. At others, it looked as if the players were trying to "think" through what they had to do, rather than simply "play" as they had to. Those early bumps in the road seem to have smoothed out.
And that brings me to the second thing I like, the team's consistency over their last 20 games or so, a consistency that seems a product of learned behavior.
They are not likely to play their next 19 games to a 14-1-4 record, but the kind of consistency they have shown over the last six weeks should ensure that long losing streaks are avoided as well. What's more, they seem to be playing a style that can serve them well in the post season. I don't know that it makes the Caps a team that can overtake the top teams in a seven-game format, but that might be a quality they acquire over the last 40 or so regular season games.
Pepper: I agree on consistency. What I like most is that all of the talk about changing the culture of the room, the organization, the players, is apparently becoming reality. What a difference a coach with extensive NHL experience (a first in the Ovechkin era) makes. Trotz has brought a tough-love but still very positive attitude and confidence to the team. Maybe it's a bit of right place, right time for this bench boss, since the nucleus of the team is older and seemingly wiser, some are parents now, Ovechkin has gray hair, etc., but I don't feel that we've seen this level of stability -- not getting too exuberant or too down either within a game or over a stretch of contests -- since, dare I say, the 1997-98 season? Most everyone, most nights, is "pulling on the rope."
I'm getting misty-eyed, having watched the evolution over the years. These guys are all grown up!
Q2. Enough positivity. What worries you the most?
Becca: I don't think it's possible to be a Caps fan without worrying about everything under the sun, but my biggest concern would be one of two things: goaltending and health.
In regards to goaltending, I think the Braden Holtby we're seeing right now is the real Braden Holtby; I'm not particularly worried about him regressing back to where he was early in the season, in part because he usually has slow starts to seasons and in part because I think Mitch Korn has found what works with him and it's paying off. We're witnessing an evolution of sorts for Holtby, a maturation of him as a person and as a goaltender (some of which can just be chalked up to him maturing in general, he's older and wiser and more experienced).
What concerns me is Justin Peters, who has not been good for the Caps so far - we're lucky that the Caps have been able to rely on Holtby's strong performance of late, because they don't really have any other options behind him. Holtby is young and more than capable of carrying a Henrik Lundqvist-esque workload through the end of the year, but the schedule only gets tougher from here.
...which kind of leads into that second concern. The Caps have been extremely lucky as far as health goes, with only a few of their regular roster players missing a handful of games since the beginning of the season. The only one who has been out a lot is Dmitry Orlov, who hasn't played this year (and how big do those two offseason acquisitions on the blueline look now, considering how much time Orlov's missed?). There's a chance this run of luck continues... but there's just as good a chance that it doesn't. They've been able to ice a pretty consistent lineup so far this year; the true measure of this team will be what they do if/when that stops.
Adam: Most of the team's major concerns have been remedied: Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov are now playing bigger minutes, Eric Fehr is no longer in the doghouse, and Braden Holtby is playing to (or a little above) his true ability. Sure, Jason Chimera should be getting less minutes and Jack Hillen is not working well with Green... but compared to the other (former) issues those are minimal.
Kevin: My concerns with the team are pretty limited. Considering they've only had half a season under the new bench boss, things seem to be coming together well. There appears to be a clear structure, a clear vision, and a systematic methodology for implementing it.
One thing that I don't think I like is Barry Trotz's tendency to use a slotting on the first line as a salve for the wounded pride of sitting in the press box. Tom Wilson, Chimera, and Burakovsky have all come out of the press box to a new home alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom at some point this season. This, to me, is a bit of an Oatesian tail-wagging-the-dog situation, but every coach is going to have his managerial idiosyncrasies, and so long as the overall improvement of the team remains obvious, it's hard to get too worked up here.
Also, as Becca mentioned, depth -- particularly on the blue line. Nate Schmidt, who frankly is a better option back there than Jack Hillen, is now sidelined. Dmitry Orlov still isn't an option, and who knows when he'll be ready? Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen have both given us an injury scare already this year...but what that might entail for blueliner personnel may be all the more frightening.
Rob: The biggest problem is secondary scoring. If the top line goes cold or gets shutdown in a head to head match up then who's gonna score? I love the Johansson break out as much as anyone... but if he's the biggest scoring threat not playing on the top line, then there's a problem.
Peerless: What worries me the most is the Caps are one injury from being a team that is close to a betting certainty to miss the playoffs (knock on wood). If the Caps lose Braden Holtby, they might be able to scramble to acquire a decent replacement from outside their organization, but Holtby has been the anchor for this team in the first half. He has rid himself of most (not all) of the inconsistencies and gaffes that would creep into his game from time to time to raise his play to near, if not elite level. If he goes down, especially with Philipp Grubauer fighting off a recent injury, the Caps do not have a credible replacement in their system.
The other thing is a managerial issue. This is going to be the first time around for the new regime running the show at the trading deadline. The Caps have holes they will want to fill. How well management addresses those issues could be the difference between a long playoff run and just missing out on the post season altogether.
Pepper: Peerless makes a great point. I suppose many teams which believe themselves to be contenders (or at least their fan bases) think the club is one injury away from disaster. It's hard to imagine an elite team that could withstand the loss of a top-pair D or #1 goalie without a significant drop off. But this is GM Brian MacLellan's first journey through the annual rite of trade deadline season, and we'll see how well he manages the negotiating process with other GMs. Further, how Mike Green's status is handled (or not handled) will impact not just the roster but also the chemistry and culture of the team carefully developed this season and still very much a work in progress.
Q3. Midseason predictions for postseason success?
Becca: Being the optimist that I am, I want to say that this team is capable of putting together the kind of run the Rangers did last year...the way the East is shaking out right now, I don't think it's that ridiculous to think it's possible, especially if they're able to add someone at the deadline. I like the way they're playing at even strength a lot, Holtby's goaltending has been superb, and they're not uncomfortable in close games, winning or trailing - all seemingly keys to postseason success.
But I'll go with cautious optimism and say they make the playoffs, get out of the first round... and then we'll see.
Adam: The latest predictions have the Capitals as a very solid bet to make the playoffs (close to 80%). Assuming the projections hold true, the Caps are likely to play Pittsburgh in the first round which is a tough, but winnable, matchup. It's hard to judge the Penguins due to the sheer number of injuries they have carried throughout the year (especially to their top six wingers) but I imagine a series between those two team's would come down to goaltending... and I'll take Holtby over Marc-Andre Fleury every time. I don't think the Capitals would beat the Islanders but I think they could handle the Rangers. The Metropolitan is the better of the two Eastern divisions, so if the Caps can escape the Conference Semis they could make their first trip back to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998.
Kevin: This may be a new Caps team, playing a new style within a new structure...but in keeping with franchise precedent, I'll simply expect a heartbreaker in a game 7 somewhere.
Peerless: It's all in the matchups. If the playoffs started today, the Caps would face Pittsburgh. If the Rangers were to leap-frog the Caps, Washington would get Tampa Bay, based on current standings, or perhaps the Islanders. The Penguins and Islanders might represent the extremes among possible opponents for the Caps. One is battle-tested in the post season (although with less than expected results), while the other is still relatively young and new to the post season. In that respect, I think the first round is the most dangerous for the Caps (and one in which the club has an uneven history, to be charitable).
What I like about the Caps in any matchup is their balance. It isn't just Alex Ovechkin scoring goals; the Caps have six players in double digits in goals. It isn't just Nicklas Backstrom making plays; the Caps have 15 players in double digits in points, seven with more than 20. If there is a team that concerns me, it's the Rangers. They might be better than the Caps in areas where they share strengths. I'd rather the Caps face them later than sooner in the post season. As it is right now, the Caps would have to go through Pittsburgh and perhaps either of the New York teams, and then whoever comes out of the Atlantic. Getting out of the Metro will be the biggest hurdle I see for the Caps (shades of the old Patrick Division days), and that is where I see them coming up short, no later than the second round.
Pepper: A match-up with any of the other "top tier" Metro teams right now seems destined for a game seven. And, well, what Kevin said.
But on the other hand this team at this point seems far better positioned to win a game seven than Caps fans have seen in quite a while. I agree with Peerless that the first round is most dangerous, so would say either Cup Finals or first round exit.
That said, with a potential Pittsburgh meeting in the first round, and having lost 7 of 8 series all-time against their biggest rival, the only series victory celebrated over 20 years ago, I might just be happy enough with a first round win.