Q1. The Caps are off to a 14-5-1 start to the season, one of their best starts in franchise history. What about this start has you feeling the most optimistic? What concerns you the most?
J.P.: I think what's impressed me most is how across-the-board good they've been. We talked about it earlier in the week, but there are no glaring weaknesses showing up, and besides the obvious reasons that's a good thing, it should also help them withstand any sort of free fall if they slip a bit in an area.
On top of that, not losing two in a row and playing well on the back-end of back-to-backs evinces a resiliency or mental fortitude (or so we're told) that was perhaps lacking in the past (or so we're told).
Most concerning to me is that they've looked a bit sloppy of late, a bit over-pass-y at times, and the top power-play unit isn't where we'd expect it to be. But if those things don't correct themselves, I'm sure the coaching stuff will address them. (There are also some personnel things about which I don't feel great, but that's the nature of a salary-capped league, and those personnel questions are much further down the roster than they've ever been before, really.)
Peerless: I think what goes hand-in-glove with J.P.'s comment is "consistency." This is a team that plays remarkably consistently from night to night. They are much more adept at implementing what Barry Trotz wants done than they were at this time last season, and it is more instinctual than it was through 20 games last season. That, too, is a product of maturity. Justin Williams and Brooks Orpik are veterans with Stanley Cups on their resume, sure, but Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have almost 1,400 regular season games of experience between them.
As with any team, there are going to be bumps along the way, but this is a club that by and large has seen those situations in their collective experience, and they do not allow them to become bigger problems, and more important, they do not allow them to bleed into other aspects of their play and bring them down. A power-play slump doesn't become a drought of even strength scoring. Allowing a bad goal at fives doesn't become a shower of power play goals for the other side.
On the other hand, there is an aspect of this team that resembles the teams of the 1980's that concerns me. That is, do they have another gear? Those 1980's teams were a hard working group, but when the stakes got higher, they could not elevate their game to the next level to the degree that they could go deep in the playoffs. This is the flip side of consistency. When they have to be better, can they be?
Adam: I've been most impressed by the team's strong possession numbers as the Capitals currently have the fourth highest score-adjusted-corsi-for percentage in the league. The team has done a great job of "securing" the game while in front this season, they have the 2nd best goal differential and the fourth best CF% while leading (13th last year). The Caps have looked good so far this season in almost every respect and that gives me a lot of confidence moving forward.
I'm concerned about the recent stretch of poor team-wide execution. The team looks a little out of sync particularly in the neutral and offensive zones but I'm sure they will get it together.
All in all the Capitals are off to a great start. The last time I was this impressed by a Capitals team was during the 2008-09 season.
Rob: My answers are related. I'm impressed by how strong their underlying numbers and standings points are given how sloppy they've looked. I don't think we've seen many stretches where you could really say they were playing their best hockey. The power play, of all things, is struggling. The top six has put up a bunch of numbers, but they've also struggled to score, frequently a result of the over-passing referenced above, and generally looked off. Andre Burakovsky has been a non-factor (though Kuznetsov has more than picked up the slack). Holtby (of course right after we praised him), had a leaky stretch. The top defensive pair has looked anything but in several games, and hasn't even been intact the last several.
And that's what makes me impressed. This isn't a team riding ridiculous percentages or career performances. In all likelihood the power play is going to pick up and Justin Williams is going to stop negating Ovechkin's goals. The defensive structure isn't going to go anywhere, and there's no reason to think the possession numbers will, either. The team has banked a lot of points during a rocky start to the season, and they likely have a hot run in them at some point, as well.
Becca: I'm not as concerned about the sloppiness, because the first quarter of the season is when you see that kind of thing from a lot of teams, with varying results - and the Caps have been lucky enough (and are talented enough) to be able to win in spite of that. So I'd agree with Rob, that I'm most impressed by their ability to do exactly that. I've also been really impressed with how the new guys have meshed so quickly with their new teammates, and I think that's a credit both to their abilities and personalities, and to the culture and system Trotz has established since arriving last summer.
For me, an area of concern has been the way the Caps have played against the top teams in the League. They've only really had a handful of teams on the schedule so far that I'd consider to be equal or above their level (which speaks to how good I think they are, or are capable of being, as much as to the quality of their competition overall so far) - and they've pretty much laid an egg in each one. The exception? The recent loss to Dallas, which was one of their better efforts this season, regardless of opponent. That makes me hopeful that maybe they're getting their act together and can start taking it to the tougher teams.
Q2. Which young defenseman has impressed you more so far - Dmitry Orlov or Nate Schmidt?
J.P.: They've both done a lot of good things, and both have looked quite good in third-pair minutes. Schmidt has had a chance to step into the top pair in Brooks Orpik's absence and the results haven't been nearly as good (which shouldn't be surprising). In fact, heading into the Winnipeg game, John Carlson's Corsi-For percentage at five-on-five was quite a bit higher with Orpik than it was with Schmidt (which actually is a bit surprising, but that's a topic for another discussion).
So I guess I'll go with Schmidt here, but the two look like they're exactly what we'd hoped for - a very good third pairing.
Peerless: Each impresses me in different ways. Schmidt impresses me as the more finished player. Maybe that is a product of the program from which he came in college. There have been no fewer than 23 players out of the University of Minnesota program who played in the NHL since the start of the 2010-2011 season.
Orlov impresses me as the more dynamic player. He has the capacity to be more dangerous in the offensive end or provide a big hit. It is a bit harder to evaluate him at this point since he is still scraping off the last bit of rust that robbed him of more than a season of development. I don't think of these two in terms of which is more impressive than the other, but rather a potentially very good pair in the way they complement one another.
Tommy: While I am a gigantic fan of Schmidt's play, I'd have to go with Orlov. As Peerless said, we have to remember this is a guy who took an entire year off of NHL play, and he stepped right into his role without even so much of a hiccup. He and Schmidt, when paired together have been one of the better third pairings the Caps have had in the Ovechkin-era. Sure, having Green back there last year was fantastic, as it was essentially like having a top-four defenseman on your third-pairing, but we all know who he was primarily matched up with.
I was so happy to see Orlov score his wacky goal against the Colorado Avalanche the other night. I think that was the exact type of thing he needed to have happen to give him that sense of confidence. And look what he did against the Edmonton Oilers the very next night. An absolute rocket of a shot. But it was his only even strength shot of the game. So my hope is that, now that he's getting some goals, he will take more and more with each game.
I just think Orlov brings an edge and tenacity to the Caps back end more so than Schmidt, but, come on, this is like picking a Porsche or a Maserati.
Rob: It's gotta be Schmidt. Orlov has a couple highlight goals in the last two games, but Schmidt is the steadier player, and now he's been asked to play top pair minutes. Not only has he not looked bad, he's arguably been the better half of the top pair in several games. Orlov has the high ceiling and sexier skill set, but Schimdt is the all around better player right now.
Q3. Alex Ovechkin is sitting at 485 goals for his career. Will he get to 500 by the halfway point of the season?
J.P.: What's that, 15 goals in 21 games? That's a .71 goals-per-game pace, higher than he's scored at over a full season since 2008-09. Granted, he's scored at a higher clip over 21-game spans since, so it's possible. But the big reason I say he won't get there before Game 42 (by the way, I'm saying he won't get there before Game 42) is that the power play isn't clicking the way it has over the past few years, years in which he's scored just about a goal every three games. Right now he sits on one power-play goal in 19 games. One. Sure, there's reason to think that number will regress some, but it doesn't seem like it will be able to give him the boost he needs to go on that torrid a scoring streak.
Then again, I've learned not to bet against Alex Ovechkin...
Becca: Yeah, I'm not betting against him at all. I think hitting it at precisely the 42-game mark would be difficult, and maybe it's unlikely from a statistical/logical viewpoint - but Ovechkin has shown an ability to catch fire and score goals by the handful. If the power play wakes up and he and his linemates can get past this obsessive need to overpass... watch out.
Peerless: He has 21 games to get 15 goals. That is a 59-goal scoring pace per 82 games. He certainly has that in him over such a span of games, he has demonstrated it from time to time. The difference is - and it is what has to change if he has a chance - power play scoring. Through the Edmonton game, Ovechkin has one goal on 36 power play shots (2.8 percent scoring percentage). Last season he had 25 power play goals on 134 shots on goal (18.7 percent). And it is not shot volumes. He is averaging 1.89 power play shots per game so far, while he averaged 1.65 power play shots per game last season.
Part of that is a "failure" product - unsuccessful shots result in the puck coming back to him for additional attempts - but there might be other factors involved. Are goalies wising up to that one-timer and defending it better? Is the quality of feed from John Carlson putting pucks in Ovechkin's wheelhouse with the same consistency as those he used to receive from Mike Green? Is he being denied either preferred shooting positions or shooting lanes by defenses? Is it the stick? A mere slump? Sunspots? The point is, unless those power play numbers improve, he will not hit 500 by the end of the Caps' 41st game.
Rob: No, I'm with Peerless. The way the top power play unit is going right now (and coaches challenges) he's had a hard enough time scoring one in two, much less two in three. He can always go on a hot streak and make up that ground, but I don't see 15 in 21 happening for him right now.