With roughly half a season in the books, the Caps are sitting atop the Metropolitan Division, the Eastern Conference, and the League. Needless to say, it's been a pretty fun start. Time to talk about all that comes before... and all that lies ahead.
1. What has been the biggest surprise (good or bad) through the first half?
Peerless: On the good side, depth. Sure, this club was made deeper than that of past years with the additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, but the surprise has been that with the injuries and occasional scrapes with the Department of Player Safety, the bottom six and third pair have not been the liabilities they might have been. Not every role is being a goal scorer or a last shift defender. Some guys have to skate their minutes chipping in here or there or keeping things from unraveling until the bigger stars take their next shift. Taylor Chorney, Aaron Ness, Zach Sill, Chandler Stephenson, Connor Carrick, Paul Carey, Stanislav Galiev, Sean Collins, and Chris Brown deserve mention as a group "surprise."
On the bad, I was expecting a bit of a sophomore slump out of Andre Burakovsky, so his struggles are not entirely unexpected, but it is shocking to see how unproductive Brooks Laich has become. He gets fourth line minutes these days, but one goal on 46 shots (through Sunday)? And he has one point in more than a month. Only nine of 305 forwards averaging 10 minutes or more a night and playing in 30 or more games (through Sunday) have fewer points.
Jason: Did anyone expect Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Williams to be this good? I mean this good? Remember when Washington had a dearth of top-six talent and offering Brooks Laich $4.5 mil per year to lock down the second line seemed like a smart, pragmatic idea? Boy, I sure do, and that was not fun. This? This is fun. Vets and youngsters working in harmony does my cold heart good.
J.P.: Biggest positive surprise has been Jason Chimera. I thought he was done after a pretty atrocious 2014-15, but an uptick in the playoffs proved to be foreshadowing and he's already surpassed last year's goal, assist and point totals, has better underlying numbers and is playing with much better discipline. He's a pending UFA that I'd have prepared to bid a swift farewell to a few months ago, but has probably earned himself another (relatively short-term, low-dollar) deal with his play so far.
On the negative side, I haven't been particularly impressed with John Carlson's work so far this season. The points are there, but the possession numbers aren't (and you can't blame Brooks Orpik for that, either). The Caps have plenty of guys who can put up box cars - they need Carlson to perform like a true top-pair defender when he returns from injury.
Becca: Biggest pleasant surprise for me has been the team's ability to avoid losing streaks. They're the only team in the League that has not lost two straight games in regulation (or even in regulation or overtime); their lone losing "streak" of the season was once in regulation and then a loss in the shootout. It may be a cliche, but it's often said that the best competitors, the championship-caliber teams, don't love to win... they hate to lose. To me, this looks like a group that now hates to lose and gets really upset with themselves when they do (or even better, gets upset when they win but play badly).
As for the bad stuff... guys, Marcus Johansson got suspended. Marcus. Johansson.
Muneeb: Braden Holtby was very good last season. He's been the best this season. The numbers speak for themselves: 34 games played, 27-4-2, 1.93, .932, with an active 22-game unbeaten streak and 72.7% quality start percentage. That's the sort of resume that, over a full season, wins the Vezina Trophy and puts him into the Hart Trophy conversation.
Only six times has a goalie had a 60-game, .930-plus campaign: Dominik Hasek (1997-98 and 1998-99), Jose Theodore (2001-02), Roberto Luongo (2003-04), Mike Smith (2011-12), and Carey Price (2014-15). Holtby could be in the midst of the seventh.
Adam: The biggest positive surprise of the season, at least for me, has been Evgeny Kuznetsov. I expected him to be good but I didn't expect him to play as well this season as he did in last year's playoffs. He's proved himself to be a major driver of offense and was exceptional during his stint on the first line with Ovechkin.
As much as it pains me to say it Andre Burakovsky's play has been a surprise. He had a very strong rookie season and was a very real offensive threat during the playoffs but he's struggled mightily this year. His play in his own zone has improved but he's lost some of that swagger he displayed when he entered the league. All in all, he's started to look better recently but he still has a way to go to become the player that we (I) pegged him to be.
2. What are the Caps' biggest needs, if any, as the trade deadline draws closer?
Jason: Depending on how much you trust GMBM and the scouting department, I'd like to see them shore up the-....wait, no, they're pretty good there. Maybe the-...no, that's looking better than it ever has, too. Huh, well this is odd...
Becca: Before the Mike Richards signing, I would have said someone like Mike Richards (although I might not have been so specific as to call him out by name) - someone to just add a little bit more experience and dependability in that bottom-six group. It'll be interesting to see how quickly he gets up to speed (and if that speed is one that can help the team), but I don't necessarily think the team needs anything if he can do just that.
Peerless: A clean bill of health. Jokes aside, I don't know if that picture becomes clearer until the Caps know a little more of what they have in Richards. The injuries they have sustained may have given the Nate Schmidt-Dmitry Orlov pair the experience to be a more formidable third pair when John Carlson and Brooks Orpik return to the lineup, but their situation will, I think, have the Caps looking to bolster their defense depth.
There is an aspect to this that makes me think the Caps will not be players at the trading deadline, absent emergency. They've spent the last two summers making big personnel moves, and the Mike Richards signing could take "third line center" off the table as a need. Making deals at the deadline is a dicey proposition. Deals looking good on paper might not work in the locker room or might suffer a lack of chemistry on the ice. The Caps have spent two years making deals with longer lead times in terms of assimilation and forging chemistry, thus avoiding the more uncertain aspects of what deadline deals might bring.
J.P.: Since before the season started, my two biggest concerns were the bottom-six forwards and the depth on the blueline, and they remain the team's areas of need (though Mike Richards could alleviate that some). I'd like to see them add a defenseman that would slot in above Taylor Chorney and perhaps another penalty-killing depth winger. And it's very much worth noting that when these are your needs... you're in pretty good shape.
Adam: Depending on how well Mike Richards plays I'd still have the third line as the team's biggest area of concern. Puck possession is the best way to win and that line simply doesn't do a good job of holding onto the puck.
Check back later today for the second half of our reflection on the season's first half...