Continuing our discussion of the team's performance so far, and what lies ahead...
3. What player(s) need to step up in the final 40 games of the season?
Jason: Three come to mind: Andre Burakovsky, Marcus Johansson, and Brooks Laich, each for different reasons.
Burakovsky needs to step up for confidence's sake, both his own and that of the franchise. Nothing is better for a young player's development than discovering - "holy crap, I'm really good!" Bura got a taste of that last year, but if he can get it back, the Capitals will have the best top-nine in hockey, bar none, no questions.
Johansson needs to step up, because since last year's arbitration only added one-year to his RFA contract, this is another contract year for MoJo. As such, the Caps want to know what kind of player they're getting in MoJo. So far, he's having the best season of his career - which is only on pace for one more goal than last season's total. There's more to a complete game than scoring, but it sure would make things easier if MoJo could use the backstretch to settle any lingering doubts about a long-term contract.
Laich is getting paid way too much, period. There's not a fourth-liner in the world worth $4.5 million, unless we're talking about new Star Wars dialogue. His life is about to truly begin (marriage, and fatherhood probably not far off); if he wants me to believe his hockey life isn't nearly over, Laich needs to be not just a fourth-liner, but the best fourth-liner the Caps have. He's got 40 games to show it isn't Michael Latta.
J.P.: John Carlson - if the team's best defender can play like the team's best defender, that'll go a long way towards putting the club in a position to succeed.
Becca: I'd agree, I think Carlson has been something of a disappointment so far (at least in his own end). He's capable of doing better, and while the team has succeeded through his rough start - and through his absence - he's a big piece of the puzzle for the Caps going forward.
Peerless: Burakovsky. There has been a chicken and egg thing going on all year with him. He hasn't played well enough to merit more ice time, but he doesn't get the ice time with the partners he needs on a consistent enough basis to produce more. This is a player who had a seven-game stretch of less than ten minutes of ice time per game, but more than a third of his games this season featured more than 14 minutes, too. If the injury he appears to have sustained against Ottawa is not too serious, and he finds a chemistry with, say, Mike Richards, it would present an opportunity he needs to take advantage of.
Adam: Burakovsky and Carlson. Both of these guys have the skills needed to be dominant NHL players but neither have played up to their perceived potential thus far.
Muneeb: Burakovsky is the one player in the bottom-six who might be able to "tilt the ice" on his own. If he starts doing that, the team can expect all four lines to contribute offensively, and it's difficult to see any team shutting down that down completely.
4. Your unsung hero through the first half is _________
J.P.: Nate Schmidt, Dmitry Orlov and Taylor Chorney. What started as the third defensive pair and a healthy scratch has been pressed into duty up and down the blueline and each of the three is on the right side of 50% in possession and goal differential (significantly, I might add) while already surpassing and/or well on their way to obliterating career bests in just about every meaningful category. Depth defenders are often guys you hope can tread water when they're thrown out there, but this trio has done a heck of a lot better than that, and they're among the reasons the team has had the success they've had. (And to hammer home this point, think about who the five-through-seven defensemen were for this club two years ago and how they performed...)
Muneeb: Orlov and Chorney, mainly for the reasons J.P. outlined.
Adam: Gotta be Orlov, Chorney, and Schmidt. All three have been, at worst, serviceable NHL defenseman; just imagine what the team's record might be if all three of them where playing at the level of Connor Carrick (who is obviously not ready for NHL duty).
Peerless: Brian MacLellan. I had my doubts when he was promoted to fill the general manager's chair after George McPhee was relieved, but he has assembled quite a team. More precisely, he took care of some unfinished business. The Caps have a lot of high draft picks on the roster, but they seemed to be gun shy about using assets as the means to trade for talent, and their record on going after free agents seemed spotty. He didn't try to do it all at once, but with Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen brought in as free agents to solidify the defense last season, and T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams brought in this past summer to bolster the right side among the forwards, MacLellan has shown an ability to identify needs and act boldly. Patience can be a virtue. So can being aggressive.
Becca: Philipp Grubauer. It's not easy to be the backup for a guy who is probably going to play in at least 65 games this season, let alone one who has been as good as Braden Holtby has been this season. Add in the fact that Grubauer's games have usually been after a long layoff for him and/or on the second night of back-to-back games for the team, and it's a tremendously tough task to come in and play well. His first outing aside (which admittedly was a bit shaky), he's been anywhere from solid to exceptional in limited work.
That's huge for the team's confidence in front of him and for his coach's confidence in him - and it's huge for Holtby, who doesn't have to play back-to-back games and can be a little fresher as the Caps get closer to the postseason.
Jason: B-Mac, aka the Mac Daddy, aka GMBM, aka KYLO No RENtal Players. Orpik, Niskanen? "Overpriced, under-young!" Well, tell that to Washington's decidedly unpoopy defense, which became a touch more poopified when Orpik hit the IR. Oshie, Williams? "Mercenaries, just famous names!" Yeah, famous names that seem to want engraving on the Stanley Cup as Washington Capitals. Holtby's contract? "Grifter, holding the team hostage!" Right, all the way to a Vezina (and maybe even Hart) Trophy. Maclellan is some sort of soothsayer. He says sooth, repeatedly and consistently.