Greetings, Washington, D.C., adjoining annexes and tangential troublemakers! The Washington Capitals are rewriting D.C. record books like they hired Arthur Andersen, and the rest of the league seems to be getting smaller in the rearview. Last week the Capitals went 2-1-0 for four points and currently sit first in the Metropolitan Division, the Eastern Conference, and the NHL.
On tap this week like skunked beer are the foul Columbus Blue Jackets, the fowl Anaheim Ducks, and bloodoath-bound enemy the Pittsburgh Penguins. A few more wins, and this Capitals team will really have their foot on the particle accelerator. Here's what to welcome and what to be wary of in this week's preview.
Depth is a fickle mistress. It fills our swimming pools and sinks our ships. It imparts resonance to our wedding vows and a pleasing baritone to our movie trailer voiceovers. The Platonic ideal of "Depth" is sought in NHL front offices like a Holy Grail etched with Powerball numbers.
For the first time since, shoot, ever?, the Washington Capitals are a staggeringly deep team. With 45 games in the books, the Caps have seven players on pace for 20+ goals, a veritable gallery of Deadly Sinners. In fact, let's pause and moment and see how the roster and the Catechism match up:
Alex Ovechkin - Pace: 50 goals - Deadly Sin Most Like: Sloth, because how can it be so effortless? Also backchecking.
Justin Williams - Pace: 29 goals - Deadly Sin Most Like: Lust, because, I mean, look at him. Purr.
Evgeny Kuznetsov - Pace: 27 goals - Deadly Sin Most Like: Envy, because he skates better than I walk.
T.J. Oshie - Pace: 27 goals - Deadly Sin Most Like: Pride, because ol' Koshie is a gosh darn American hero.
Nicklas Backstrom - Pace: 24 goals - Deadly Sin Most Like: Gluttony, because I'm pretty sure he has recorded every Capitals primary assist for the last ten seasons.
Marcus Johansson - Pace: 22 goals - Deadly Sin Most Like: Wrath, because you can only call a hockey player soft for so long before he has a career year. "So long" is "until 2016," apparently.
Jason Chimera - Pace: 22 goals - Deadly Sin Most Like: Greed, because they say old age turns us all into fiscal conservatives and the 36 year-old Ice Cheetah is hoarding away goals like Bernie Sanders is about to be inaugurated.
And so, sure: it's absolutely incredible that the Capitals - currently on pace for the second-most wins in NHL history - have three different lines with potential 20-goal scorers. It is stupendous that just about any player on the Capitals top nine could play top line minutes for about ten other clubs in the league. It is fantabulous that Brooks Laich, once offered a six-year, $27 million contract to anchor the second line, is now a likely healthy scratch (not for Brooks, but it's good for the team's prognosis).
But let's speak about Brooks Laich and the fourth line. With the signing of Mike Richards, the presumptive fourth (or even third, eventually) line center on the team, there are four other players with legitimate claims at the remaining two line spots: Laich, Michael Latta, Stanislav Galiev, and Zach Sill. Coach Trotz has said that he sees value in all four, preferring to roll the more skilled and fleet-footed Galiev against fast teams while tapping the big, tough Sill against bruising teams, for example.
That's logical, and honestly, so damn situationally aware that it's no surprise Trotz is in the top 10 in wins in NHL coaching history. But with youngster (and social media goofball) Michael Latta overperforming on offense before suffering an upper-body injury (from which he's now recovered), and beloved veteran Brooks Laich still doing nothing to outright lose the job with his play, Trotz has a tough choice to make.
With the playoffs all but an inevitability (spare me your Jonxing, I don't fear fate), the Capitals have an exceedingly rare luxury: breathing room to give promising youngsters needed experience. With a 17(!) point lead in the Metropolitan Division, now is the time to bolster the roster from the inside, not via the trade deadline. Galiev has some holes in his defensive game? Throw him out there for five to ten straight games and let him learn, like Kuznetsov and Burakovsky did. Latta doesn't quite flow as well as rest of the offense? Give him some starts and let him build that chemistry. The regular season is more than half over, and with the injury bug always lurking, it seems to me that structural reinforcement is best done at the foundation, not the spire.
Brooks Laich, God bless him, has seen his production fall off a cliff into an abyss where a production-smothering dragon hoards offensive production into a pile for itself. Brooks is facing career-lows in goals, assists, points, and TOI, and after next season, will be a 34-year old unrestricted free agent. Brooks Laich is an important part of the Washington Capitals' past, of this franchise's history, and if you want to throw the man a ticker tape parade on his way out of town, I'll be leading it. But the future of the team is players like Latta and Galiev, and that's why they should be playing right now.
Why So Serious?
It's not all aging heroes and lurking injuries, though! This team is darn fun to watch. If the Capitals manage to drop a five-spot on Columbus on Tuesday (a real possibility), they will tie the Dallas Stars for the league lead in goals...while already leading the league in goals allowed. That's right: the Washington Capitals are the best offensive and defensive team in the league. Oh, and Braden Holtby is one of only three goalies in the NHL with a sub-2.00 Goals Against Average (1.99), and ranks fourth in Save Percentage (.931). This is a hockey team more complete than my disdain for Lima beans and more solid than John Shaft.
When you have no glaring holes to focus on, no problems to undertake fixing with dreadful self-seriousness, you can - like Frankie says - relax. This is one loosey-goosey hockey team. Whether it's delightful interview revelations about pre-game rituals, retold stories about team-bonding hijinks, or clearly visible on-ice horseplay that only occurs among genuine friends, the most entertaining part of this Washington Capitals team may have absolutely nothing to do with the final score.
Hockey is fun. Playing hockey is fun. Watching hockey is fun. Heck, even writing about hockey is fun when you aren't getting eviscerated. It's nice that, for once in Washington professional sports, the most shocking, confounding, gob-smacking thing about a team is how effervescently functional it is.
I hope for many more days, weeks, and years of this.
And with that preview complete, we turn now to the segment that just wants a little more face time during the debate, just 30 seconds...LIABLE TO LIBEL: A BAKER'S DOZEN LIES ABOUT THIS WEEK'S OPPONENTS!
1. Blue Jackets forward Scott Hartnell, like countless hypodermic needles and unlocked Toyota Camrys, was last seen in Philadelphia, but turned up in an empty barn in Ohio.
2. Despite its odd syntax, the title of Brandon Saad's memoir went unnoticed as the faux pas it was until the first oral, public reading of "Saad: A Me Story."
3. With the recent trade acquisition of promising young defenseman Seth Jones from Nashville, it's hard to recall this much buzz about a blue line in Columbus outside of a John Tortorella press conference.
4. Like the noble krill or the faithful Roomba, the Blue Jackets occupy an important niche at the bottom of the Metropolitan ecosystem.
5. When describing the play of Anaheim Ducks forward Corey Perry, Coach Boudreau said, "He's a Firework. Some nights he's Hot & Cold, but when you hear him Roar, he's really my Teenage Dream." Boudreau, nodding to the rest of the team, added, "But they're all my California Girls."
6. Jakob Silfverberg, human typo, hears neither the wails of your men nor the lamentations of your spellcheck.
7. Coach Boudreau, misunderstanding the principles of both cartography and speech, thought ownership's instructions to "take the 405" were referring to winning percentage.
8. While Peking duck can be found all over southern California today, peaking Duck was only available in Anaheim in 2007. (@CapsFansReport gets contributor credit for this joke. Seriously, send 'em in. I'll use 'em.)
9. Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby has just 36 points on the year, good enough for 33rd in the League, right between Tyler Toffoli and a Hefty bag of rotisserie chicken containers.
10. Defenseman Olli Maatta leads the NHL in new analytics stat Vowels%/60-For.
11. The Pittsburgh Penguins fired their nutritionist after realizing "Phil Kessel" was a forward and not a command.
12. Somewhere in a bunker outside Pittsburgh, a visibly shaken Evgeni Malkin clings to a trembling coffee cup and refreshes NHL.com, squinting through bloodshot eyes to check if he is the NHL's best Russian Evgeny again yet.
13. The coordination of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pirates, and Steelers uniform colors was not an intentional style choice, but rather the result of the fourth-largest mustard spill in Pennsylvania history.
So, there you have it, Caps fans. When people recall a season, it's only the second part of the hyphen they care about, and the most important part of the 2015-2016 campaign is just beginning. If the Capitals can stay the course, this might be a real RED letter year. So have a good week, love each other, and as always: Go Caps!