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Rink Roundtable: Caps at the Halfway Point

The Rink crew checks in with thoughts on where the Caps have been and where they’re going

Toronto Maple Leafs v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

41 games down, 41 games to go, and the Caps are right in the mix for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Let’s chat about where the team has been... and where they’re going.

Q1: What has been the biggest positive and negative for you through 41 games?

Peerless: Biggest positive? Resiliency. Let’s face it, there are a few Caps who have been little more than passengers on this voyage through the first half of the season, players whose production lags behind last year or who have displayed an inconsistency in their production. And yet there they are, 27-9-5. That’s not far off their 31-7-3 record at the halfway mark last season.

They have found ways to grind out wins, and in a perverse way, even their losses are impressive. Eight of their 14 losses have been by one goal, and one of their two-goal losses featured an empty-netter for the final margin. They’ve been right there in almost every game.

I thought that early on, the Caps were suffering an odd sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome effect from having lost to the Penguins in overtime of the series-clinching game last season, but with a 14-2-2 record in their last 18 games (all the losses by one goal), they seem to be past that.

As for the negative, it’s the penalties and what that means. Ten times so far this season the Caps faced five or more shorthanded situations, and all of them have come in just the last 28 games, seven of them in the last 16 games. As good as the penalty killers have been recently, that’s entirely too many opportunities handed over to opponents.

J.P.: I like Peerless’s answer - this team hasn’t faced adversity the way some clubs do, but they’ve persevered through stretches of games when things weren’t going exactly as planned and “stuck to the script” the whole way. There’s a fine line between belief in what you’re doing and stubborn refusal to adapt, and, by and large, the Caps have stayed on the right side of that line.

Guys like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and even Alex Ovechkin have seemingly turned the corner after unimpressive starts (and how long did John Carlson and Matt Niskanen go without goals?), and the Caps have settled in as the team we thought they were - one that’s going to be a tough out on most every night, probably well into the spring.

On an individual level, what can be said about the encore performance Braden Holtby is giving as defending Vezina Trophy winner that I didn’t say on Wednesday? Not much, though I’d be happy to listen to it.

At this point, my main concern is with the defense, and in particular whatever pair John Carlson is in. Paired with Karl Alzner, the duo has been hemorrhaging shots against, but it’s clear that they’re Barry Trotz’s favored shut-down pair. Can they do the job? If not, who can and will? Holtby has masked a lot of deficiencies, but how long can that continue? (Please say “forever.”) It may be a matter of getting them out with the right forwards more often, but the matter deserves the utmost attention.

Becca: There are a few little things that I’d say were negatives through the first half, whether it’s the early-season slumps by some key players or the team’s penchant, particularly lately, for taking penalties.

But maybe the biggest - or at least the most surprising (although maybe it shouldn’t have been) - negative for me has to be the power play. It’s improved somewhat over the past few weeks but in general it simply hasn’t been anywhere near as dominant as we’re used to seeing and I didn’t see it coming. It’s mystifying that a team with so much talent to throw on the ice can fail to capitalize on a more regular basis when having the extra-man advantage.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On the positive side? I love the forward depth this year. Not in the sense that all four are contributing at equal levels in terms of pure point-scoring, of course, but that there is always the possibility for some contribution from all four. When the team is playing well, Barry Trotz can roll all four lines and feel pretty confident that they’re going to spend more time in the offensive zone than the defensive.

Nicklas Backstrom is having another phenomenal season and Alex Ovechkin is once again hitting his stride, as well. Justin Williams and Kuznetsov are shaking off their late 2015-16 and early 2016-17 doldrums. Even guys like Daniel Winnik and Brett Connolly are chipping in with goals at their highest rate in years, and no one has been left out of the offense from the top of the lineup to the “bottom”. That the team basically has two third lines is huge.

Adam: The biggest positive for me has to be the team’s underlying numbers. The Capitals have the third best SACF% in the league at the midway point and that’s really encouraging. Sure, there might be some advanced stats that aren’t as flattering as others. But throughout Trotz’s tenure the team has always started the season with great possession numbers and slowly seen them deteriorate as the year has gone one. So far that isn’t the case in 2017.

Stats via Corsica.Hockey

We talk about “the process” a lot on Japers’ Rink Radio... and “the process” looks pretty good right now.

The biggest negative for me is the lack of growth and consistency from the team’s skilled young players. Kuznetsov appears to be back in form, which is a very good thing, but if he isn’t able to keep scoring into May it’ll all be for naught. Despite some strong play following his benching, Burakovsky still seems to be in a bit of a funk. When Alan May joined us on JRR he pointed to the lack of diversity in Burakovsky’s game as being a big issue in his scoring woes. Maybe an All-Star break spent working on a quicker release will lead to some enhanced production in the second half.

Q2: Fill in the blank: At the trade deadline, the Caps need to ___________

Peerless: Resist staring at bright, shiny objects. By the time February comes, every fan is going to be a GM, opining that the Caps should make a play for Jarome Iginla or Gabriel Landeskog or fill-in-the-name-of-star-player-on-a-bad-team here. The Caps might have their decision made for them in their being so close to the salary cap (less than $1 million in projected cap space, according to capfriendly.com). That would preclude just about any trade of prospects for a high-salaried player/rental.

If anything, I suspect the Caps might go after a defenseman as insurance, but even there, I would think the returns would be of the second/third pair sort. Although going in that direction last season didn’t seem to have the intended effects.

J.P.: Go all-in (but only for the right guy). Think George McPhee regrets not trading for Chris Pronger when he had the chance or not signing Zdeno Chara as a free agent (hey, Brian Pothier was a nice consolation prize!)? What would those prime Ovechkin/Backstrom seasons under Bruce Boudreau have looked like with one of those guys patrolling the blueline (perhaps alongside Norris-level Mike Green)? That’s all 20/20 hindsight (and damn near fan-fic), but take a look at recent Cup winners, finalists, semifinalists and you’ll see that most of those teams had that Duncan Keith/Drew Doughty/Nicklas Lidstrom/Brent Burns/Kris Letang type leading the D-corps and logging huge minutes in every situation.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, how many more great years do Ovechkin and Backstrom have left? Where are T.J. Oshie or Justin Williams going to be playing next season? Fortune favors the bold - if a deal for that elusive “true number one” defenseman presents itself, I’d love to see the Caps try to make it happen if the cost is largely futures. (Easy for me to say...)

<smash cut back to this universe>

But the Caps are so close to the cap that any trade would have to essentially be dollar-for-dollar, which likey rules out the big-ticket guys. In reality, we’ll probably see them go for another depth defenseman (but please, someone who can skate, unlike the Tim Gleasons/Mike Webers of the world) and/or perhaps a depth/middle-six forward. This team is very good - there’s no need to make changes for change sake. And if they’re not as good as we think, there’s no trade out there that will fix it.

Adam: Go big...and not trade for a marginal NHL defenseman. If the Capitals are going to dance at the deadline it needs to be for an impact player. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be a lot of realistic trade partners out there… so I’ll focus on the more reasonable and realistic goal.

Over the last few years we’ve seen the Capitals try to bolster their defensive depth for the playoffs… unfortunately those players, likely intended to be 7th or 8th defenseman, have been given minutes in the postseason without being pressed into action by injury. So make a trade for someone that’s better than the guys already on the roster, not for another stay-at-home defenseman who fails to play in the NHL the following season (Weber/Gleason).

Becca: Stand pat unless there’s an insanely good deal to be had. In theory I agree with some of my cohorts above that another body - and a bigger name - on the blueline wouldn’t be the worst thing, but I also think a ton of teams are looking for that exact type of player (as they are pretty much every year) and the asking price for the few that will be available is going to be sky high.

I’m always wary about trade-deadline rentals, because the vast majority of them don’t get the team to that next level, and for the teams that do win, I don’t know that you can necessarily point to their deadline deals as the reason for their victory. But especially this year, with so much in the air heading into the offseason, I don’t like the idea of paying what’s going to be a ridiculous price to get that one guy who may or may not be a difference-maker, who may or may not click with the team.