Your weekly look at individual Washington Capitals' ups and downs:
With the Caps losing some forward depth over the offseason, the Caps needed those who remained to pick up the slack offensively. So far, Andre Burakovsky has struggled to do so, despite getting a coveted spot in the top six alongside Backstrom and Oshie. Through six games, he has just two assists - which is both surprising considering the team’s high offensive output to date, and not too concerning because of it. He’s on the right track, as well, as one of just five Caps to have a positive Rel CF (9.53).
Just... maybe not so much with the fighting from now on.
Nicklas Backstrom isn’t just off to the best start of his career; he’s having one of the best starts in the League, with an NHL-best 11 points and six power-play points through six games. He also leads the team in even-strength CF% (54.36) and RelCF (11.39). He’s making amazing passes, shooting the puck on occasion, and keeping the team’s power play ticking. Yup, that’ll do.
T.J. Oshie’s 2016-17 was a career-best season for him, as he cracked the 30-goal mark for the first time. He parlayed that into a hefty contract extension that raised some eyebrows, as the expectation was that he wouldn’t be able to repeat last year’s performance. Well, he’s on his way to doing just that, as he’s already put up five goals - tied for third-most in the young season - and eight points through six games, including two two-goal/three-point outings.
A lot of people were once again dismissing Alex Ovechkin as being on the decline after last year’s 33-goal season. And once again, Ovechkin is well on track to make them eat their words, with an insane nine goals through the first six games, including back-to-back hat tricks to open the season. It’s early yet, but being almost a third of the way to last year’s goal total seems to be a pretty good sign that he may not be quite over that Richard Trophy form just yet. The best part? Seven of those nine goals were scored at even strength.
Tied with Backstrom for the League’s scoring lead, Kuznetsov has continued the trend of the team’s big guns getting off to a hot start, with 11 points - all assists - to open the season. The fact that he hasn’t found the back of the net yet isn’t a huge concern (yet)... although he may need to actually fire more than one shot per game on net to remedy that zero.
Unlike the rest of the top six, Vrana’s start wasn’t as instantaneously scorching (although he did pick up three assists through the first two games), but he’s starting to add some goals to his repertoire and is already just one goal/one point shy from his output in 21 games last season. Skating alongside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, Vrana has done a great job of getting himself in a position to capitalize on their skills (when not using his own skills) by developing a nose for the net.
One of seven Caps to score an even-strength goal this week, Brett Connolly opened the scoring for the 2017-18 season with his tally against the Senators in the opener. He added an assist against the Penguins to round out his first six games with two points. That said, he also picked up a couple of penalties and had the team’s fifth-worst CF% at even strength (40.2%).
We haven’t seen much from Lars Eller so far this season (aside from taking the first penalty of the year), and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Usually a possession workhorse, Eller’s numbers are less than sparkling to start the season and while he and the rest of the third line have had some feisty shifts and some good chances, they haven’t done a whole lot in the way of actual offense (although Eller does have two assists). Expect to see more from Eller going forward.
Alex Chiasson’s first week-plus as a Cap was fairly uneventful, with no points and a good-not-great CF. He’s put in some significant time on the penalty kill, about two minutes per game, and has yet to be on for a power-play goal-against despite the team’s overall struggles the last four games, so that’s good.
His ice time thus far has been pretty minimal, with about 12 1⁄2 minutes between his first two games, which is probably too small a sample to draw too many conclusions about his performance as a Cap thus far... so we’ll just ignore the fact that the team has been out-attempted 13-9 when he’s on the ice. For now.
Nothing he did upon his return has been that horrible, but the season hadn’t even started before Tom Wilson had been suspended not once, but twice. He’s made a name for himself as being a tough customer, and prior to this year he’s been really good at straddling the line between legal and illegal... but he crossed it before Game 1 and that’s just dumb. Do better, Tom.
Jay Beagle has been killing it in the faceoff dot, and... that’s about it. He’s had to be in more of a defensive mode so far this year, with the Caps seeing the ice tilt against them more often than not, but he’s still only got two shots on goal through six games. That’s not ideal, even for someone in a shutdown fourth-line role - especially as he’s following up a 13-goal season.
He’s only appeared in two games so far this season - for some reason - but in his very first one he managed to get in the way of a shot and deflect it in for his first career goal. And even if he hadn’t, anytime you make history as the first player from your country to play in the NHL? You get an up arrow. Them’s the rules. Welcome to the NHL, Nathan!
One of the newer additions to the Caps, Devante Smith-Pelly has already made something of a name for himself as a guy who gets his goals stolen by other players. Okay, maybe not stolen, but he’s got a knack of putting the puck towards the net and having it deflected in by a teammate. He doesn’t seem to mind all that much, though, and you have to think that he’ll get one of his own soon enough.
Matt Niskanen wasn’t off to the best of starts this season, struggling at times to find his rhythm in the defensive end... but losing him to an injury against the Devils was a huge blow to an already shaky blueline corps and it showed almost immediately in the drubbing the team received one night later. He’s currently listed as week to week with that ever-so-descriptive “upper-body injury”... let’s just hope it’s not too many weeks.
He’s had a couple of rough nights right out of the gate, which isn’t ideal considering that Dmitry Orlov was one of the team’s better, more consistent defenders last season and will be relied upon to take a bigger step forward this year. It’s early yet, and the whole team’s defense needs a bit of a kick in the pants, but without Niskanen’s steadying influence for the foreseeable future, Orlov is going to need to step up his game a bit - on both sides of the puck, as he’s still looking for his first point of the season on top of everything else.
If you thought Carlson was missing the net a fair amount this year, well... you’d be right. He’s averaging a team-high 1.7 missed shots per game, which isn’t ideal for the point man on the team’s power play. That said, he’s also second on the team in actual shots on goal per game with 2.5, he’s already picked up four assists, and is one of just seven Caps with a positive CF% at even strength. So that’s the offensive side of his game; his defense, however, could use a little work. He was on for three of Ottawa’s four goals in Game 1, the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Lightning, two of the Penguins’ three goals two nights later, and two of the Flyers’ eight over the weekend. All his fault? Probably not, but he’s going to shoulder some of the blame for sure.
He’s had some good nights, and some bad, but Orpik hasn’t been the biggest issue for the Caps on the back end so far this season. That said, he hasn’t exactly been at top form, either, struggling in the first game of the season and adding a rough outing against the Flyers (although really, who didn’t have a rough outing against the Flyers?). He’s seen more shots go towards his own net than the opponents’ net at even strength, but not to an extreme, and his RelCF is a respectable(ish) -1.84.
It’s not easy to make your NHL debut against a team like the Penguins - especially given the heated rivalry involved - but Christian Djoos certainly made it look easy, picking up his first career goal and adding an assist later in the game. In fact, the only goals he was on the ice for were the ones he earned a point on, which is really all you can ask. He hasn’t maintained that scorching offensive pace, but he’s been solid in the two games since making his debut and even avoided getting nicked against the Flyers.
It’s probably not ideal for Taylor Chorney, who has been a decent if unspectacular seventh defenseman in the past, to be part of the full-time lineup - and perhaps the coaching staff agrees, as he was pretty well sheltered in his first three games and then benched in favor of Djoos and Bowey for the next three. He wasn’t that bad in his three games of action - in fact, aside from the Lightning game (which was a disaster from that third pair), his CF% at even strength was just about 50%. But it’s clear he’s not trusted and if he’s going to get into games only to be played less than ten minutes a night, he’s not really an asset.
The Chorney-Ness pairing has struggled in its limited time together, but Ness has been seemingly the worse of the two - and yet has been given a jersey over Chorney, which is somewhat confusing. He’s taken four penalties already, which is not ideal considering that he’s averaging just over 12 minutes a game,
It’s a shame that Madison Bowey had to wait for an injury to Matt Niskanen in order to make his debut, and it’s an even bigger shame that his debut coincided with an all-around flop of a game by the team. Still, his first NHL game was less than spectacular. Chalk it up to nerves, and that was undoubtedly part of it, but Bowey looked lost at times and was beaten around the net on more than one occasion.
He wasn’t at his best in the first game of the season, but Braden Holtby was good enough to get the win, and it’s been pretty much smooth sailing ever since. The one blip on his record so far has been the loss to the Penguins, in which he ceded three goals - all on the power play - and thus far has posted a very Holtby-esque .923 save percentage, turning aside 120 of the 130 shots he’s faced.
It’s tough to say that the loss against Tampa was his fault; if anything, he kept the Caps in the game longer than they should have been and only ended up with the loss thanks to an overtime penalty. And it certainly wasn’t all on him that the team laid an egg against the Flyers - but he wasn’t nearly as sharp, and ended up giving up the most goals he’s ever given up (by a longshot, his previous high being a five-goal outing against the Islanders way back in 2013).
The good news? The Caps have scored 16 goals at five on five, second-most in the League, and have a GF/60 rate of 3.4, sixth-best. The bad? They’ve given up 14 (albeit with almost half of those coming in Saturday night’s debacle against the Flyers) and are being largely out-attempted every night, with a pitiful 46.2% CF (per Corsica) - eighth-lowest.
The Caps’ new-look power play has been clicking so far, scoring six goals on 20 opportunities with the extra man for a stout 30% efficiency rate. That said, it hasn’t been perfect - the team has been better on the road than at home (albeit having had more opportunities away from Capital One Arena), and has given up two shorthanded goals already. For context, they only gave up three shorties all of last season.
The penalty kill was clicking along just as well as the power play... until it wasn’t. They killed off 15 straight to start the season, but starting with that overtime against the Lightning they’ve now given up at least one power-play strike per game (and three against the Penguins). Amazingly they’re still sitting in the top-10 in penalty-killing effectiveness, with an 83.8% kill rate... which really just means they’re taking far too many penalties.