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Capital Ups and Downs: The First Half

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Our look at individual Capitals ups and downs through the first 41+ games of the season

Vancouver Canucks v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

With the bye week upon us, it’s a good time to take a look back at the ups and downs from the first half of the season:

There are two perspectives one could take when looking at the season Backstrom is having so far. On the one hand, he’s averaging a stalwart .84 points per game, is third on the team in scoring (and top-20 in the League in assists), and has the second-best RelCF on the team at even strength. On the other, .84 points per game is his worst rate since 2010-11, and not to lean too heavily on the eye test but he just has looked... off, at least over the last month or two. Still, his “off” is better than the majority of the League at their best and he’s still making those “wow did you see that” plays - so consider this a solid up arrow rating with a slight asterisk and a hope for a better second half.

With five goals and 13 points, Beagle is well on track to at least come close to his career-high numbers from last season, which is both good and perhaps a little surprising. That said, his main role is as a shutdown center and penalty-kill specialist and he’s struggled in both areas this year. His even-strength CF%, FF%, SF% and SCF% all check in as the worst on the team - in fact, he’s the only Cap below 40% in any of those categories (let alone all four), and is four to five percentage points below any of his regular linemates - and no one has been on the ice for more power-play goals-against than Beagle. That’s just not good enough and not what we’ve come to expect from #83.

With the roster turnover this summer, all eyes were on Burakovsky to step up and fill some of the void left by the offseason departures. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case so far; he’s averaging just over a point every three games, with only three of those 21 total points being goals, and of late has struggled to even stay in the lineup. Granted, some of this can be attributed to the fact that he missed half the season with a hand injury - just as he should have been warming up (and as the team started playing better), he was taken out and has had to start all over again. So can Burakovsky rebound in the second half? He’s certainly capable of it.

Let’s be honest: Chiasson is never going to make you forget Marcus Johansson or Justin Williams. And he has at times struggled in his own end (although really who on this team hasn’t this season?). But he’s also inching towards ten goals, and is more than halfway to his career high in goals, with 40 games to go. That’s a pleasant surprise for a guy brought in on a PTO back in September. Whether or not he can keep it up is yet to be seen, and maybe he won’t - but so far, so not bad for Chiasson.

It’s something of a puzzle as to why Connolly continues to find himself in the healthy-scratch rotation. He’s in the middle of what could be his best offensive season of his career, with 10 goals already, and has been personally responsible for quite a few thrilling late-game moments that helped salvage at least one point for the Caps - in fact, he’s contributed a significant amount of the secondary (tertiary?) scoring the team was going to need to stay afloat in the division, let alone lead it.

The team may have had its issues at even strength this season, but even strength has been Eller’s strength so far with eight of his nine goals and 19 of his 21 points being scored at five a side. He’s also one of a handful of Caps forwards who has had a significant amount of even-strength ice time while also maintaining a CF% above 50%. Add in the fact that he’s suddenly on a goal-scoring tear, with strikes in four straight games, and it’s pretty easy to be excited for what Eller has in store for the rest of the season (and beyond).

For awhile there, Kuznetsov was holding court atop the Caps’ scoring leaderboard. He’s fallen off a little of late and ceded that crown to Ovechkin, but that doesn’t diminish what he’s been able to do so far this year. His 41 points have him among the League’s top 25 scorers, and he seems poised to top his career-high 20 goals with 13 already. Granted, he’s got a little bit of work to do on the other side of the puck - his -4.05 RelCF is the lowest among the team’s top-nine forwards - and he could, as always, stand to shoot the puck a little more. That aside? He’s been quite fun to watch tonight.

Oshie’s season thus far can be divided into two parts: the time before his six-game absence with a concussion, and the games after. Prior to his injury on December 4, he had racked up 10 goals through the season’s first 28 games (second to only Alex Ovechkin) and 23 points, third-most on the team. Since? Just four points - only one of which was a goal - in his last 11 games, the same number of minors post-injury as he had in more than twice as many games before, and a drop in ES CF% from 51.6 to 44.7%.

Given how much we’ve seen from him over the years, it’s somewhat strange to be surprised by anything Alex Ovechkin does anymore - and yet #8’s performance this season has been the most pleasant of surprises. He’s faster, he’s sleeker and he’s continuing to lead the League in goals, finding new ways to score while also using his old standbys to great effect and basically propping up the team’s offense in a way they haven’t needed in several years. He’s also, by the way, just a couple of assists shy of his 500th, which is pretty impressive for someone who’s supposed to be a one-dimensional goal scorer (although we’ve always known he was much more than that). What does the rest of the season hold? Can’t wait to find out.

There have been plenty of games where Smith-Pelly has stood out in a positive way; there have also been plenty where he’s been a non-factor, and it’s probably pretty fair to say that the coaching staff has yet to find a perfect fit for him in the lineup (although they do seem to love him in that first-line role for some reason). Still, he’s already exceeded expectations for someone rescued from the buyout pile; with six goals already, he’s just two goals and four points shy of his career high with plenty of time to demolish both.

It’s been a long time coming for Stephenson, who was drafted back in 2012 and after a series of callups, finally picked up his first career NHL goal and point. He’s added several more to those milestones, albeit in fits and spurts over the course of his 35 games, compiling two goals and ten points overall. What he’s lacking right now is consistency - for every two to three game stretch with a couple of points, he’s had stretches eight to ten games long with no points, and the Caps need more from him if he’s going to have a more permanent spot in the lineup.

Consistency has also been an issue for Vrana, as is to be expected from a younger player in his first full season as an NHLer - and yet he’s still managed to pick up 10 goals, one of a small group of rookies to crack double digits so far this season. And while he’s suffered from dry spells from time to time, he’s been quite proficient at generating shots and chances for himself - a good sign that eventually the puck is going to start finding the back of the net on a more regular basis.

There was a lot of skepticism about Wilson’s ability to evolve as a player this season... skepticism that seemed rightfully earned as he quickly picked up back-to-back suspensions to end the preseason and start the regular season. But he’s turned things around since, to an almost surprising extent. Not only has he continued his solid penalty-killing (he averages just under two shorthanded minutes a night, fourth among Caps forwards) and ability to draw penalties (he leads the team by a healthy margin with 21 penalties drawn), but he’s inching closer to career highs in goals, assists, and points with just under half the season to go.

Growing pains are to be expected for a young player; even more so with a young defenseman, a position that can take some time to grow into. And so it’s been for Bowey in his first year in the NHL - some ups, some downs, and lots of growth (and growing pains). He’s had some adventures in his own end, and the only blueliner in the regular lineup with a worse even-strength CF% than Bowey is his frequent defensive partner Brooks Orpik. And yet at the other end of the rink, he’s starting to show flashes of an offensive capability - his ten points are tied for fourth-most among rookies. Still looking for that first NHL goal, though...

Over the past few years, injuries to various Caps defensemen have required others to step up and fill the void - but that burden has never been as heavy as it was this year when Niskanen went down with an upper-body injury, leaving Carlson to carry the load on a very young, inexperienced blueline. It’s a role he’s taken on with gusto, skating over 26 minutes a night (an average that was much higher before Niskanen’s return) including a combined six and a half minutes on special teams. He’s also averaging a career-high .78 points per game and has racked up 35 points already, making him the second-highest defenseman in the League. That he wasn’t an All Star this year is a bit of a travesty... but if his second half of the season is as successful as the first has been, expect to hear his name begin to be mentioned in Norris conversations.

The Caps haven’t needed Chorney’s services that much this season (although 23 games is probably more than they expected or wanted), and when he has gotten into the lineup, it hasn’t gone particularly well. In fact, the Caps have been outchanced at evens 131-90 when Chorney has been on the ice, and he’s only been saved from having worse-looking numbers because his goalies have been pretty darn good. All that aside... it’s not an easy thing to be the designated seventh defenseman and be a healthy scratch more often than not, and yet Chorney has handled it with all the dignity of a pro. That’s not nothing (even if it’s not enough to bump up his rating).

Some nights it’s hard to tell that Djoos is a 23-year-old rookie. Not because he doesn’t make mistakes, of course; he’s prone to them just like the rest. It’s because of the calm way in which he plays defense - there’s no panic to his game, no rushing, and he’s seemingly almost always in the right position. Like Bowey, he’s had some growing pains, and his initial offensive outburst - a pair of points in his NHL debut against the Pens, no less - has tapered off a bit, but there’s a lot to like in Djoos’s game and a lot to be excited about what he can turn into in the near future.

It’s hard to get an accurate read on Niskanen’s season thus far, given how it’s been cut short by injury - really the first time he’s missed significant time since joining the Caps back in 2014. When he has played, he’s been (for the most part) his usual, steady self. His points-per-game are down a bit from his high as a Cap last season, but he’s still managed to put together a respectable 12 points in 31 games.

We’ve seen Orlov bust out the end-to-end moves on occasion over the course of his career, but it does seem as though he’s found confidence in his offensive abilities this season and has had a handful of highlight reel-worthy goals to his credit so far this year. One big reason? He’s shooting the puck more than in the past - only Carlson has more than Orlov’s 78 shots on net this year. He’s not doing too badly at the other end of the rink, either, as he’s averaged more even-strength ice time than any other Caps’ blueliner and yet boasts a RelCF of 4.56, second only to Djoos among Caps’ D.

The numbers are ugly: among blueliners with more than 500 minutes played at five-on-five, Orpik has the sixth-worst Corsi-For percentage (44.4) and tenth-worst Goals-For percentage (38.9), per Corsica (after a season in which his splits on those two numbers were 52.5 and 63.9 percent, respectively). But the reality is that Orpik was put in a position in which he could succeed last season, skating third-pair minutes alongside perfect angel Nate Schmidt. This year? Tougher minutes and/or worse partners. So it’s not all on Orpik, himself, and a big drop-off was to be expected... but maybe not quite this big a drop-off.

After watching what Holtby has been able to do with a weaker lineup in front of him and more shots coming at him than ever before, you start to understand why he’s one of the League’s best goaltenders (if you didn’t get it before from just... y’know, watching him be awesome). His save percentage is down a bit from what we’re used to seeing - a still very respectable .917 - and he’s still looking for his first shutout of the season a year after putting up nine of them, but there’s no question that he’s been one of the team’s MVPs this season.

It was a bit of a rocky start for Grubauer this season; his first appearance was a 36-save overtime loss against the Bolts, followed by a shellacking at the hands of the Flyers in which he yielded eight goals on 37 shots. After that he put up a series of performances that were worthy of victories but which his team couldn’t get for him, and it took him until his ninth game - a rematch against Tampa - to pick up his first win of the season. Since then, however, he’s undefeated in regulation and has gotten his save percentage back to familiar territory with a .916 mark to date.

So much of what we know about statistics seems to say that the Caps should just not be winning as much as they are, and a lot of it stems from their play at even strength. They consistently find themselves outshot and outchanced five on five, and yet have been able to outscore opponents at evens 137 to 126. So what’s next for the team? Well, those same pesky stats that say the Caps have not been playing as well as their record also say that they will eventually regress... but when you have the offensive talent and goaltending the Caps have, who knows?

This one stings, because for so long - regardless of what else was ailing the Caps - the power play always worked and worked on a consistently high level. This year has been different; for every successful stretch, there’s a slump waiting just around the corner, and they’re currently sitting at 19.6%, good enough for just about middle of the pack. Worth keeping an eye on in the second half? The Caps have given up six shorthanded goals already, twice as many as they gave up all of last year. Yikes.

While the power play has occasionally struggled, the penalty kill has been more consistent...ly bad. 32 power-play goals against already and a sub-80% effectiveness shorthanded? Plenty of room for improvement.

Stats via Corsica, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz and NHL.com