41 games done, 41 games to go, and against all odds the Caps once again find themselves in the mix for the Division lead. Let’s chat about where the team has been... and where we think they’re going.
Q1. The Caps lost several key players during the offseason. Which loss do you think has impacted the team the most? How well do you think they’ve done to replace the players that departed over the summer?
Rob: Based on my often-cursory review of the fan and media reaction, it seems to me that Nate Schmidt has received the lion’s share of the attention when it comes time to pining for recent departures, but I think Marcus Johansson is obviously the player they are missing the most. The power play hasn’t been as effective this year as it has been since the inception of the 1-3-1. The even strength puck possession and scoring depth is down. You can look at injuries and other teams adjusting, but Johansson is crucial to both. He was not only vital on the zone entries, undoubtedly one of the biggest culprits of the current PP woes, but he was also excellent at maintaining puck possession down low and increasing the team’s mobility. Not to say the power play has become stagnant solely because of his loss, but his absence is felt.
The team is also worse at even strength. The third line has been a disaster all year, whereas in years past there was at least a credible threat of a third line that could hurt you; several games this year it hasn’t even been clear the Caps have two lines that can hurt you. Part of that is Burakovsky’s injuries and continued failure to take that next step, but obviously losing a solid and versatile top-six forward is going to make it harder to find three combinations that work.
JP: They definitely miss MoJo, but I think the answer is Schmidt. Despite the emergence of Christian Djoos as an effective top-four partner for John Carlson (controlling a sizzling 54.9 percent of shot attempts at five-on-five when together, albeit in relatively sheltered minutes, as Barry Trotz has tended to put Brooks Orpik out with Carlson when protecting a lead or starting a shift in the defensive zone), Schmidt would be an upgrade either there or in the third pair, which has really struggled - Orpik is at 43.8 percent CF with Madison Bowey and 33.3 percent with Taylor Chorney, while Bowey-Chorney clocks in at 43.0. Compare that with last year’s 56.2 percent pair of Orpik and Schmidt and there really isn’t any comparison.
A season ago, Orpik-Schmidt had a plus-1.29 goal differential per sixty minutes of five-on-five time (2.68 goals-for, 1.39 goals-against); this year, Orpik’s numbers have flipped, and he has a minus-1.04 goal differential (1.65 goals-for, 2.69 goals-against). That 2.33 goals-per-sixty swing shakes out to the Caps being more than a goal every two games worse with Orpik on the ice at fives this year versus last. And that’s the impact that replacing a good player with a sub-replacement level skater will make on a guy like Orpik (and a team like the Caps). Whether Schmidt was used to stabilize that third pair or bumped Djoos down into it, the Caps would be a markedly better team with 88 still on the roster.
As for the other replacements, guys like Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelley have been productive, but they haven’t been particularly “good” - both are underwater in shot, goal and expected goal differentials. The Tyler Graovacs of the world aren’t going to make anyone miss Justin Williams any time soon.
Peerless: I think all of the departures are missed to a degree, from Alzner to Winnik, but Nate Schmidt more than others. The lead times for developing a reliable, contributing defensemen being what they are, Schmidt was growing into that role, and now the Caps are left having to start over with either Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, both, or some other combination. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Caps could shelter Schmidt to a degree with their depth last season as he developed. That isn’t possible this year given the current state of the blueline. I can’t help but think it is a big part of the big increase in goals allowed per game in the first half this year over the first half last year. Not to make Schmidt the second coming of Rod Langway, but he was further along the development curve.
Adam: Nate Schmidt has arguably been the Vegas Golden Knights’ best defenseman this year. He’s performed well against tough competition and would’ve done very well in Washington this year. The local coaching staff didn’t utilize Schmidt as heavily as they should’ve and that may have made him an undervalued asset in the eyes of Brian MacLellan. We have no way of knowing what Vegas asked for in return for not choosing Schmidt but, given what other teams traded to protect certain players, Washington likely should’ve made the deal.
Pepper: Marcus Johansson. I agree with Rob’s assessment of his power play impact, and having MJ90 would alleviate concern over Andre Burakovsky’s continued struggle for consistency. That said, I’m tremendously impressed by the replacements, both at forward and on the blue line. I don’t think anyone expected the production we’ve seen out of Jakub Vrana, Alex Chaisson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Chandler Stephenson thus far. Christian Djoos is fitting in nicely. Madison Bowey is not far behind him. Add to that career (to date) seasons out of Tom Wilson and John Carlson, and the impact of so many losses in the off-season has been far less than anticipated. That said, we are talking about the regular season, in January.
Q2. What is your biggest concern about the team as they head into the second half of the season?
JP: Depth. Yes, that’s a concern for just about every team in a salary-capped league. But I said at the beginning of the season that there are probably five skaters, any one of whose absence from the lineup for an extended stretch could spell doom for this team and I still believe that’s the case. Granted, they’ve managed to survive Matt Niskanen’s injuries… so far, and in the regular season. But lose him (or Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or John Carlson or Evgeny Kuznetsov) when the games really start to matter and this team could be in big trouble. And what of the fact that the lack of depth is forcing guys like Carlson to play huge minutes all season (he’s up more than three-and-a-half minutes per game over last season, comfortably at a career-high 26:20 per game)? Again, that’s likely the case for most teams (who can lose a top-six center or top-two defenseman and not miss a beat?), but this team is much more top-heavy than it has been in the recent past, when they had terrific depth that wasn’t really put to the test.
Rob: Well, they weren’t good enough last year, and they are a worse (not bad) team this year. They look like they’ll be right in the hunt of it, so predictions about missing the playoffs seem premature, but it’s hard to look at the absolutely loaded roster the last two years and see where they’ve solved any of their problems--are we back to saying “just make the playoffs and anything can happen”? Seems overly optimistic. The strengths of the team are the same but less imposing, the depth is thinner, and the leadership core that has consistently found ways to come up small in big moments is still here. There are lots of reasons to questions this team on paper, but my biggest concern is that it’s still the Caps.
Peerless: This year’s Caps play entirely too close to the margins compared to last year’s team. An injury here, a slight wobble in what are already bad possession numbers there, a slump somewhere else, and this team can go from first the seventh in a hurry, given how close the Metro has been so far. That’s a product of the replacement strategy – higher priced, yet productive and experienced players out; lower priced, marginal, or younger players without a resume in. It is almost a race to see if the latter can improve enough and fast enough to outrace the potential for slumps, injuries, or disappointing possession numbers. Whereas last year’s team was a colossal disappointment going out in the second round, this year’s team looks like a rather garden variety one-and-done level of achievement. They have good pieces, and they have holes. Holes get exploited mercilessly in the postseason.
Adam: As Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post wrote this week, the Capitals underlying numbers simply aren’t very good. This year’s Capitals are getting results well above what we’d expect given their level of play. If the Capitals can’t improve they likely won’t do very well in the playoffs....not that strong underlying numbers have helped them in the past.
Pepper: Right. The bend-but-don’t-break style of play we’ve seen so far doesn’t bode well for the playoffs. On the other hand, this team has felt a lot more opportunistic than the methodically dominant teams we’ve seen the last two seasons, and while the first month of the season saw the team’s key possession numbers in the toilet, they’ve ticked north as we head into 2018.
Tune in later today for the second half of our discussion, including the all-important team grade for the first half!