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Rink Roundtable: Caps at the Half (Part 1)

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Part one of our chat about the 2018-19 Caps

Buffalo Sabres v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Time sure flies when you’re the defending champs, and half of the 2018-19 season is already in the books! Seems as good a time as any to look back at what the Caps have done so far this year, and what the rest of the season may hold - so the Rink crew got together to do just that.

Q1. What has impressed you the most about the 2018-19 Caps so far? What has been the biggest disappointment?

J.P.: This is a tougher question than it might appear to be at first. These guys won the dang Cup and brought back nearly everyone (save for a couple of fourth-line types and the head coach), so how could they possibly impress over the first half of their “We Are The Champions” campaign? I suppose the answer is simply that they’re in first place despite the shortened (and alcohol-soaked) summer and a couple of strong contenders within the Division. I mean, who doesn’t experience some backsliding over those first few months when you’re taking everyone’s best shot while trying to muster up some emotion for, say, December games against the Coyotes? That the Caps have been able to win as often as they have thus far this season has impressed me.

That said, their play hasn’t always been as impressive. Regardless of what you think of xGF% and similar expectations-based metrics, I think we can all agree that the Caps have outperformed even the most optimistic takes on where they “should” be based on their on-ice product. Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie aren’t 20-percent shooters (and yet they are right now), and the team won’t continue to shoot 11 percent at five-on-five. The Caps are currently a middling possession team with mediocre (at best?) special teams that, a lot of the time, doesn’t look like a Division winner, much less a threat to repeat as Champs. And yet… here they are.

The Caps aren’t a team that needs to be a possession juggernaut to win games and be a serious threat - they have enough skill in the lineup from the goal on out to be able to get by on talent, and that’s a lot of what winning in the regular season is all about (see 2009-2017), so your mileage may vary on how concerning these trends are in light of the context surrounding them. (Me? I’m not particularly worried.) But with a new coach who presumably has a more modern approach to the game, I’d hoped that there would be stronger indicators that this team’s systems are more likely to produce positive results. Notwithstanding their first place status, I guess we’ll have to wait and see on that; maybe it’s just the metrics that need to catch up to the team and not vice versa.

Peerless: What impresses me most so far is consistency. Up until last week, this was a team that hadn’t lost more than two straight all season and has avoided long losing streaks overall even with their recent three-game slide. To me, that is the hallmark of a team that doesn’t get too high or sink too low. They punch the clock and do their jobs.

As far as disappointments, it is in some individuals who just haven’t improved as much as one might expect given their place in the developmental ladder. Andre Burakovsky is the poster child for this, but he is not alone. I was not especially impressed with Christian Djoos’ state of play before he went out with injury. Madison Bowey also falls into this category (and those 38 penalty minutes in 29 games stick out). And, I’m concerned about Braden Holtby. Of 38 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes, he’s smack in the middle in save percentage (.910/19th). Part of that is his save percentage when the Caps are shorthanded (38th of 42 goalies appearing in at least 15 games), so I’m not sure if that’s him or the team in front of him, but whatever, it’s not good.

Jason: Personally, I think Peerless is off his gourd for worrying about Holtby. Worry about the supervolcano under Yellowstone. Worry about the global bee population dying at an alarming rate. Don’t worry about Braden Holtby.

The biggest standout(s) for me have been wingers Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson. It appears that in the cold, desolate, distant Ovechkin and Backstom-less future, the Washington Capitals will still have some very skilled forwards to carry the load. Also, Pheonix Copley has been fantastic. Everybody expected a bigger drop off in quality from Philipp Grubauer to Copley; that has not been the case.

The biggest disappointment has got to be Andre Burakovsky, right? I mean, the guy is being openly talked about on television and in print as trade fodder. You hate to see it for an extremely likeable and at times brilliantly skilled young forward. But themz the breaks.

Greg: I’m somewhere between Jason & Peerless on Holtby. This is now the second straight regular season where Holtby has been somewhat middling (interestingly, according to Corisca, Copley actually has more Goals Saved Above Average, despite playing a fraction of the time of Holtby). But, ultimately, we’re a few months away from Holtby playing at a superb level to guide the Caps to the big prize...so it’s difficult to get too worked up about Holtby at this point.

Instead, for the thing that has impressed me the most... I’ll go with John Carlson. I (along with some other people here, I’d imagine), was a bit nervous about giving him an 8x8 contract. We’ve seen plenty of examples of players who’ve gotten a big contract, then seen their production tank afterwards. Instead, I’m a bit relieved in seeing that John Carlson’s underlying numbers have actually ticked up this year:

This improvement has coincided with his traditionally strong points total, as he’s tied for 3rd amongst defensemen in points with 39, tied for 2nd amongst defenseman in assists with 33, and averaging a higher points per game than he did last year. I’m still a bit concerned with Carlson & Kempny’s proclivity for giving up lots of scoring chances near the net and I don’t think he’ll keep shooting at 6.6% (which would be a career high), but I think he’s mitigating my concerns about his contract for now.

For most concerning...I wholeheartedly agree with Kevin Klein’s concerns about Matt Niskanen, and I think it’s becoming a serious problem. For instance, Niskanen is still bleeding high danger scoring chances, and is the Caps worst possession defenseman so far this year:

I’m not totally sure I have a great answer here either...though I wonder if Reirden may start to use him and Orlov in lower leverage situations.

Alex: First of all, I don’t think it’s time to worry about Braden Holtby yet either. If his play starts to decline from where it is now, then we can worry the tiniest bit. But I have a feeling he’s only going to get better as the second half of the season progresses.

I think I’ve been most impressed with the handful of players that stepped up a bit this season, or maybe it’s that they stepped up at the end of last season and kept that trend going. I agree with Jason, Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson have been stellar. They’re both turning into the players the Capitals hoped they would be when they were drafted, and their consistency is probably what I find most comforting about their seasons so far. In that same vein, I’ve also been pretty impressed with Brett Connolly. I know not everyone is as big a fan of him as I am, but he’s producing at a relatively consistent rate and he’s on pace to decisively break his career-high point total (27), which he set last year. I know he doesn’t have the skilled finish that some of our other skaters have, but I think he’s a solid middle-six winger that fits well into the Caps’ system as a whole.

On the other, less-cheerful side of things, I feel like everyone and their mother has been disappointed with Andre Burakovsky this season. For me though, it’s more frustration and worry than disappointment at the end of the day. We know he’s good, we know he can produce, but there’s something keeping him from consistently being the player we (and the Caps) want him to be. Who knows what that something is; all I know is that I’m pulling for him to find his game soon. He did have a great game in Dallas on Friday, which is encouraging, but obviously it’s going to take more than one good game to pull him out of whatever weird slump he’s in.

Also, I’m waiting for Kuznetsov to jump back on the goal-scoring train. He’s still averaging a point per game, but I want to see him start scoring on a more regular basis. Bring us more bird cellys, Kuzy.

Bryan: I’m absolutely loving the performances by John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom this season. People are finally catching on to what we’ve known all along: that they’re both criminally underrated and ought to be in the discussion as being amongst the league’s best at their position.

From a disappointment standpoint, there’s very little that can be done about about injuries but it seems like it’s been kind of tough for guys like Kuzy and Oshie to return to form. Given that the team is trending well, it’s not terribly concerning but it does make me question whether or not they would be better served by staying on the shelf a little while longer before taking the ice. In particular I think it’s really taking a toll on the powerplay, especially of late, and may be cause for a strategic revamp to avoid being too predictable.

Sam: What’s impressed me most about the season so far is, by far, the Caps’ scoring beyond their stars. Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana are tied for second in scoring on the team (12 goals each), trailing only Alex Ovechkin, who’s also been one of the best storylines of the season so far, with no Stanley Cup hangover and yet another 30-goal season under his belt.

Surely though, secondary scoring and offensive depth throughout the lineup is by far the most impressive part of the season. In addition to Wilson and Vrana, who are both on pace for career years, Washington is also benefiting from offence on the bottom-6. Brett Connolly is also on pace for the best season of his career, and Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd have been able to produce on the fourth line to boot. This kind of production all the way down the lineup just goes to show that the Capitals can survive without their top forwards.

Not necessarily disappointing, but seeing how many ailments have struck the blue line, as well as struggling power play, is cause for concern. Although Washington has proven they have a deep enough roster to fill voids in the lineup, injuries to top players, especially blueliners, can lead to issues down the road, especially in a tight Metro race with little room to lose. This also applies to the man advantage; if the Caps can’t convert on these opportunities, it could very well lose hockey games, and as they start their second-half stretch, they can’t afford to drop any decisions moving forward as they need to keep the pressure on.

Becca: I’ll echo Sam in saying that Wilson and Vrana have been two bright spots so far this season - Vrana for really taking that next step in his game since the start of the year, and Wilson for bouncing back from a lengthy suspension and not only not letting it take him off his game but clearly using that time to improve his game. The two of them are such different players, but the one-two punch of what they bring to the lineup really gives this team an extra kick. Kudos to the team’s depth forwards, as well, who have picked up where they left off over the summer in providing an extra boost of offense.

As for disappointments... I’ll be the roughly 379th person to mention Burakovsky. It’s so depressing to watch him sometimes, because we know the skill he has and yet he just can’t seem to get it together. This season feels like some sort of crossroad for him, both on an individual level and in terms of his place on the team, and one would have hoped he’d come into this year confident and ready to take a step forward. He just hasn’t yet, and the clock is ticking.

Q2. The trade deadline is a little less than two months away; with the caveat that plenty can change in that amount of time, what do you see as the Caps’ biggest need heading into the home stretch?

J.P.: Well, good health, first and foremost. Whereas that was one of the hallmarks of last year’s team, this year’s club has already lost Oshie, Kuznetsov, Niskanen, Wilson, Orpik and Djoos for different stretches (many to dreaded head injuries), and good fortune on that front is critical to any team’s post-season success.

That aside, I’d look for a depth (second- or third-pairing) defender (who is Michal Kempny 2.0?) and a middle-six scoring winger (whether or not Andre Burakovsky can finally emerge as dependable in that role). The high-end talent is there, but you can never have too much depth, and if the season so far is any indication, the Caps’ depth will continue to be tested.

Peerless: I don’t think a team can ever have too much defense. I’d agree with J.P. in that I can see them looking to find another “Kempny” type at the deadline. I have a suspicion that the team will be engaging with a team to swap players who might benefit from a change in scenery (more on that below).

Jason: I wouldn’t mind seeing them pull the trigger on a top-six winger with skill, depending on what it costs. But with goalie Vitek Vanacek making the AHL All-Star team in Hershey, you never know how much he, Burakovsky, and Siegenthaler might be worth in a trade package.

Greg: Given the Caps have basically 0 cap room (CapFriendly has the Caps with around 400k in deadline cap space), any adjustments will either occur at the margins, or involve the Capitals trading away some salary. I’m not as high on trading Burakovsky as some people...but given the Caps are going to face an RFA crunch next offseason with Vrana & Burakovsky both reaching RFA status, it may behoove BMGM to see what kind of offers he can get for Burakovsky. We’ll all just try to keep this information away from Adam Stringham as best we can.

Alex: I’m not as worried about defensive needs as I am offensive depth to be honest, so I would be most interested to see if the Caps could add a skilled middle-six winger. I’m not sure exactly what that would cost, or how much the Caps are willing to give up. I think any big trade package would probably include Burakovsky (which I need to start mentally preparing myself for now because that’ll take me a minute to get over) but I’d be curious to see who else gets thrown in, depending on the return. All that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Caps made a move for a depth defenseman at or close to the deadline.

Bryan: It’s been two straight years now that Burakovsky’s been mentioned as a player who could be dealt at the deadline, but frankly I don’t know how feasible it is. While I feel like he could be a good match for a squad looking to re-build, it seems like this trade value is fairly low. Like Jason said, I feel like he’s a candidate for a package deal and if they could swing those three players for a top-six winger on a team that is throwing in the towel, that might yield some decent results for the second half of the year.

Sam: There’s always deals and great players to look for in the deadline, and the Caps have had good luck finding quality players at a cheap price (cough, Michal Kempny, cough). Still, on defense, given the Capitals’ prospects and their ability to step up with injuries on the blue line, I think it would be good to maintain confidence in their prospects and give them the chance to prove their worth. As the old saying goes, ‘Don’t fix what isn’t broken.’

That being said, perhaps investing in another bottom-6 wing would be wise; while Wilson, Vrana and Connolly provide enough depth, there needs to be more reassurance and depth on the wing, given Andre Burakovsky and Dmitrij Jaskin haven’t been able to provide much offense. However, with Travis Boyd proving his worth and able to play on the wing, and Chandler Stephenson starting to find his game a bit, it isn’t completely necessary.

New faces and bold predictions coming up later today in Part 2 of our Rink Roundtable...