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Rink Roundtable: Caps at the Half

We mull over the events of the first half and look ahead to part 2 of the 2019-20 season.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

41 games down, 41 games to go... seems like as good a time as any to take stock of your 2019-20 Washington Capitals.

Q1. In 100 words or less, sum up your thoughts on the first half of the Caps’ 2019-20 season.

J.P.: With three Presidents’ Trophies, seven Division titles and the most wins in the NHL over the just-concluded decade, we Caps fans might be a little regular-season spoiled. Ho-hum, there go the Caps opening up big leads in the standings. Yawn.

But we shouldn’t take for granted what the Caps are doing this year. The wins are there, the underlying stats are there and special teams look pretty good. There are some red flags, but the Caps look very much like a team gearing up for another run as a playoff favorite and a very real contender.

Peerless: Better than I thought. I assumed the Caps were the class of the division but didn’t think they could finish the first half with a ten-point lead. Not since 2015-2016 has a Metro champ won by a 10+ point margin (Caps by 16 points over Pittsburgh).

Geoff: Washington has been playing excellent hockey since October and at the halfway point of the season they are comfortably atop the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. The team has really enjoyed playing at Capital One Arena with a 11-3-4 record. Only the Bruins and Flyers have lost fewer regulation games on home ice than the Capitals. Additionally, with six players having registered 10 goals already (Ovechkin, Vrana, Oshie, Carlson, Kuznetsov, and Wilson) the individuals are doing as well as the whole.

Greg: The Caps have been very, very strong with good underlying numbers to support their play. Goaltending is a bit of an open question, and I think that we’ll probably start seeing a 50/50 split between Braden Holtby & Ilya Samsonov, but I’m weirdly serene about the goaltending at this point. At this point in the year, with the Caps in pretty strong playoff contention, I think the questions about the other teams in the Metro (like “can the Isles keep this up” or “how can Pittsburgh keep doing this despite their injuries”) are more compelling to me.

Alex: John Carlson? Good. Ilya Samsonov? Good. Fourth line? Good. Special teams? Good. 27-8-5 record? Good. The Washington Capitals? Good™.

Luke: The Capitals are first in the league so it’s hard to be too upset about anything. But lately Capital fans are feeling antsy. Losing three of their last four and for the first time all season have lost two straight in regulation it doesn’t feel good. But we are spoiled and nearly all fan bases would love to switch with us. The Capitals have a lot they can improve on but it’s hard not to enjoy being in first… for now.

Q2. Biggest pleasant surprise and biggest disappointment so far?

J.P.: The most pleasant surprise so far has been the success of the revamped penalty kill. Clocking in at nearly 85%, the Caps have a shot at posting their best PK this millenium, and that comes on the heels of a rather poor 78.9% in 2018-19 (their worst mark since 2012-13). And what’s particularly satisfying about this turn around is that it’s the result of a concerted effort to change what the team was doing and, perhaps more importantly, who was doing it - of the Caps’ top six players by per-game short-handed ice time, only Lars Eller and Nic Dowd started last season with the club; the others were either called up mid-season (Jonas Siegenthaler), traded for later on the campaign (Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen) or acquired over the summer (Radko Gudas). The 2019-20 Caps have dramatically improved their penalty kill, and it has certainly been a pleasant surprise...

… and it’s had to be, because the biggest disappointment so far has been the team’s inability to stay out of the penalty box. As of Monday, no team had been shorthanded more times than the Caps this year, and even on a per-game basis, they’re top (bottom?) three in that metric. Combine that with the strength of the PK and you get a League-high in short-handed ice time. That’s not ideal, and the more they play with fire, the more likely it is that they’re going to start getting burned.

Peerless: I’d agree on the pleasant surprise, the penalty kill. And to follow on what J.P. said, it is a tribute to the focus of General Manager Brian MacLellan and the ability of him and his staff to identify an area to improve and execute a plan to do that, in this case bringing in what amounted to a new penalty killing unit. Among individual players, Ilya Samsonov has been the biggest pleasant surprise. How many rookies have perfect records on the road to start their careers (7-0-0, one no-decision)? Sure, the Caps are loaded in front of him, but his numbers have been very good, too. As for disappointment, having to deploy the penalty kill as frequently as they do. That has the potential to end their season quick and quiet in the playoffs.

Geoff: The biggest surprise through 41 games has been Garnet Hathaway’s play on the fourth line. The fifth year forward has registered six goals and six assists so far and is on pace to clear his career high marks in goals (11), assists (9), points (19), penalty minutes (88), and shots on goal (77). Hathaway has proven to be an impact player for Washington while skating bottom six minutes.

The biggest disappointment at this point has to be defenseman Nick Jensen. He has skated in every Washington game and has picked up just two assists with a -10 rating. On pace for just four points, this season would be Jensen’s least productive as an NHL defenseman. Outside of the box scores Jensen has been unable to use his skating or first pass to make himself noticeable on the hottest team in the league.

Greg: Biggest positive surprise for me has to be Samsonov. Let’s remember that this time last year, there were credible questions about whether he was still an elite prospect, given his struggles in Hershey to start the year. Fast forward to this year and not only has the 22-year old netminder posted strong stats for a rookie...he’s been better than Braden Holtby across the board. This is making the Caps inevitable decision to give the reins to Samosonov next year much easier, and I can’t help but wonder if he’ll get a chance to play in a few playoff games this year.

Biggest disappointment for me is probably Evgeny Kuznetsov. He’s been scoring at a decent clip, but he’s continued to see a complete deterioration in his defensive numbers, and his possession stats are all sub-45% (including a rather alarming 42.55% high danger for-percentage). At this point, I think it’s an open question about whether he’s a legit number 1 center, and I’m almost thinking about whether the Caps might need to move him to the wing.

Alex: The most pleasant surprise for me has definitely been Jonas Siegenthaler. The Caps’ penalty kill has been chugging along this season, and Siegenthaler is a huge part of that. He leads the team in shorthanded ice time with 126:37, a whopping 17:07 more than Radko Gudas, second place on the list. What has been most impressive to me is the ease with which he has settled into this new role; he almost always looks cool, calm, and collected on the PK. It was also nice to see Siegenthaler score his first (and second!) NHL goal this season.

Biggest disappointment? I have to agree with Geoff, it’s Nick Jensen. He just hasn’t been able to get anything going while playing for one of the hottest teams in the league, and it sure as heck is getting frustrating to watch. He still hasn’t made the impact both the organization and fans hoped he’d make when GMBM made the trade for him back in February. He is still looking for his first goal as a Cap, and his two points this season ties him for dead last on the list of 153 NHL defensemen who have skated at least 500 minutes. And, like Geoff said, he hasn’t been noticeable (in a good way, anyway) outside of the box score either.

Luke: There’s quite a few pleasant surprises this season that most others have touched on, so I’ll try to find something different and pick Dmitry Orlov as my surprise. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise because he’s been amazing for years, but after last season’s down year he’s really returned to form. In fact he’s arguably playing the best hockey he’s ever played. He’s never had such a positive impact on the offense and defense. We already knew he was great defensively but he’s really stepping up his offense this season; he’s on pace for nearly 40 points, much higher than his 33 point high mark.

As for biggest disappointment, it’s probably Braden Holtby. I really thought he’d have a good season with some better defensemen in front of him. The Capitals haven’t been making it easy on Holtby but they haven’t been hanging him out to dry. The Capitals as a team allow the 13th most expected goals per 60 minutes. Out of 57 goalies who’ve played at least 400 minutes, at 5v5 Holtby ranks 53rd with a -7.89 goals saved above average. Meaning, he’s let in nearly 8 goals at 5v5. That’s not good.

Q3. What is the biggest issue from the first half that the Caps need to address ASAP?

J.P.: The Caps’ biggest problem in their first-round loss to the Hurricanes last spring was arguably their inability to break Carolina’s forecheck with any sort of consistent success. To me, that issue very much persists (look no further than last Saturday night’s game), and it’s an issue that’s cropped up against other clubs as well (Columbus, for example). As good as the Caps have been this year, until they can figure out how to get out of their own zone with regularity against hard-pressing teams (paging Todd Reirden), I think it’s fair to question just how successful they can be in the long-run because “the book” on them will be a best-seller.

Peerless: Discipline. And this shows up in more than one area. The obvious one is the well-worn path to the penalty box. Going into the Islanders game to end the calendar year, no team has more games with ten or more penalty minutes than the Caps (22, tied with the Rangers). They were shorthanded five or more times in 11 games. Only three teams going into Monday’s games had more (the Rangers (14), Carolina (12), and Vegas (12)). The Caps were 8-2-1 in those games, but that’s against the field. Do that against stiffer opponents in the playoffs, and it could end unpleasantly. The other area that comes leaping off the page is a propensity for laying eggs. Going into Monday’s games, the Caps lost eight games in regulation, six by margins of three or more goals and another by a two-goal margin. It hasn’t happened often this season, but when the Caps don’t have it, they really don’t have it.

Geoff: I am going to have to agree that Washington’s inability to stay out of the penalty box has been their biggest issue. A single penalty taken at the wrong time in a seven-game series can turn the tide of momentum and bury a club, so the Capitals need to resolve their discipline problem as soon as possible. Radko Gudas and Jonas Siegenthaler, two of the team’s top penalty killers, are also two of the most frequently penalized players (32 and 31 penalty minutes, respectively).

Greg: I’m with J.P. here, I think the Caps occasional inability to handle strong forechecks is something that is going to rear its ugly head come playoff time. But for me, I think the biggest question for the second half is finding the right goaltending mix. As I said above, Samsonov has been outplaying Holtby by a decent margin, and I think he’s going to keep getting a higher and higher percentage of starts. How Reirden handles the balance between the hotshot (or hot-saving, maybe?) rookie and the veteran leader is going to define a lot of the Caps season going forward.

Alex: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Caps have a penalty problem. And yes, the penalty kill has been solid, but as Geoff said, their best penalty killers are often the ones taking trips to the box. Throwback to that time a few weeks ago when Carl Hagelin, Radko Gudas, and Jonas Siegenthaler were all in the sin bin at the same time. If the Caps can get their discipline in check, they will make things much easier for themselves.

Luke: Outside the obvious of being in the box way too much, it’s time for Reirden to do something about Michal Kempny and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kempny has been quite awful since his return, a full 4% worse than his next defensive buddy in xGF%. He’s currently not playing the top four type hockey he used. They need to demote him to bottom pair and let him get his game back, or find out even if he can. As for Kuznetsov, he is either killing it or is a huge defensive liability. With certain players, like Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson, he really tilts the ice for the Capitals, but with other players, like TJ Oshie, the ice gets tilted against them. Reirden needs to find the best chemistry for Kempny and Kuznetsov if the Capitals really want to take the next step.

Q3. Your first half MVP is...

J.P.: No need to galaxy-brain this one - it’s John Carlson (who not only is running away with the Norris Trophy race, but could figure in the League’s MVP discussion as well). He’s playing big minutes and putting up big numbers; no one has had as positive an impact on the team’s fortunes so far this season.

Peerless: John Carlson. Second among NHL defensemen in goals, first in assists, first in points, he’s a top-ten skater overall in points per game (1.25 through Sunday), only four players in the league had more even strength points than Carlson (35) going into Monday’s games, no player in the league had more game-winning goals (six, tied with four players), and he was averaging 24:59 a game in ice time. No player in the league had more points in road games than Carlson (32), not Connor McDavid (27), not Nathan MacKinnon (29), not David Pastrnak (25). But I think an honorable mention goes to Samsonov. His numbers are comparable to Philipp Grubauer’s in his last season in Washington, a 2.28 goals against average to 2.35 for Grubauer, a .918 save percentage to .923 for Grubauer, the difference being Grubauer was by that time an accomplished backup who demonstrated his readiness to take on the bigger load of a number one goalie, while Samsonov is a rookie in just his second pro season in North America. He’s got 10 wins in 14 games. The only rookie goalie to win at that pace playing in fewer than 30 games over a season since 2005-2006 was Frederik Anderson (20 wins in 28 games with Anaheim in 2013-2014).

Geoff: John Carlson leads the Capitals with 50 points and has a 12 point lead over the next highest scoring player (Alex Ovechkin). We have seen Carlson flirt with greatness for bits and pieces of a season but this is the first time Washington’s top defenseman has done it with unwavering consistency. While I think it’s fair to expect his numbers to fall back down to Earth in the second half of the season Carlson is the Capitals’ first half MVP by a landslide.

Greg: It’s Carlson, and it’s not particularly close.

While you’re here though, can I interest you in some talk about how good Dmitry Orlov has been? He’s perhaps the Caps best possession defender, he makes pretty much everyone around him better, and he only has 16 PIM’s (2nd lowest amongst Caps regular defenders). He’s been good at pretty much everything, as his HockeyViz chart shows:

So yeah, Carlson’s been great and is the MVP, but Orlov might be the linchpin behind the whole defense.

Alex: I am, shocker, also going with John Carlson. The newly-minted alternate captain is having the season of his life, and the only person that is going to stop him is himself. If you think anyone else is Washington’s first half MVP, you done goofed. #Johnny4Norris? More like #Johnny4Hart.

Luke: John Carlson… that’s it… that’s the paragraph.