The 2021-22 Washington Capitals have been something of a puzzle to figure out so far, with a very different team taking the ice opening night (and ever since) than we perhaps expected heading into this year. The lineup is ever-changing, the callups are frequent and varied, and the entire second line has been decimated by injuries.
One thing that is certain, however, is that the team’s top line has come to play – and they’ve basically been carrying the Caps through the first 12 games.
At the top of the list is, of course, Alex Ovechkin. After suffering an injury in the postseason and another one in the final preseason game, it would’ve been understandable for the newly 36-year-old winger to require a little extra time to find his groove… but that hasn’t been the case. Ovechkin started the season with a bang, potting two goals and two assists in the season-opening rout of the New York Rangers, and really hasn’t slowed down since. He has points in 10 of the first 12 games, with multiple points in seven of those, leads the NHL in goals and is third in overall scoring.
A strong start for Ovechkin, despite his advancing age, isn’t necessarily a surprise. What is a bit more surprising – albeit pleasantly – is the resurgence of his linemate, Evgeny Kuznetsov. Coming into this season, the sense was that the team would go as Kuznetsov goes, and that they needed him to find his game in order to have any success – a situation that became even more critical with Nicklas Backstrom’s lingering hip injury keeping him out of the lineup to start the year. And while he’s been a question mark in previous seasons, this year – so far at least – he’s stepped up and then some, skating and producing offense like the Kuznetsov we remember from the Cup run.
Then there’s Tom Wilson, who over the past two to three seasons has reinvented himself as a deceptively skilled power forward – and this year has turned into a key setup man for his two Russian linemates. Wilson racked up seven assists before finally finding the back of the net last week and has scored twice since. With 10 points in his first 12 games, he’s off to the best start of his career.
As a trio, things are clicking on all cylinders. Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson have combined for 11 goals at five on five, 13 at even strength and 18 total, while ceding just five to their opponents. They’re above 50% in both five-on-five CF% (50.4) and FF% (54.4), although you’d like to see the former a little higher (even as we know they’re usually able to outperform that metric).
So that’s the good news.
The problem is that the offense generated by the top line is not being matched by the rest of the lineup, making the team top-heavy (and therefore potentially easier to defend for teams able to shut down that first line). So far this season, they’ve accounted for 45% of the team’s goals and 43% of their overall points; it’s ramped up in the last six games, as well, with goals up to 57% of the team total and 50% of the points overall.
Some of that is to be expected, of course – a first line (usually) consists of the team’s most skilled players who are already going to carry a more significant percentage of the offensive production.
That’s even more true when a lineup is decimated by injuries the way the Caps’ has been to start the season, with their entire second line of Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha out long-term and their fourth-line center, Nic Dowd, in and out of the lineup with a nagging injury of his own. Add in the fact that a quarter of the forward lineup made their NHL debut this season, with a whopping 20 games of experience between them, and it’s understandable that the team would be leaning on Ovechkin and friends more than usual.
Still, while many of the remaining forwards aren’t exactly expected to put up tons of goals in a season, the Caps need to get more from their secondary scorers. While those top guys have been scoring a ton at evens, the rest of the lineup has just three more goals five-on-five... and has given up 12 the other way.
Consider that Lars Eller has just four points this year, all assists, after putting up anywhere from .15 to .23 goals per game over his previous five seasons with the Caps (a pace that should have him pitching in at least a couple by now). Conor Sheary had a strong season last year, then disappeared in the postseason and has barely been seen since, with just four points of his own so far. Daniel Sprong has just three points, and Carl Hagelin just a pair of assists, while Garnet Hathaway remains the only full-time player without a single point.
In fact, the biggest contributions – especially of late – have come from the rookies, who over the last six games have four goals and six assists (30% and 20% of the team’s total, respectively). How sustainable that will be in the coming weeks, depending on when the injured players return, is up for debate (as is the sustainability of the top line’s production) - but it might behoove the coaching staff to give those guys more ice time going forward, both to see what they’re capable of and to better match the skillset needed of a typical second line.
In the coming weeks, the Caps should hopefully start to get some of their injured players back, returning a bit of normalcy to the lineup. But with no set timeline on any of them, the Caps need to continue to find a way to spread the offense around and help out their top-producing top line.
Because the schedule only gets harder after this week, with a big trip out west looming - and it needs to be all hands on deck to get them through it.