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Rink Roundtable: At the Halfway(ish) Mark

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The Rink crew chats about the biggest surprises so far, the first-half MVP and what (if anything) needs to improve in the second half in our latest roundtable.

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Incredible as it may seem, the Caps have already put the first half of the season (plus a little more) in the books. That leaves 27 games - plus a trade deadline - to contend with before the Caps hopefully make another run at the Cup. Where does the team stand now, and where do they need to improve? The Rink crew weighs in...

Q1. In 100 words or less, sum up your thoughts on the first half of the Caps’ 2020-21 season.

The Peerless: “Back to School.” Hockey is hockey, but given elite level of play at this level, small differences in knowledge, comfort, instinctive ability to adjust can have their impacts. After a 6-0-3 start that wasn’t as good as it looked and a 3-5-1 middle third of the season completed, the Caps seem to be “getting it” with respect to what coaches want. In their last 11 games they have six games with five or more goals. There are things on the defensive side of the puck to clean up, but the learning curve is progressing.

J.P.: I could sum my thoughts up with two words – “encouraging” and “impressive” – but I’ll expound a bit. The Caps have had to adjust to a new coach and new systems, a handful of new teammates, a condensed schedule with an extremely tight training camp, COVID protocols (and related absences), and a lack of experience in goal, and yet here they are atop the Division. It hasn’t been perfect, but it has been encouraging and impressive and trending in the right direction. Also, since I have words to spare, it should be “fewer” in the question, not “less.”

Alex: “Pleasantly surprised” sums my feelings up nicely. There was a lot of uncertainty coming into this season, even without taking COVID into consideration. There were some unfamiliar names on the roster, the Caps’ longtime netminder moved to Vancouver, and the team brought in a new bench boss. This could have been a perfect storm for collapse, even with the existing pieces in place, but it wasn’t. Despite facing some added adversity with four of their top players on the COVID list early in the season, the Capitals have been doing well this season.

Greg: I’m with Alex in being surprised about this season. I went into the year having the Caps pegged as a bubble team, and I wasn’t alone in that prediction. Yet, since losing 4 in a row in early February, the Caps have been one of the best teams in hockey (with underlying play that mostly supports the positive results). The Caps aren’t exactly playing the most entertaining hockey in the NHL...but the results have certainly been there. I’ve got a few more words, so let me also say: time to start the Nicklas Backstrom for the Hall of Fame campaign.

Kevin: Who needs my thoughts when you can just look at some objective truths? The Caps have the third-most mangames lost in the NHL, behind only the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, and a huge portion of those are accounted by top-nine forwards or their presumed starter in net. The defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning have the best goal differential in the League by a significant margin, and the Capitals, in spite of their numerous personnel challenges, have the same point total as the Bolts in one more game played and lead a tough division. Consider me encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.

[Editor’s Note: Docking Kevin some points for going five words over the 100-word limit...]

Becca: I’ll join in with the “pleasantly surprised” crowd. I’m usually pretty optimistic as a fan, and I figured the team was still good enough to contend, but I’ll admit to being a little concerned that they’d have time to get their act together with the new coaching staff and the shortened season. Add in the lineup and schedule juggling and that’s a lot to deal with - but I’m super impressed with how they’ve risen to the challenge each time. It hasn’t always been pretty, but they seem to have found their legs now, and it’s fun to watch.

Q2. Who is your first-half MVP?

The Peerless: We had Vitek Vanecek as the MVP a little while back, and we will stick with this. It is the difference between a “Lindsay” winner as outstanding player (Nicklas Backstrom) and a “Hart” winner as most valuable. Given the circumstances, think of where the Caps would be if Vanecek had not stepped up in the early going and played like one might have expected a rookie with no NHL experience to perform. Would Craig Anderson have been able to shoulder the burden? Would the Caps resorted to overpaying for goalie help? Vanecek might not finish the season as the number one goalie; chances are he will not. But without his first half, the Caps’ playoff chances would be, at best, a lot more iffy.

J.P.: Vanecek’s a good pick, but I’ll go with Backstrom. He’s leading the team in goals (tied), assists, points (duh), even-strength points and power-play points, and hasn’t missed a game yet (which has been particularly important with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller each missing chunks of time). He’s playing his best hockey in years and, frankly, that’s a bit of a relief given that it’s Year 1 of his big new contract. It’s hard to imagine where the Caps would be without Backstrom playing the way he is, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be atop the Division.

Alex: Like Peerless, I have to go with Vitek Vanecek on this one. Between Henrik Lundqvist not joining the team this season and Ilya Samsonov landing on the COVID protocol list, Vanecek was called upon to step up and then step into the starting goalie spot. Before his debut in January he had never played in an NHL game, and now he is one of the key reasons the Capitals are where they are in the standings right now. Peerless is right, he will not finish the season as the number one goalie (Samsonov has already clearly begun winning that spot back), but he has proved absolutely invaluable to the Capitals this season.

Greg: I can’t believe the Dmitry Orlov erasure! Ok fine, I won’t argue for Orlov for team MVP, so I’m going to endorse Backstrom here too. As JP said above, Backstom is leading the team in every major statistical category, and he’s been an absolute rock as the team has been without Eller & Kuznetsov for stretches of time. Despite entering his age-33 season, Backstrom leads the Caps forwards in ice time, and has been playing some tough minutes defensively against other teams’ top lines. That’s pretty dang valuable to me.

Kevin: Nicklas Backstrom, and both J.P. and Greg have already laid out the case.

Becca: It’s Backstrom for me as well, although I agree that this team is not where they are in the standings today if not for the unexpected heroics of Vitek Vanecek. But Backstrom has found another level to his game (which is pretty impressive considering the level he was already at) and filled a void the team needed him to fill.

Q3. What has been the biggest surprise - good or bad - so far?

The Peerless: On the good side, Vanecek, and I do not think it is all that close. On the bad side among the players, I would have had Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov battling for this through the Caps’ first 20-25 games. I thought that even with the COVID-related absence, they would have better offensive numbers. But both seem to be coming out of their early slumber with pretty good numbers in March. On a team level, the road power play has been just short of awful (29th in the league at 10.5 percent), especially compared to the home version (45.7 percent/first in the league).

J.P.: That Nick Jensen scored a damn goal. Kidding aside, I’m sticking with Jensen’s play overall. There were times in previous years that he was nearly unplayable, but he has really found his game this season and is in a role that suits him. He was terrific with Dmitry Orlov and has been terrific with Zdeno Chara in that third pair. His confidence has surged and his offense has spiked along with it (there’s a chicken-or-egg for you). For Jensen’s play alone and as a representative sample of what he’s been able to do elsewhere, Peter Laviolette should get Jack Adams consideration.

Alex: Other than Vanecek, I’ve been most surprised by Justin Schultz, and in a good way. I really wasn’t sure how his addition to the team would work out when the Caps announced his signing in the offseason, but I think it was a relatively low risk acquisition that has paid dividends. He’s a disciplined defenseman, and he can provide some offensive spark when called upon. He had some extended time on the power play earlier in the season when Dmitry Orlov was on the COVID list as well, and he looked really great. Speaking of Orlov, I think Schultz has been an excellent partner for him. Orlov played some of his best hockey with Matt Niskanen, and Schultz has provided that same steady partnership out on the ice.

Greg: I talked about this in a recent WLB, but I’ve been extremely impressed with Lars Eller this season. Despite having some tough defensive assignments, the Caps regularly tilt the ice in their favor with Eller, and his offensive impact has been surprisingly strong this year. It hasn’t just been possession-dominance with Eller either, he has more points per 60 minutes at 5v5 than prominent Caps like Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, and TJ Oshie. Just insanely valuable production from a guy who can play up and down the lineup.

Kevin: All of the above are great choices in a season full of pleasant surprises in D.C. Since I didn’t expound on my Nick-for-MVP answer, here are a few surprising nuggets about his performance so far. In 29 games played so far, he’s already scored eight times at 5v5. That’s already exceeded his 5v5 goal totals from last year (61 GP), 2012-2013 (48 GP), and 2008-2009 (82 GP). The goal-scoring picture on the power play is similar, with Nick’s four power play markers already exceeding his totals from seven different season in his career. While it’s not necessarily surprising to see Backstrom remain productive in the later chapters of his career, it is surprising to see him suddenly achieve his career-best goal scoring rates.

Becca: I’m going with a guy we’ve been talking a lot about lately, Daniel Sprong. Our own Luke Adomanis may have known what the team had in Sprong but I wasn’t expecting him to step in the way he has, especially lately - and you can tell it’s giving him confidence. Hell, the guy looked Alex Ovechkin off on a two-on-one before taking the shot himself. That’s ballsy. His ability to fill whatever role is needed, and provide additional offense, is the kind of thing Cup-winning teams need on their roster - as we all remember.

As for a not-so-great surprise - how does a power play unit that includes Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom look so consistently bad?? Yeah, yeah, 6th in the League overall, that’s great... but we know it’s inflated, and it looks awful more often than it looks lethal.

Q4. What is the one thing that needs to get better in the second half?

The Peerless: Sixty-minute focus. The Caps are entering an odd part of the schedule. Starting with the back-to-back against the Rangers this weekend, 12 of the Caps’ next 16 games will be against teams not in the playoff mix. The Caps cannot afford to blow late leads and/or leave points on the table in this stretch, especially when of their last 11 regular season games, seven will be against teams in the playoff mix, including three in a row against the Islanders in late April.

J.P.: Peerless nailed it - consistency in play, which is about attention to detail. When this team is locked in to playing the structured hockey that Laviolette demands (think about their most recent win over Boston or the last two periods against the Isles the other night), they’re awfully tough to play against. When they lose that focus, they can be a sloppy mess. Really, it’s up to them to decide which team they’re going to be on any given night.

Alex: I’d like to see Evgeny Kuznetsov step up his game and start producing some more consistent offense. It seems like we see flashes of pure brilliance from Kuznetsov at times, but those flashes of brilliance are spaced between periods of what at this point looks like indifference. I know it is very unlikely at this point to see a resurgence of “2018 postseason Kuznetsov” — if he was going to appear, it feels like it would have happened already — but it would be nice to see him head in that direction again.

Greg: JP talked about this recently, but the underlying metrics on the Caps power play haven’t been particularly good. The Caps are still getting results, and are 6th in the NHL with 27.4% effectiveness. However, they aren’t anywhere near that in terms of shots and scoring chances generated per each power play...which leads me to think that there could be a slight regression coming. You’d think with Ovechkin the Caps will always outperform their metrics by a bit, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some new looks or zone entry schemes when they’re a man up.

Becca: The power play has come up a couple of times, and this may seem like an odd, small thing - but what about their lack of opportunities with the extra man? I don’t know if it’s something you can actually improve, such as it is, but it does feel like a team that has the puck more often than not should be able to lure the other team into taking a few more minors. Consider that they’ve drawn just 90 so far this season, which is ahead of only Buffalo and New Jersey... that’s not really company you want to be keeping. As they head toward the playoffs, every goal matters so much more and special teams can be the difference between a win and a loss. They have to give themselves every opportunity and every advantage they can.