As the Washington Capitals approach the 25-game mark in this most unique of NHL seasons, we can indulge in some idle musing about which Capital has been most valuable to the team’s success to date. A number of players deserve honorable mentions:
- T.J. Oshie. Odd thing about Oshie - his 5-9-14 scoring line is tied for fifth on the club in total points... but his scoring matters (or at least seems to matter). Because when Oshie posts a point, a mark in the “W” column is a good bet. His 12 points (4-8-12) in 12 wins is third-best on the club in scoring in games won by the Caps, and his four goals in wins is tied for second in those winning situations. His four power play goals in 21 games lead the team.
- Zdeno Chara. He is not the defenseman he was in his 14 years with the Boston Bruins (1,023 games, 148-333-481, and a plus-240). But he has given the Caps stability and reliability on the back end. He is one of three defensemen to play all 21 games for the Caps through Sunday, and while his ice time does not rival what he logged in Boston (24:33 per game as a Bruin), he still logs his share of minutes, 19:24 per game with Washington.
- Nicklas Backstrom. The absence of Alex Ovechkin and what, for him, might have been an otherwise slow start, Backstrom really stepped up in the early going. He dominates the stat sheet for the Caps through 21 games – first in goals (10), first in assists (15), first in points (25), tied for first in even-strength goals (seven, with Jakub Vrana), first in even-strength points (16), tied for second in power play goals (three, with John Carlson), first in power play points (nine), second in shooting percentage (23.8 percent), second among forwards in ice time per game (18:41), and second among forwards in blocked shots (11). His 1.19 points per game through 21 games is his best since he finished the 2009-10 season with 1.23 points per game. Through 21 games, he has gone without a point only five times and not at all in consecutive games.
Backstrom’s performance has been quite impressive, and without his contributions it is unlikely that the Caps would be challenging for the East Division lead, let alone find themselves leading it. That definitely puts him into the running... but the reality is that what we’re seeing from Backstrom is not really that much of an outlier in terms of his history of performance. This is basically Backstrom being Backstrom (with just a bit more goal-scoring).
So those are the runners-up - but who takes home the big prize as the team’s MVP?
Vitek Vanecek. If you are looking at his numbers relative to other goalies this season, Vanecek’s numbers are decent if unspectacular. His nine wins in 17 games ranks tied for sixth in the league through Monday’s games, but his goals against average (2,81) and save percentage (.909) are in the middle of the pack of all 75 goalies to play so far this season (ranked 42nd and 35th, respectively).
Among his rookie cohort he is a bit more impressive. First in games played (17), tied for first in wins (nine), ninth in goals against average (2.81), 11th in save percentage (.909), and first in ice time (1004:39).
What merits notice with Vanecek, and why he gets the nod as MVP here, is that last stat, one that holds much more of a story than just the number itself. He is one of only three goaltenders to log more than 1,000 minutes through Monday’s games. It’s not unusual for teams to ride one goalie over a long stretch of games - but it stands out that Vanecek is one of those three goalies because of who he is, and more importantly who he was in the organization just a few months ago.
Think of where the Caps were as the 2020-21 season approached. That Braden Holtby would leave in free agency was just about a foregone conclusion, leaving the number one duties to Ilya Samsonov. To provide support, the Caps signed Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year contract. It looked like a great plan. A well-thought of youngster backed up with a Hall-of-Fame-to-be goalie with a combined cap hit of $2.45 million, lower than the cap hit of 41 goalies this season? That’s some solid work by the Caps’ front office.
But as Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once said of plans, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”
In Lundqvist’s case the enemy was a heart problem that required open heart surgery, putting any action this season, if not his career, in jeopardy. For Samsonov it was testing positive for coronavirus in January that caused him to miss 17 games. That left the Caps with Vanecek, a goalie who had not dressed for an NHL game before this season During that period, taking the number one role for a club with Stanley Cup aspirations. Vanecek went 8-4-3, 2.92, .905 during Samsonov’s absence, leading the entire league over that span in minutes (944:39).
Vanecek’s performance was entirely unanticipated. The expectation for Vanecek this year was to use him as a backup’s backup, to get his feet wet in the NHL with a start here and there, and to show the Caps’ brass what they had in the 25-year-old netminder. No one anticipated his being the number one goalie for almost a third of the season - and he was not just a placeholder. While his numbers are not those of the highest-performing goalies in the league, he has given the Caps a chance to win most nights, and earned the trust of Peter Laviolette.
For these reasons, Vitek Vanecek is the “Most Valuable Capital” of the first 21 games of the season.
Agree or disagree? Cast your vote below!
Who is your MVP so far in the 2020-21 season?
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Someone else (drop it in the comments)