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Rink Roundtable: Caps at the Half

41 games down, 41 to go... the Rink Crew chats about where the Caps are and where they’re going.

Vancouver Canucks v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The first half of the 2021-22 season has come and gone, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. With 41 games looming before the postseason, it’s time to take stock of what the Caps have done with those first 41 games... and what the second half could hold for them.

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

J.P.: They’ve overcome a lot in terms of injuries and illness and have become a pretty strong defensive team with an age-defying Alex Ovechkin and rejuvenated Evgeny Kuznetsov carrying the offense. But they’ve hit a bit of a wall lately, lack dependable scoring depth, and have questions in goal along with a stale, ineffective power play. If they can get and stay healthy, they look to be a pretty good team, but without addressing the goaltending situation, they look destined for another early postseason flameout in a stacked Eastern Conference. I have eleven words left, so go listen to my record.

Geoff: Alex Ovechkin continues to be the focal point of this team (and this league) halfway into the 17th season of his career. The team’s record has been tarnished by below average goaltending but there are additional causes for concern (injuries, the power play, and the Metropolitan Division) through 41 games.

Peerless: “Victims of circumstance.” Between injuries and COVID protocol issues, the Caps missed a lot of man-games. When healthy, or when they can ice a healthy team for more than a game at a time, they are among the league’s elite. They might be old and slow, but they know their limits and know how to play the game to their liking. What is disappointing, though, are the points left on the table in extra-time games. With a 3-9 record in overtime/shootouts, had they split those games, they would lead the Metro and have the third-best record in the league.

Alex: Players have been dropping like flies this season, whether it’s due to injury or COVID protocol, and I have been consistently impressed with the younger guys stepping up when called upon. Like Peerless said, when the team is healthy, they’re top tier. The rookies and some other depth players have helped keep the team from falling too far in the ranks. The Caps are, of course, not without their red flags (power play and goaltending, I’m lookin’ at you), but this season could be going much worse. Also, that guy Alex Ovechkin is pretty good.

Luke: If you told me how injured and sick the Capitals would be before the season I’d assume they would be low in the standings and have terrible possession stats - but alas, they’re keeping up in the top of the Metro and the league, and staying above-average possession wise. So I am more than satisfied with the Caps first half of the season. Could they be better? Absolutely, but if they can get healthy and stay healthy, they’ll get even better.

Becca: It’s hard not to let this recent slide color my opinion too much, but up until the last two to three weeks, I was beyond impressed with what this team has been able to accomplish overall despite the obstacles they’ve faced. Even now, it feels more like some of those obstacles are simply catching up with them than any sort of major issues with the team’s makeup (although as others have mentioned, the power play started bad and has only gotten worse). As for the other things noted above - depth, goaltending - I believe in MacLellan to fix it.

Q2. The Caps have had a ton of prospects come through the lineup so far this season. Who is your rookie of the year for the Caps?

J.P.: Martin Fehervary has performed admirably in a top-pair role, so he’s my pick.

Geoff: Aliaksei Protas. The Big Rig has dressed in 29 games his rookie season and has put 9 points (3 goals) on the board in a middle six role. While his scoring doesn’t jump off the page his size and puck protection draw attention every time he steps on the ice. He has been a boon to the lineup and don’t be shocked if his offensive production improves through the second half of the season.

Peerless: I have two entries. Rookie of the Year: Martin Fehervary. It is rare to see a rookie play with consistent discipline and an absence of panic in close quarters or when challenged while holding the puck. His decision-making seems good and will improve. He certainly is fearless in jumping up into the play in the offensive zone, and he has a physical edge to his game. I think the offensive side of his game will improve, which I was not really expecting.

As for “Most Pleasant Surprise, Rookie Edition,” I would give that one to Aliaksei Protas, who displays many of the same attributes as Fehervary in terms of not panicking or rushing things when he has the puck. As he fills out, he could be a force as a power forward, or at least one who can stand his ground and make goalies’ lives difficult finding the puck through the screens he sets.

Alex: It’s Martin Fehervary and it isn’t even close. He went from six NHL games in 2020 to averaging 19:13 of ice-time per game on the top defensive pair of a contending team. His poise and hockey IQ are great, especially for a rookie, and I think he only gets better from here.

Luke: I’ll go with the obvious answer and say Connor McMichael. It’s an absolute shame he isn’t getting more ice time. If he was, he’d be up there in rookie of the year talks. He wouldn’t win it, but he’d be up there. I don’t know what McMichael did to Coach Lavi, but it’s a crime McMichael is getting fourth-line minutes with no special teams, even while the team is shorthanded on offensive talent.

Becca: I’m not completely sold on McMichael yet (at least in terms of being totally NHL-ready) and even with the limited ice time, I’m still seeing things in his game I don’t like. So I’ll go with the rest of the crowd - and hedge my bets a bit like my pal Peerless - and say it’s a mix of Fehervary and Protas for me. Fehervary has been so steady since the beginning of the season, and hasn’t looked like a kid in over his head much despite playing huge minutes. Protas, on the other hand, has been more of a recent revelation and every night I like his game a little more.

Q3. Pick one player who the Caps need more from in the second half and beyond.

J.P.: I would say Ilya Samsonov, but I don’t think it’s realistic for him to get to a point where he can be The Guy in net any time soon, so they’re probably going to have to look elsewhere to set themselves up for success in net. So I’m going to go with Nick Backstrom. In order for this team to be successful, they’re going to need more from him - more games played, more points, etc. - because he can anchor a line that takes some of the scoring burden off of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, and makes the power play work (to the extent that it still does). Backstrom needs to be very good - and very there - for this team to be any sort of threat in the playoffs.

Geoff: Anthony Mantha. After having shoulder surgery in early November the power forward has been off the ice and recuperating since. There is a chance he returns to the lineup before the playoffs and his secondary scoring would alleviate some stress for the Capitals down the stretch. If Washington has any hope of advancing deep into the postseason they’ll need offensive support from Mantha to get them there.

Peerless: I would say “better goaltending” from either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek, but that might be a topic for its own discussion. I will go for another two-fer. They need more from T.J. Oshie in terms of getting back into and staying in the lineup. This has been a difficult season for Oshie. I am not of a mind, just yet, that he is on the brink of an injury-related decline (given his style of play), but it cannot be discounted, either. The Caps need his production and his spark on the ice. I also look at Tom Wilson, whose play has been a bit up and down this season. He is showing signs of being a player to whom opponents need to pay closer attention, but he needs to be a bit more consistent in his scoring.

Alex: I’d like to see more from Justin Schultz. It feels like he has disappeared (sometimes I forget he’s on the team) and I think the Capitals are going to need him to make a bit more noise so the team can make a deep run. This doesn’t have to come in the form of more offense, I’m just talking about more on-ice presence.

Luke: I’ll go with Nicklas Backstrom and it has nothing to do with anything in his control. Returning from such a lengthy injury is going to build up a lot of rust that he needs to get get rid of. If the Caps can get healthy and Backstrom can hit his amazing ways, then the Capitals will be rocketing to the top of the standings.

Becca: It absolutely pains me to say it but I’ll go with Backstrom, as well - and agree with Luke that it has so far been largely out of his control. After missing all of camp and the first part of the season with that hip injury, and then being out on COVID protocol, he’s likely only just now getting into game shape and game rhythm. It still feels like he’s a step or two off with his timing - but he’ll need to get that back, because the Caps are so much better when he’s on.

Q4: Prediction time: Where do the Caps finish in the standings?

J.P.: I’ve got them finishing in the second or third slot in the Metro, which is ideal among the realistic possibilities - any lower and they’re likely getting Florida or Carolina in Round 1, and that would be an awfully tough draw.

Geoff: Second in the Metro behind the Hurricanes.

Peerless: It is all a matter of health. If the Caps can set aside their injury/COVID issues, they will challenge for the top spot in the Metro. But this has been a difficult season for a lot of teams in that regard, and until we see evidence of these problems abating, I fear the Caps will continue to lack continuity in their lineup. When it is all said and done, I think they finish third in the division (I am not sold on the Rangers just yet) and draw Pittsburgh in the first round of the postseason.

Alex: Second in the Metro behind Carolina, provided they can bank some points before the last month of the season. That stretch is going to be brutal, so the current Caps are going to have to give their future selves some help before April. If not, I still don’t see them finishing lower than third in the division (and like J.P. said, anything lower than that means a really tough Round 1 draw, which the team probably wants to avoid).

Luke: What Peerless said. If Caps can get and stay healthy they can challenge for first in the division, but I’ll cut it down the middle and say second or third in the Metro.

Becca: I’m usually the optimistic one... but I’m going first wild card. It’s not where I want them to finish but I’m concerned that they’re cooling off while teams ahead of them have stayed hot and teams behind them have gotten hot. All of that can change in a minute, of course, especially if they can get a consistent lineup - and after years of being super-optimistic and wrong, I’m certainly hoping to be a little pessimistic and also wrong!