It has been 19 days since a Caps game! Nineteen days! My memory is faltering. The names and faces are starting to blend together. Brooks Brouwer and Jason Johansson, right? No? Okay, maybe a refresher course is needed.
With 23 games left in the rego (yes, that word is sticking around) season, the Capitals sit precariously on the playoff bubble. Alex Ovechkin is blowing up nets, but the team as a whole is struggling. General manager George McPhee, rumored to be in the final year of his contract, has less than a week to improve his team before the trade deadline. Head coach Adam Oates has a wealth of information about his players that seems to be– at least partially– in conflict with how he has marshaled them thus far. And somewhere over the ocean, there’s a youngster with a visa and some unknown date circled on his calendar.
We’re going to get a lot of answers over the next few weeks. Those answers will tell us who this team truly is, so now seems like the right time to remind ourselves what the questions are.
Are the Capitals a good team?
The best predictor we’ve got for the Caps’ future success– in the regular season or beyond– is their shot-attempt differential. After a troubling start controlling around 43-47% of shot attempts, the Capitals have been bounding upwards since Christmas. Can they sustain outplaying their opponents? If so, this team may actually be as good as we hoped they’d be back in the summer.
Some of that answer will come down to individual achievement. The rest depends on chemistry and systems– how the coaches decree play should be run and how the players actually execute it. So far we’ve seen mixed results: solid output by the Ovechkin line and wherever Grabovski, Fehr, and Erat are, less so with everyone else– particularly the fourth line and the dreaded Black Hole pairing of Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer.
We’ll be tracking that on a game-by-game basis and in the weekly snapshot. You can also keep tabs using Extra Skater’s performance charts.
The Caps could get lucky and start scoring on every fifth shot and shutting out their opponents throughout March, but without fundamentally having the puck more than the other team, they won’t get where they want to go.
Is Alex Ovechkin the G.O.A.T.?
Barring injury, Alex Ovechkin has a real good shot at winning his fourth “Rocket” Richard Trophy for most goals. He’s on target to hit 55 goals or more this season, which would be his highest total since the peak years of his early 20s. That’s already an impressive reversal of the historical trends for aging forwards and reason enough to call him one of the greats. Plus, if we adjust Ovi’s output for the reduced goal scoring of this era, he becomes one of the most prolific scorers of all time. That’s awesome.
Except he’ll need to be that good to help his team make the playoffs. Yes, Ovechkin has bucked trends of aging (or at least delayed it), Washington’s overall decline, and improved defensive coverage as part of his renaissance, but despite his individual achievements and the adversity he’s faced, most observers will consider Ovechkin among the all-time greats only if he leads his team to postseason success. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s the dumb, dumb world we live in.
Based on his shot volume, we can expect Ovi to keep his torrid scoring pace up, but that won’t be enough. He’ll need his teammates to find the net soon. They’ve still scored just 9 goals on 259 shots during 5v5– a 3.47 shooting percentage. The Caps’ postseason and Ovi’s legacy depend on that improving. And so does the topic of our next question…
Is George McPhee going “playoffs or bust” again?
Rumor has it George McPhee is in the final year of his contract. General Manager since 1997, McPhee is one of the longest tenured managers in the league. After an early rough patch and a fire sale, his team has made the playoffs every year since 2007-08. That said, the team has been unable to advance past the second round of the playoffs and has been in decline since around 2010 depending on how you squint your eyes. Now, thanks to the fierce competition of the new Metropolitan division, the Capitals are not guaranteed a playoff spot. Right now, it’s worse than a 1-in-5 chance.
We’ll be seeing tons of discussion over the next two weeks about whether or not the Capitals should be buyers at the trade deadline. Given McPhee’s contract situation, his perpetually sunny views of his team’s chances, and his six-year playoff streak, it’s obvious the Capitals won’t be selling. Whether you think that’s wise is a topic for the comments. McPhee is going to make moves; we just don’t know how drastic they’ll be. My guess: pretty drastic. If he stands pat, he’ll have a lot to lose and little to gain.
And what will happen to McPhee once the season is over? Is a contract extension in the works? What is the ownership’s taken on the team’s performance and prospects? Can the Caps be considered a successful team if they make the postseason but are no longer true Cup contenders? Also, who is Ernie Grunfeld and why does that matter? Let me know your thoughts below.
How will Adam Oates manage his goalies?
You’re not supposed to play goalies in back-to-back situations. The effect isn’t drastic, but the data are telling: goalies don’t save as many shots if they played the night before. This should just be standard operation procedure in the NHL.
And yet Adam Oates has been playing favorites all season: first with Braden Holtby, then with Philipp Grubauer. For a few years the Caps have had an economic and effective defensive tandem in net that they’ve rotated between to modest success. Under Adam Oates, rotation has all but ceased. It’s lead to dissension in the ranks, anxiety among fans, and a trade request via Michal Neuvirth’s agent.
In the final 23 games, will Adam Oates continue to ride the hot hand? And will he ride that hot hand into the postseason or into the ground?
What kind of player is Tom Wilson anyway?
Tom Wilson leads the Capitals in penalty minutes with 110, mostly thanks to his busy fight ticket. He’s also dead last in time on ice per game with just over 7 minutes. That is not a good thing for a rookie player.
We’ve been watching this since the middle of October, when I asked is Tom Wilson a power forward or a sideshow? That question has always had less to do with how Tom plays and more to do with how Adam Oates deploys him (i.e. not a lot and with Aaron Volpatti). So unfortunately, the answer has been the latter. So far.
In the final stretch, Oates will either give Wilson an opportunity or not. If we go by his quote in Barry Svrluga’s terrific feature for the Post, Oates wants Wilson to spread his wings and fly. “We have to find him more ice time,” Oates said.
Finding time is really easy actually. Adam Oates can snap his fingers in Florida today and magically Tom Wilson will be in the top six– at least for a few shifts. We shall see, but it’s up to him and no one else.
Is Brooks Laich on the rebound?
Measuring by the cap hit of injured players, the Caps have been the fifth luckiest team in the league this season, but that might be masking some bigger trouble. Important role players like Mike Green and Brooks Laich have struggled with injury. Neither has missed long stretches of play, but both have been afflicted to some extent.
With Laich in particular, the issue is extra sensitive. Laich carries a large salary to which he has so far not played equal: $4.5M AAV until 2017. His injury, sustained during the lockout while playing with the Kloten Flyers, almost wiped out his entire 2012-13 season. Since he’s returned, Laich has been one of the Capitals’ weakest possession players.
But he’s been ticking up in the stats a bit since the new year. If Laich can stay healthy and establish himself as a defensively minded third-line forward and special teams player, he could do terrific things for this team. If not, a contract buyout during the offseason is not out of the question.
That would be devastating.
Who’s the defense and are they good enough?
The Capitals have a solid top defensive pairing in Karl Alzner and John Carlson. After that it gets sketchy.
Mike Green has missed games to injury. Jack Hillen has been injured since the first week of the season. John Erskine is ranked 179th out of 230 D-men in puck possession and dropping. Dmitry Orlov had not been welcome in a Caps jersey until his contract nearly turned into a pumpkin. Nate Schmidt did good work in Washington but was sent down to Hershey for some reason.
The Caps have suited up 13 defencemen this season, but only two have stuck: Carlson and Alzner. If Green can get healthy and we can trust Orlov will be kept around, that’s an interesting second pairing with some offensive oomph. But the fifth and six spots are still a who’s who of overpaid veterans and unproven young bucks from Hershey. That isn’t gonna win a championship, and it just might cost the Capitals a shot at the postseason.
George McPhee has one week to make adjustments to his roster. If he makes any moves, I’d expect them here. After that, it’s all on the players and Adam Oates to get the absolute best out of whatever they’ve got. Can they do it?
Is Evgeny Kuznetsov a Washington Capital?
Ahh, yes. Evgeny Kuznetsov (aka Kuzya, aka Zhenya) is a promising young player currently with Traktor Chelyabinsk in Russia’s KHL. I’ll try to keep this next part short.
He was drafted by the Caps in the first round of 2010. He came to dev camp. He stayed in Russia. He got hurt. He stayed in Russia. He did not attend dev camp. He stayed in Russia. He got hurt again. He hoped to make the Russian Olympic team. He stayed in Russia. He got hurt. He did not make the Russian Olympic team. He stayed in Russia.
Okay, here’s where we’re at now: Kuznetsov’s team is also on the playoff bubble, but their season is over way before the NHL’s is. If Traktor doesn’t make the postseason, it’s totally possible that Traktor and the KHL would let him join the Capitals as soon as next month. If Traktor does make the playoffs, Kuznetsov might have to wait until summer to make the jump to North America.
Now, let’s get real. Kuznetsov is not going to fix the Caps. I’ll repeat that one: this guy is not made of magic. But he is a talented player who, if healthy, could be a shot in the arm for Washington’s top-six forwards.
So is he coming? I’ve got no gosh darn idea. Let’s just all stay mellow as we wait to see what happens next.
That’s everything I’ve got.
Your turn: What question did I miss? What do you think of the team’s chances for the playoffs? Of GMGM’s future with the organization? Of Ovi and Laich and Kuzya and everything else? We’ve got a couple months left to figure this thing out; let’s do it together.