The Caps are halfway through the season which means there are 41 more games and over three months to go until the playoffs. That’s 41 games worth of storylines, 41 games worth of highlights, 41 more chapters in the 2017-18 regular season.
Here are the biggest storylines to watch as the Caps begin to enter the second half.
1. What will the Caps do with John Carlson?
This is the biggest question facing the team by far. Carlson is on the final year of his contract that carries a cap hit of just under $4 million and he is due for a significant raise. He leads the Caps in ice time with 26:20 per game and is second among all defensemen in points with 31. Barry Trotz has really relied on Carlson this season and it makes you wonder if the Caps can afford to lose him. Then again…can they afford to pay him? As the Caps look like they are headed to the playoffs again, that essesntially takes the option of selling Carlson at the trade deadline off the table. That means letting him walk or re-signing him. According to Cap Friendly, Washington already has about $58 million committed to players next season not including pending free agents Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Taylor Chorney and Philipp Grubauer. Re-signing Carlson would not leave the team a lot of wiggle room to replenish the supporting cast.
2. When will Alex Ovechkin reach 600 goals and 500 assists?
Ovechkin currently sits just 16 goals shy of 600 and six assists shy of 500. The question is not if he will reach those milestones, but when? Once he reaches 600 goals, he will be one of only 20 players in NHL history to reach that mark. He will also be the second player in Capitals franchise history to reach 500 assists, the first of course being Nicklas Backstrom.
3. Will the offense regress?
Much has been written in recent days about the analytics surrounding the Caps’ offense. Those numbers point to a regression in the near future. Even if you’re not big into analytics, the fact that the Caps rank dead last in the NHL in shots per game is a concern. The team’s offensive production is not sustainable unless Washington starts getting more shots on goal. Something’s got to give. Will the Caps end up getting more pucks to the net in the second half of the season or will they ultimately fall victim to the regression the numbers predict for them?
4. How much will the rookies progress?
At the midway point of the season, the Caps have four rookies in their lineup in Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey. Djoos and Bowey in particular have had significant roles on the team’s defense and in all likelihood will remain in those roles for the rest of the season. Most coaches will protect their rookie defensemen by shielding them from their opponent’s top competition and giving them more favorable matchups. Trotz has done just that. The problem is, that gets a lot harder to do in the playoffs. Not only are the teams better in the postseason, but opposing coaches are going to look to exploit Washington’s green defense. When coaches are allowed to focus on one team for several weeks as opposed to several teams in just a few days, they can develop gameplans to get the best matchups they can. With not one, but two rookies on the blue line, teams are going to find a way to get their top playmakers on the ice against them. Djoos and Bowey are going to have to play well beyond their years this spring because they will be facing much tougher competition.
5. Will the Caps roll the dice at the trade deadline again?
With all the roster turnover over the summer, it was not clear the direction the Caps would go this season. At this point, they have established themselves as a playoff team, but one with some clear weaknesses (see No. 4 above). How aggressive will general manager Brian MacLellan be at the trade deadline to address those weaknesses? Washington has made a trade at or around the trade deadline in each of the last five years. There are a lot of reasons to sit this one out, not the least of which is the team’s salary cap constraints which would make any type of deal very difficult. But you also have to consider that we ultimately do not know how much longer the playoff window will be open for this core or how long Ovechkin will be able to out-skate Father Time.
6. Will Pittsburgh make the playoffs?
There are two major hurdles for the Caps when it comes to the playoffs. One is the second round, the other is the Pittsburgh Penguins. This year, however, there is a chance Washington may not have to worry about the latter of those two hurdles. The Penguins are currently out of playoff position and they have played three more games than both of the wild card teams they are chasing. If Pittsburgh does not make the postseason, that will make the road to the Stanley Cup look a lot clearer.