With 41 games under their belt, the Washington Capitals have officially hit the midway mark of the season. Before we look forward to what the next 41 games may hold, let’s look back and grade the team’s performance up to this point in the season.
(Note: I don't grade coaching. How a team performs in every area is a reflection of the coaching so all of these grades can be considered "coaching" grades)
By the numbers: Washington ranks tied for 10th in the NHL with 3.05 goals per game
Considering that it was unclear how the team would replace the offensive production it lost in the offseason, the fact Washington has climbed to 10th in the NHL in goals per game is almost the best case scenario. They needed the top players to step up. They have. They needed players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana to take an increased role in the offense. They have. They have gotten offensive contributions from newcomers like Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson. On the blue line, John Carlson ranks second among all NHL defensemen in points while Dmitry Orlov has proven he can be a dynamic playmaker if called upon. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, is laughing in the face of Father Time with 26 goals, on pace for 52 this season and could even be making a case for the Hart Trophy at the game of 32. There are two issues, however, that keep this grade low. The first is consistency. While every NHL season is full of ups and downs, apart from Ovechkin, consistency has been an issue for just about everyone offensively. Nicklas Backstrom went goalless for 21 games, T.J. Oshie has struggled in his return from a concussion and the entire second line is on a cold streak. Heck, the entire team went over 177 minutes without a goal. What Ovechkin is doing is incredible, but there is enough offensive talent on this team that he should not have to carry the load as much as he has. The second issue with the offense is the lack of shot production. Washington is dead last in shots per game with 28.76. Producing at the rate they are with the number of shots they are getting seems unsustainable. They have got to start getting more pucks to the net.
By the numbers: Washington ranks 15th in the NHL with 2.83 goals against per game
Defensively, the Caps have improved tremendously from the first quarter of the season. When we took stock of the team after 20 games, Washington ranked 24th in the NHL, allowing 3.25 goals against. You can see from the numbers above that the defense has cut down on those goals significantly. With two rookies in the top six and Matt Niskanen missing 14 of the team’s first 41 games, the fact they have climbed all the way to 15th in goals against is a significant accomplishment. Christian Djoos looks to be a little bit further than Madison Bowey in his development in terms of adjusting to the NHL game. Offensively, he has been tremendous. Both will continue to improve as they gain experience throughout the season. John Carlson meanwhile has been the standout on the blue line. He has become Trotz’s go-to guy in all situations and is leaned on especially when Niskanen is out of the lineup. With everything working as well as it has, however, Washington still has managed only an average defense. If you are looking ahead to the playoffs, defense remains the biggest concern. Trotz has done a good job shielding Djoos and Bowey from the tougher matchups, but that will be much more difficult in the postseason with coaches game planning to find ways to get their top offensive players on the ice against the Caps’ rookies. You also have to wonder just how long Carlson can sustain playing the minutes he has. He has done well through the first half of the season, but will he start to wear down as the season goes along?
By the numbers:
Braden Holtby: .917 save percentage, 2.68 GAA, 23-8-0
Philipp Grubauer: .909 save percentage, 2.70 GAA, 2-5-3
The numbers do not tell the whole story of the Caps’ goaltending. With a defense that features two rookies in the top six, the Caps have leaned heavily on their goaltending this season. Braden Holtby has been an anchor in net once again and that is evident in his record, even if his save percentage is not what we are used to seeing from him. Philipp Grubauer has rebounded from a difficult start as well. After going 0-5-1 to start the season, he is 2-0-2 in his last four starts. It is easy to look at their numbers and say Holtby and Grubauer have not been up to snuff this season, but anyone watching the games knows that is not the case. Go ahead and watch the replay of Grubauer’s start against the New York Rangers on Dec. 27 and tell me goaltending is an issue. Grubauer was given a loss for that game, but he was ultimately the only reason the team walked away with a point.
Special Teams: C-
By the numbers:
Power play: Washington ranks 16th in the NHL at 19.2-percent
Penalty kill: Washington ranks 22nd in the NHL at 80.3-percent
Considering the personnel the team is working with on the power play, clearly they have not played well enough with the extra man. Earlier in the season, Washington went six games without a power play goal and, more recently, they scored only once in a nine-game stretch. A power play consisting of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Carlson and Evgeny Kuznetsov should be better than16th. The penalty kill, meanwhile, has not been good overall, but they seem to play much better in critical moments when the game is on the line. They have improved over the course of the season and a rough start is really weighing their average down. You should continue to see improvement from the penalty kill as the season continues. It would not be surprising to see them closer to average by season’s end.
First Quarter Team MVP
1. Alex Ovechkin
What Ovechkin is doing at the age of 32 is absolutely remarkable. You see most players start to decline at this point, but Ovechkin is playing like he is still in his prime. The Great 8 is not at the top of this list just for laughing in the face of Father Time, however. He is here because he has become a legitimate Hart candidate with his play. He is on pace for 52 goals this season and leads the Caps in points. Even on an offense that has looked inconsistent at times this season, Ovechkin has kept his production up and leads the team in points with 43.
2. John Carlson
The Caps have asked a lot of Carlson this season. His 26:20 of ice time per game ranks fourth in the entire NHL and his higher than many dominant defensemen around the league such as Victor Hedman (25:52), Kris Letang (25:44) and Duncan Keith (24:50). Carlson is taking advantage of those minutes as well and ranks second among defensemen with 31 points. But it’s not just the offense. Carlson has become Trotz’s go-to guy for every situation on both offense and defense.
3. Braden Holtby
You can be critical of Holtby’s GAA and save percentage, but here are the numbers you should be looking at: 2 and 23. Two as in two rookies in the defense. When you have not one but two rookies playing on the blue line, you are asking a lot of your goalie. The second number, 23, refers to 23 wins, good for second in the NHL. Grubauer has played well for the Caps this season, but he has managed only two wins in 10 starts. Holtby has 23 in 31. Even if you would like the save percentage to be higher, there’s no denying just how critical Hotlby has been to the Caps’ early season success.
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Overall grade: B+
By the numbers: Washington is 25-13-3, good for 1st in the Metropolitan Division and 2nd in the Eastern Conference
With all the roster turnover in the summer, with all the injuries the team faced in the first half of the season, the fact that Washington is first in the Metropolitan Division is a great achievement. In terms of what they have accomplished, you could not ask any more of this team than what they managed in the first half of the season. What is worrying is not what they have done, but where they are projecting. Can they continue producing offensively at the rate they are while dead last in shots per game? Can they continue to shield Djoos and Bowey from tougher matchups in the playoffs? Will Carlson and the 37-year-old Brooks Orpik wear down later in the season given the minutes they are playing? For the first half of the season, it is absolutely mission accomplished. You could not ask more of this team and this roster than what they have done thus far. But those are questions the team will have to address over the second half of the season.