Now 10 games into the season, the Capitals are 5-3-2 and sit fourth in the Metropolitan Division. We don’t know everything about this Caps team just yet, but here are some observations from the first 10 matchups.
1. The Caps are still adjusting to a new head coach
A 5-3-2 record may not be what you envisioned for the defending champs when they returned almost the exact same roster this season. Some may call it a hangover, but I see this more as a product of adjusting to a new coach.
Some people get it in their head that hockey is a simple game. Players get on the ice and “do that hockey,” and head coaches are just there to set lines and pull a goalie. It is way, way more complicated than that.
It is no coincidence that the most dominant aspect of Washington’s game to this point has been the power play. The power play is run by assistant coach Blaine Forsythe who ran it last year as well. It’s also why I’m not overly concerned about the defense allowing 3.60 goals per game just yet. Reid Cashman is in charge of the defensemen now, and with Reirden behind the bench, I trust those two to be able to figure out the defense.
Even when a team is familiar with the new head coach, as the Caps were with Todd Reirden, it still takes time to adjust to that new coach’s system. Washington is still very much in that process as evidenced by the extreme highs and lows of the first 10 games.
2. The offense is relying too much on the power play
Just like I am not concerned with that the Caps’ 25th ranked defense, I’m also not celebrating their 2nd ranked offense. The offense is being propped up by a power play that is producing at an incredible 37.1-percent. While I think it is safe to assume the penalty kill and the defense will improve over time, I think it is also safe to think the power play is not going to continue to produce at that rate, and I’m not sure where that leaves the offense.
Washington has scored only 21 goals at 5-on-5 this season which ranks 14th in the NHL.
Those hot starts for the team's stars? That’s being propped up by the power play as well.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has 15 points, Alex Ovechkin has 14, Nicklas Backstrom has 13 and T.J. Oshie has 10. If you take away the power play points, however, that leaves Kuznetsov with seven, Ovechkin with six, Backstrom with five and Oshie with eight. Both Kuznetsov and Backstrom are still looking for their first goals at five-on-five of the season.
The Caps have been held without a power play goal in three of the first seven games. In those three games, they are 0-2-1. We know the penalty kill across the league is going to improve and penalties are going to decrease as the season goes along until the playoffs when the referees swallow the whistles. Washington needs more five-on-five production than what they are currently getting.
3. Jakub Vrana is the best choice to replace Tom Wilson on the top line
With Tom Wilson suspended, Reirden has tried to replace him with Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jakub Vrana Vrana may have only played there for one game, but he is the obvious choice at this point, and he should stay there for as long as Wilson remains out.
The most important thing Wilson brings to the top line is his ability to win puck battles, which helps generate more offense for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Vrana not only is the most offensively skilled of the players Reirden cycled through the right wing of the top line, but he also did a tremendous job fighting for pucks in his first crack at in Saturday’s game against Calgary.
An Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Vrana line looks like an offensive-heavy line and it was last year. Vrana, however, looks like he has a bit more grit in his game this season. He’s not going to win board battles by playing physically, but he showed he can still win the puck with his speed and a quick stick. He can win those battles and add an extra bit of offense to boot so that top line job should be his.
4. John Carlson is a legitimate superstar
In 10 games, Carlson has five multi-point games, is tied for first among all defenseman with five goals and is tied for first among defensemen in points with Morgan Rielly, who has played one more game than Carlson.
Detractors will say he’s not great at defense and point to the disastrous turnover he had against Edmonton. Yes, there are times when he is prone to making those type of gaffes, but if you’re using that one example to define him, you’re missing everything else he is doing.
Carlson is averaging 26:00 minutes per game, the third most in the league. That’s more than Ryan Suter, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, etc. Clearly, Reirden trusts Carlson on both ends of the ice.
5. Pheonix Copley is the backup… for now
After earning his first NHL win on Saturday, I wrote an article on how the backup goalie job, one of the few questions surrounding Washington this season, was settled. Copley has played well in all three of his appearances and has numbers comparable to what Braden Holtby has managed thus far (.882 save percentage to Holtby’s .888, 3.55 GAA to Holtby’s 3.41).
But that may have been premature, as I am not so sure the team is sold yet.
Copley made just two starts in the first 10 games. If he starts 20-percent of the games this season, that will give him 17 starts and Holtby 65. That’s pretty much the bare minimum you would want Copley to start, and that’s at the beginning of the season when you are not too concerned about the standings yet.
When it comes to a backup, the real question you need to ask is if something happened to Holtby in the playoffs, would you trust Copley to start? If the answer to that question is no, then you can’t say the backup role is settled.
Would you trust Copley to start a regular season game? Yes. That much he has established. But would you trust Copley to start a playoff game? I’m not sure we have an answer to that question just yet.
6. Significant roster moves are on the horizon
Travis Boyd is nearing a return from LTIR, and Wilson will return from suspension sometime in November depending on the ruling from the independent arbitrator. That means Reirden and general manager Brian MacLellan are going to have to make some tough decisions fairly soon.
Has Dmitrij Jaskin shown enough for the team to keep him? There is some offensive upside there we haven’t seen yet and he is starting to play much better than when he first came.
Will Nathan Walker be headed back to Hershey? Walker’s speed and effort make him dangerous on the forecheck, but that can also lead to reckless mistakes, which is likely why we have only seen him play three games.
How much will Boyd and Nic Dowd split time? Boyd and Dowd were competing for the role of fourth line center in the preseason. Dowd had that role all to himself for the first 10 games of the season, and, while he played fairly well, he certainly did not do enough to earn a stranglehold on that spot.
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