Capitals

The Capitals Christmas wish list

Capitals

Christmas is upon us and Santa is loading up his sleigh, but what does he have packed for the Capitals?

To celebrate the holidays, here are the 12 days of "Capsmas" giving you a wish list of what the Caps are hoping Santa leaves under the tree for them this year.

12 healthy forwards

It's crazy to think that Washington has not had its full lineup at any point this season. Between injuries and players entering the COVID protocol, the only two forwards that have played in all 31 games this season are Alex Ovechkin and Carl Hagelin.

The silver lining is that the Caps are tied for first in the division and one point behind the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning and we don't even really know how good they are yet!

11+ more goals for Ovechkin

Ovechkin already has 22 goals this season which puts him just 11 short of 33 with plenty of time left to go in the season.

Why 33?

Heading into the season, Ovechkin sat 165 goals from passing Wayne Gretzky's record of 894. This is Year 1 of Ovechkin's new 5-year contract. Thirty-three is the magic number because that's how many goals he has to average through the five years of his new contract to beat the record.

While 33 seems manageable, call me crazy, but I still don't think Ovechkin is going to be a 30-goal scorer in Year 5 when he is 40 years old. Thirty-three may be the benchmark, but he needs to pack on as many goals as possible this season to drop that average over the last four years, hence why the Caps should hope for 11+ more goals for the Great 8.

 

A 10th Rocket Richard Trophy

Ovechkin sits second in the goal race with 22, just one shy of Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl, but Draisaitl has played in fewer games.

When you've already won nine Rocket Richards, does the 10th really matter?

In the grand scheme of things, no, Ovechkin's legacy may not be that different with nine or 10 Rocket Richards, but when you are 36 and just one goal away from the league leader nearly halfway into the season, it makes you want to see this happen.

More playing time for the 2019 draft class

With respect to Hugo Has, the lone member of the 2019 class who has yet to play for Washington, let's focus on the three who are playing: Connor McMichael, Brett Leason and Aliaksei Protas.

By just about every metric you could look at, McMichael has been brilliant this season. There have been several moments in which I have expected the flood gates to open and the points to come pouring in, but he has been a bit snake-bit in terms of his production. Otherwise, it's hard to find much to criticize in his game.

And yet, he is averaging only 11:13 of ice time per game. That's not enough, especially when you consider the number of top-six forwards who have been in and out of the lineup this season. McMichael has earned more time and a bigger role.

Leason is a big surprise for me. He struggled when he got to the AHL initially because he was no longer the biggest kid on the playground, but even in a limited role in Washington (8:50 of playing time average per game through 22 games), this is clearly an NHL player. Let's see him get more time in a bottom-six role and see what he can do.

I love everything about Protas' game, except his skating. Having seen him skate in his first preseason game with Washington in 2019, however, believe me when I tell you his skating has improved immensely. In that preseason game, I thought he looked like a duck trying to skate. Now he looks like a middle-six NHL player who may be ready now to stick around in the NHL without any more AHL seasoning.

82 games for No. 8

As bad as things have been for the Caps the past few weeks in terms of players out with injury or COVID, at least they have had Ovechkin. From the team perspective, they cannot afford to lose him for any amount of time with the top-six already being held together by prospects and duct tape. But you also want Ovechkin to stay on the ice from a personal and historic perspective.

Mother Nature is seemingly the only thing that can keep Ovechkin from Gretzky's goal record. The pandemic robed Ovechkin of 13 games in 2019-20 and 26 games in 2021 plus an additional 11 games he missed during the season. That's 50 games. Looking at the rate he has scored over the past three seasons, that's about 32 goals Ovechkin has been robbed of. We could be talking about him hitting 800 goals this season if COVID had not shortened the past two seasons.

 

Let's all hope Ovechkin stays healthy so we won't have to look back and think the pandemic ultimately robbed him of his chance at history.

7% improvement on the PP

The power play has not been very good lately or really at all this season and Washington ranks 28th overall at 15.6%. Let's not get greedy and ask Santa for the Caps to suddenly have the best power play in the league, but if he could just bump it up 7% that would be enough to get them into the top 10.

Considering what this team is doing this year with a bad power play, imagine how much a top 10 power-play would boost them.

6 healthy defensemen

The Caps have not been able to keep their top 12 forwards on the ice, but the situation on the blue line has been much more stable.

Martin Fehervary has stepped into a top-pair role and thrived which was the biggest question mark coming into the season. For the most part, the top-six of Fehervary/John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov/Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk/Justin Schultz have been able to stay intact and have proven themselves to be among the top defenses in the NHL.

Top 5 in goals against

How good has the defense been, you ask? Washington ranks sixth in the league with 2.58 goals against per game. Again, let's not get greedy here and ask too much from Santa. A bump into the top five defensively would be nice though.

A 4th Hart Trophy for Ovechkin

The story of this season across the league, not just for the Caps, will be which players were able to carry their teams through another pandemic season. Has anyone meant more to their team in the first three months of the season than Ovechkin has to Washington? He is one goal shy of the league lead in goals and two points shy of the league-lead in points and he's doing it with practically a different lineup every night, some of which look more suited for the Hershey Bears than the Washington Capitals.

And yet, Washington is tied with Carolina for first in the Metro and has one of the top records in the league. That's a credit to how Ovechkin.

There's a lot of games left to play, but if this keeps up Ovechkin should be claiming his 4th Hart as league MVP at the end of the season.

Top 3 in goals for

The Caps rank fifth in goals for per game with 3.42. Getting a few of their top-six forward back should provide enough of a bump to get them into the top three.

A 2nd Stanley Cup

You know what? Keep all the other gifts, Santa. Just bring this one.

A No. 1 goalie

WIther it's Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek or someone else, this team needs someone to cement themselves as the No. 1. Both Samsonov and Vanecek have looked like a No. 1 at times, and other times not so much and that's the problem. With goaltending being a question mark heading into the season, Samsonov and Vanecek have both been good but not great and that may not be enough to get them deep into the playoffs.

 

Interestingly, they both are fairly even in stats as each has a .910 save percentage in 16 games played. Samsonov, however, has an 11-2-2 record while Vanecek is 6-4-5.

Vanecek remains the more consistent of the two while Samsonov shows more flashes of elite skill. I still believe the ceiling is higher for Samsonov so I ultimately think he has to be the guy to lead the Caps, unless Brian MacLellan elects to make a trade. Trading for a goalie in season, however, is difficult to pull off.

The best-case scenario is still that one of either Samsonov or Vanecek finds that extra gear and starts playing lights out down the stretch and into the postseason, but that's a gamble with potentially the final year of this team's championship window at stake.