The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.
Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?
Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.
Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?
2.90 goals against per game (10th in the NHL)
84.2-percent penalty kill (2nd)
Whatever question marks this team may have on the blue line, John Carlson is not one of them. With 60 points in 49 games, he is on pace for exactly 100 points this season, but do not fall into the trap of thinking his great season is only about the offense. He is easily the most consistent defensive defenseman on the team as well. He is just an all-around elite player who was long ago labeled an "offensive defenseman" and that perception still lingers though it has not been factual since the 2017-18 season when Matt Niskanen was out for a prolonged period and Carlson was leaned upon and excelled.
Carlson has obviously been the highlight of the blue line this season, which is to be expected. Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas have also been bright spots. The penalty kill has essentially been entrusted to Siegenthaler who gets more shorthanded ice time per game (3:06) than any player on the roster, including Carl Hagelin. Gudas is not far behind at 2:43.
The benefit to this is that this is the team's third defensive pair, yet they are doing the heavy-lifting on the penalty kill allowing the other two pairs who play more minutes 5-on-5 to get some time to rest. The fact that the penalty kill remains among the league's best even with the third pair running the show is a luxury that not many teams can boast.
Dmitry Orlov has been up and down, but he fits the mold of a second-pair offensive defenseman. I view him as more of an asset than a liability and his possession numbers (54.91 Corsi-For percentage) back that up.
Having said that, there are a few major concerns on the blue line. The first is that this team does not have two top-four right defensemen. Carlson is the only one. Nick Jensen has been playing on the second pair, but it is clear that he just cannot handle such a significant role. He has been with the Caps for nearly a full calendar year at this point and his struggles can no longer be dismissed as him simply adjusting to a new team and system. The change in system was a dramatic shift for him as it requires a lot more crossing over onto the left side, something he does not seem to be comfortable with at all. He's not a bad player and I would feel comfortable with him as a third-pair defenseman. In fact, Jensen averages 2:12 per game shorthanded, more than Carlson (1:38) or Michal Kempny (1:25), so he has held a major role on Washington's stellar penalty kill. The problem can be boiled down to this: The Caps have two third-pair caliber right defensemen and only one top four.
The second issue is that Kempny has not played at the level of a top-pair defenseman essentially all season. In comparison to the issues on the right, this is a minor flaw. Kempny's issues are not nearly as blatant and he is rarely caught out of position. The issue mainly has been how weak on the puck he has been.
One team issue has been how Washington performs against an aggressive forecheck. I will label that a defensive issue because the issue comes from the defensive zone. Everyone on the team has to be smarter with puck management and distribution, but especially the blueliners who are often tasked with starting the breakouts. They have to be able to distribute the puck quickly and smartly in the face of that pressure. This was a major factor in the team's loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round the last playoffs and has seemingly been an issue in the regular season as well.
The only other defensive issue has to do with the penalty kill. Yes, the PK has been stellar, but it has been called upon far too often. Washington has taken 186 minor penalties this season, more than any other team in the NHL. Sure, sometimes the referees like to put away the whistles in the postseason, but the Caps are a physical team that plays a heavy game. That could open them up to more penalties. Most importantly, the team has to be smarter with their sticks and limit unnecessary slashes and hooks.
The verdict: No, the defense is not good enough to win the Cup...yet.
A hole on the top-four is a significant enough weakness that I do not believe the team can afford to ignore it heading into the playoffs.
But don't despair. While I do not believe the current makeup of the defense is good enough, it is not beyond repair. Only one addition is needed to completely shore up the blue line. This team needs an adequate player to plug onto the right side of the second pair. They don't need a superstar, just a serviceable top-four righty. That addition would imrpove the defense to the point of making the team a real contender.
Top four defensemen do not grow on trees, however, especially right ones, and the team's cap constraints will certainly hurt their ability to improve in this area.
This leaves me with two possible solutions the team could explore.
First, and probably the most likely, look for the next Kempny. Find a cheap defenseman on another team's roster who the scouts think has high-upside and is undervalued by his current team, trade a mid-round draft pick and plug him in. The fact that Washington was able to recall Christian Djoos after the Christmas break means Washington has at least banked enough cap space to fit in his cap hit ($1.2 million). Brian MacLellan seems deadset on keeping the roster with only one healthy scratch to bank as much cap space as possible so I think they should have probably at least about $2 million to work with by the time the Feb. 24 trade deadline rolls around. Plus, there is always salary retention, though that would cost more in a trade.
The second option is to bring up Martin Fehervary. He is a left shot, but has been playing on the right with the Hershey Bears. The team certainly loves him which was made evident by him starting the season in the NHL. Even if he may not have reached his full potential yet, he is certainly seen within the organization as a top-four caliber player so bring him up and try him out. For this option, I would like to see him called up sooner rather than later in order to get as much time as possible to adjust to the NHL, but even if this option is on the table, I would not anticipate seeing it until after the trade deadline when the team no longer needs to continue banking that space.
One last note, for anyone wondering if Djoos could be a possibility, I do not see that happening. In his two games with the team this season, he was not put on the ice for a single defensive zone start whether on the fly or off a faceoff. Not one. It is a small sample size, but that shows me there is a lack of trust in him from the coaches when it comes to playing in the defensive zone. That does not sound like a realistic candidate to slot into the top four anytime soon.
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