With the Capitals now 10 games into the season after Monday night's loss to the Boston Bruins, it is time to take a step back and evaluate what we have seen thus far.
The Caps rank 3rd in the NHL with 3.7 goals per game.
Nicklas Backstrom leads the team in goals (5), assists (8) and points (13).
My biggest takeaway is that the defense's role in the offense is as advertised. Of Washington's 37 goals this season, nine have come from the defense, good for about 24 percent.
The Caps have come a long way from the shot quality philosophy they had during the end of the Barry Trotz era. Now, there's a lot more pushing the puck back to the blue line and getting traffic in front of the net. The only issue with that is that they are not shooting enough and rank 27th in the NHL in shots on goal.
The point of shooting from the blue line is looking for deflections and screens, but those shots are ultimately lower percentage shots. For this to be an effective offense in the long run, it will require the team to get more rubber on net.
But on the plus side, the way everyone is contributing is fantastic. The team has 17 different players who have recorded at least one goal, which leads the league. The fact that Alex Ovechkin has only two goals and the team is still 6-1-3 is pretty staggering.
The Caps rank 24th in the NHL with 3.2 goals per game.
The defense still appears to be a work in progress, but the biggest issue here is the team's lack of possession. I am not a "the best defense is a good offense" type of guy, but when you rank 27th in shots on goal per game and 26th in shots on goal allowed per game, that's a pretty clear indicator that Washington just doesn't have the puck enough. This looks even worse when you consider shot attempts. Washington ranks 29th in Corsi-For percentage at 46.3 percent.
If other teams have the puck the majority of the game, they are going to score more.
Given the players in and out of the lineup, you can accept the possession numbers for now with the hope and expectations that this will improve as the team continues to get players back and adjust to Peter Laviolette's system. If this trend doesn't improve, however, then Washington's record will deteriorate over the course of the season.
Personally, from watching the first 10 games, I still think more of their struggles come from attrition and adjusting to Laviolette than it does to bad play. But in a 56-game season, this needs to turn around fast.
Vitek Vanecek: 8 GP, 5-1-2 record, .913 save percentage, 2.94 GAA
Ilya Samsonov: 2 GP, 1-0-1 record, .868 save percentage, 3.36 GAA
Vanecek has far surpassed my expectations, but there is one aspect of his game he really has to clean up and that is his rebound control.
The interesting thing about goalies is that you really have to wait to evaluate them after teams are able to scout them and break down their game. Is Vanecek as good as he has played or is the book just not out on him yet? Once teams start to see those juicy rebounds, they will adjust for it so he has to shore that aspect of his game up.
The most important takeaway for the goaltending is that eight games are not enough to simply declare Vanecek the starter and give him the bulk of the starts going forward. I just haven't seen enough of Samsonov yet this year to know really where the team's goaltending stands overall. Through the first 10 games, I can't say that it's been great, but Vanecek has been very good especially considering the shot volume he has been facing. Now we have to see how teams adjust.
The Caps rank 2nd on the power play at 40.9 percent and 18th on the penalty kill at 77.8 percent. They have taken the 8th most minor penalties and have the 16th most PIMs per game.
I am shocked the Caps are not among the most penalized teams in the league. I thought they would be in the top five in minors for sure as every game seems like an endless parade to the penalty box but apparently the situation is not as bad as it feels.
Overall, I am not concerned about the penalty kill. Ranking 18th is not great, but that percentage took a hit in the Buffalo game where the Caps allowed three power play goals and completely fell apart. For the most part, the penalty kill has been decent.
The power play is encouraging considering how bad it was last year. There were times when I thought they could not score on the power play even if the other team had its goalie pulled. Obviously, 40.9 percent is going to come way down over the course of the season, but this is a good start.
The biggest issue with the penalties is the team's lack of possession. That's why we keep seeing hooks, trips, holds, etc — penalties that players take when they don't have the puck and are reacting to the puck-carrier. I haven't seen too many undisciplined moments so really I would say possession is the big issue here.
The Caps are tied for first in the East with a 6-1-3 record and 15 points.
My biggest criticism of Todd Reirden as a head coach is his inability to adjust. The team did have success with him at times, but when things went bad he had no answer. Through 10 games, you have to tip your cap to the way Laviolette has been able to adjust to every challenge. There are few teams, if any, that could walk away from the first 10 games with 15 points after losing the amount of talent the Caps lost.
The most notable change for me is the breakouts. The offense and defense seem to be on the same page when it comes to transitioning through the neutral zone, which has cut down on turnovers and high-danger opportunities for the opposition.
But my main concern for the team is its lack of assertiveness. They are not dictating games and, when they do, it is brief. The past two games have seen the Caps cough up 3-0 leads. Again, this goes to possession.
They have to hold onto the puck more and play a more consistent 60-minute game.
Biggest questions the team needs to answer
Is the team's lack of possession more about the players out of the lineup or a sign of a major flaw?
I am not a slave to analytics, but I know enough to know the team is going to struggle if they don't have the puck more. They will struggle to make the playoffs let alone compete for the top of the division if they continue to spend the majority of games chasing after the puck.
And before you say the Caps' possession numbers weren't great in 2018, that's because the team was consciously shooting the puck less in search of higher-quality shots and possession metrics are based on shot attempts. That is not what is happening here. Right now, the Caps just don't have the puck enough.
Who is the team's No. 1 goalie?
Samsonov has to get his shot. You don't discard a first-round draft pick after two games just because you like what you see from someone else in his eight appearances.
How much of a weakness is the team's center depth and can they fix it?
The Caps depth has been tested at every position this year and the only position in which they appear thin is at center. Brian Pinho is not an NHL player and the coaches do not appear to believe Connor McMichael is ready yet. Can you win a Cup with Mike Sgarbossa playing fourth-line center? Can you win with T.J. Oshie playing second-line center?
But with the team so tight against the cap and with how difficult trades will likely be in the pandemic, I'm not sure Brian MacLellan could add anything even if he wanted to unless he got very creative.
Is a full-strength roster even possible in 2021 or is this just what it is going to be like the entire season?
Honestly, I'm not sure which would be better for Washington. I believe the Caps roster can compete for a Stanley Cup at full strength, but if all teams battle the same level of attrition as Washington has, I find it hard to believe there are very many teams that are deep enough to handle it as well as the Caps have thus far.
Are the Caps building something special or is this just a good start?
Let's not forget, Washington was the best team in the NHL last season until Dec. 23. From then on, everything went south. Washington was 37 games into the season before it started to struggle and really showed us the true colors of the 2019-20 squad. These first 10 games are exciting, but let's not plan the parade just yet.