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First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

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First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

The Capitals have hit the quarter mark of their season with 20 games under their belts. The last two games put a sour taste on the first quarter, but overall how have they looked?

Let's harken back to our school days when the first quarter of the year brought about the first report card and hand out some grades.

(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)

Offense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 21st in the NHL with 2.80 goals per game (one spot ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins interestingly enough)

Consistency is the biggest problem for the Caps offensively. First, they were too top heavy with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie carrying the load by themselves with no secondary scoring. Since then, the top players have struggled to produce, especially Backstrom. Backstrom is being utilized more as a shutdown forward, but the Capitals need him to produce as well in order to be successful, especially when he is playing on a line with Oshie. The Caps need consistent scoring from their top players and consistent secondary production. The good news is that Ovechkin looks as good as ever with 13 goals already. After scoring 33 last season, many wondered if his days of being a top scoring threat were over. That does not appear to be the case. 

I would be remiss if I did not include one note on Kuznetsov: Please, please shoot the puck.

RELATED: 4 REASONS WHY THE CAPS LOST TO COLORADO

Defense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 24th in the NHL with 3.25 goals against per game

I can already hear your bewildered screams and angry questions. "How does a team that ranks 24th in the NHL get a C grade?" Let's take a step back and look at the players who have been playing. This is not the same defense from last season. Matt Niskanen, the team's best all-around defenseman, missed 13 games. The 37-year-old Brooks Orpik, who was a third-pair defenseman last season, is third on the team in average time on ice with 22:17 per game. Rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey have played 16 and 14 games respectively. With all of that in mind, it's no surprise that the defense has struggled. All things considered, the defense has not been good, but it has not been terrible either. You cannot allow 3.25 goals per game all season and hope to be a contender which is why they get a C, but with continued improvement from the rookies and Niskanen's return, the blue line should certainly improve throughout the season.

Goaltending: A-

By the numbers:
Braden Holtby:  .918 save percentage, 2.68 GAA ,10-4-0
Philipp Grubauer .876 save percentage, 3.86 GAA, 0-5-1

Holtby has been phenomenal and there is no question that he has stolen a good number of those 10 wins with this performance. He gets high marks for that. Grubauer's numbers are not good, but for anyone who has been watching this team, it is hard to fault him for any of those losses. He is not getting much support from his teammates when he steps into the crease. Starting goalies, however, need to be able to steal some wins. Grubauer wants to be a starter, so the fact that he has been unable to steal a win knocks the grade down to an A-, but overall, you cannot convince me goaltending has been an issue for the Caps this season.

Special Teams: C-

By the numbers:
Power play: Washington ranks 15th in the NHL at 19.4-percent
Penalty kill: Washington ranks 27th in the NHL at 77.8-percent

Let's start with the penalty kill. The bottom line is that it has not been good enough this season. The silver lining is that while the numbers are bad, they play much better in critical moments when the game is on the line. We saw that in the third period of the team's wins over the Islanders and the Coyotes. Overall, the PK has not been good enough, but when it really matters they step up which means there is some hope for improvement. The power play numbers are average, but here are the players who have scored on the power play this season: Oshie, Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom, Kuznetsov. See a pattern? They are all top-unit players. Barry Trotz has not been using his top unit for 1:30-1:45 as we've seen in previous years. He is giving much more time to his second unit. If you do that, they have to produce and they just have not been up to the task this season.

First Quarter Team MVP

1. Braden Holtby

As mentioned above, Holtby has 10 wins and he was the team's best player in most of those games. The fact that Washington does not have a single win without him shows just how important he is. He gives the team a measure of confidence that they do not have with Grubauer. Not only has he played great, but the entire team also seems to play better around him.

2. John Carlson

This team asked a lot of Carlson this season when Niskanen went on LTIR and Carlson delivered. He is second in the entire NHL in time on ice with 27:07 per game, just two seconds from the leader Rasmus Ristolainen. His play has not suffered as a result of the increased minutes. In fact, he has gotten better and better and the season progressed.

3. Alex Ovechkin

Whether Ovechkin is declining is a question we seem to ask every year. We should know better by now. The man is inhuman. His 13 goals may not lead the league, but it still puts him among the elite scorers of the NHL. Yes, I am not blind to the fact that he scored seven of those goals in two games and has only six in the last 18, but, call me crazy, I still consider seven goals in two games to be a pretty darn good sign of his scoring abilities.

MORE CAPITALS: LISTEN TO THE CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST ON THE LOSS TO COLORADO

Overall grade: B-

Let's remember who is under the microscope here. This is not a grade for Washington's 2016-17 roster. If it was, it would be closer to a D or F. That roster was too talented to struggle the way this team has, but that was last year. If I were to tell you before the season that this team with its current roster would be 10-9-1 and in playoff position through 20 games with Niskanen missing 13 games, Andre Burakovsky missing 11, Brett Connolly missing seven and Tom Wilson suspended for four, are you telling me you would not have taken that? I would have. The last two losses are a concern for sure and you could argue that the team is trending downward, but overall they have done well to get to where they are now. They must improve in a number of areas over the course of the next 20 games, but 10-9-1 with the injuries they have faced is not too bad at all.

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Key Caps questions: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing long-term?

Key Caps questions: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing long-term?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?

Tarik: When a player has a career year and it coincides with the final year of his contract, the reaction from some fans and media is often a sarcastic, ‘Well, of course he did.’

And I’m sure there are some folks who wonder about Carlson’s breakout season and whether there was a connection between the uptick in his production and the potential of an enormous payday.

Indeed, the 28-year-old established highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68) and ice time (24:47). He was outstanding in the postseason, too, amassing five goals and 15 assists while playing solidly in his own end to help lead the Caps to their first championship.

The financial reward came a couple of weeks later when he signed an eight-year, $64 million contract to remain in Washington.

Which brings us to today’s question.

It’s obviously impossible to say for sure what’s going to happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had another big season. Why? A few reasons:

  • As good as he was, last year wasn’t a total outlier, either. Carlson racked up 55 points (12 goals, 43 assists) in 2014-15, which was tied for fifth best among blue liners that year.
  • He was at his best last season skating with trade deadline addition Michal Kempny. Kempny, of course, also re-upped, agreeing to a four-year extension. So, in theory, Carlson should be able to pick up where he left off.
  • Carlson has credited Todd Reirden with helping him take his game to new heights. Well, Reirden is now the guy in charge of the whole operation. How could that not help?
  • A major reason Carlson puts up so many points is his role on the power play. And that unit, which really hit its stride in the postseason (29.3-percent), returns all five skaters.
  • Carlson has also been pretty durable, which is critical to being productive. In fact, last season he skated in all of the Caps’ games for the sixth time in eight full-time seasons.

So, yeah, it’s all setting up nicely for Carlson to have a strong 2018-19.

To me, the only unknown is whether he’ll have the same hunger and determination now that he’s got long-term security and that previously elusive championship ring.

Again, that’s impossible to predict. But I can tell you this: Over the course of two decades in this business, I’ve covered lots of players who inked life-changing contracts. With a few of them, I had immediate concerns.

I have no such reservations about Carlson's ability to play up to his new deal, particularly in the first several seasons of it.

JJ: There's nothing wrong with a player being motivated by a new deal, but I am always wary when players have career years on the last year of their contract.

The issue is whether or not a player can continue to play at the level they showed when a new contract is no longer a motivating factor. After signing a new deal for eight years and $64 million, Carlson won't have to think about money or contracts for a long time.

When it comes to motivation, a lot of the questions surrounding the Capitals this year will depend on how they react to winning the Cup. Of course everyone wants to repeat, but psychologically will they come into camp more motivated than ever to defend their title or will they be satisfied with finally winning it all?

For Carlson, there are several reasons to be hopeful. Tarik went over a number of those reasons above, but the two biggest for me are Michal Kempny and Todd Reirden.

This season, Carlson will have Kempny as his partner to start, rather than a cycle of practically every left-handed defenseman on the ice depending on the situation. Second, what Mitch Korn is to goalies, Reirden is to defensemen. With him as the head coach, I believe the ceiling for Carlson will only continue to climb.

Let's also go beyond the numbers. Matt Niskanen suffered an injury early last season that forced Carlson into a primary role on both ends of the ice. He was playing nearly 30 minutes a night and, with two rookies on the blue line who Barry Trotz did everything he could to shelter, those were very hard minutes. Yet, Carlson excelled. The offensive upside was always there, but the way he played defensively was a revelation.

While Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen will remain a solid pair for the Caps, I believe Carlson will be the guy heading into the season which will mean more minutes and more responsibility.

Plus, despite what he meant to the team's defense and despite leading all defensemen in points with 68, Carlson was not selected to participate in the All-Star Game, he was not one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy and he was not among the four defensemen named to the end of season All-Star team. His incredible season earned him no recognition at all other than his new contract. A $64 million contract is a heck of a consolation prize, but his season deserved more recognition than that.

You don't often see a player of his caliber enter a season with a chip on his shoulder, but Carlson should have a fairly sizable one.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?

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Capitals re-sign Madison Bowey leaving Tom Wilson the lone remaining RFA

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Capitals re-sign Madison Bowey leaving Tom Wilson the lone remaining RFA

Defenseman Madison Bowey re-signed with the Capitals on Thursday, inking a two-year extension that will carry an average of $1 million.

Bowey carried a cap charge of $703,333 last season.

The 23-year-old appeared in 51 games for the Caps in 2017-18, amassing 12 assists, 24 penalty minutes and a plus/minus rating of minus-3.

Bowey also suited up in nine contests for AHL Hershey, though he finished the season as one of the Black Aces during Washington's run to the Stanley Cup.

With Bowey back in the fold, the Caps now have six of seven defenseman from last season’s roster under contract. (Veteran Brooks Orpik remains an unrestricted free agent.)

Bowey had an uneven first year in the NHL—he didn’t play following the late-February addition of Michal Kempny—but the Caps expect that the 6-2, 198-pound right-shot blue liner will become reliable full-time player with more seasoning.

Bowey’s deal leaves Tom Wilson as the Caps' only remaining unsigned restricted free agent. The sides are in discussions on a multi-year extension.

Including Bowey’s extension, the Caps have roughly $7.3 million in salary cap space remaining, according to CapFriendly.

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