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The worst shift of the Caps season: What went wrong?

This wasn’t the best weekend of hockey for the Caps. They dropped both games and didn’t look particularly great in either one. There was one shift in particular against New Jersey that was especially bad, quite possibly the worst shift of the Caps season.

At the 2:29 mark of the second period, the Devils brought the puck into the Caps zone. The puck wouldn’t leave the zone for another 1:11, in which time the Devils piled up 10 shots attempts.

J.P. noticed it. I noticed it. We all noticed it. It was possibly the worst shift of the season for the Caps and it somehow didn’t end up in the back of their net.  There were two bad decisions that during the 1:11 in the Caps zone that prolonged the terrible shift.

caps2

Above is 3 seconds after the Devils entered the zone, already with one shot attempt. The puck comes around the boards to Troy Brouwer whose momentum is carrying him towards the goal line. Brouwer’s best decision here, given his momentum, not having the puck completely corralled, and the pressure coming from his right, would be to poke the puck behind the net where Matt Niskanen could gather the puck in. Given the direction of the momentum of the two Devils’ skaters down low in the zone, Niskanen would have more time than Brouwer to fully gain control of the puck. Worst case scenario, Niskanen could bang the puck around the boards.

Instead, Brouwer tries to take the puck behind the goal line himself and is stripped of the puck, as you can see below.

caps3

The Caps did not regain possession for another 53 seconds, during which time the Devils generated 6 shot attempts. Despite the fact that he had a better option, the turnover by Brouwer wasn’t especially egregious, but it sure was costly in terms of shot attempts and time in the defensive zone.

53 seconds later Niskanen, who is exhausted, gets the puck behind the net.

capsgood

Plenty of time to get the puck out, right? Wrong. Niskanen struggles to get control of the puck and then seems bewildered, probably from exhaustion, when he does get the puck cleanly on his stick. As a result, the above turns into the picture below.

capsgood2

So while a bouncing puck and exhaustion make it understandable that Niskanen muffled the clearing attempt (these kind of things happen over the course of 82 games), his approach was questionable from the time he got the puck. He seems intent on pushing the puck along to Andre Burakovsky, but given the impending and then eventual pressure of the Devils’ forechecker, the safer and smarter play would have been to throw the puck behind the net, where Karl Alzner would have had approximately all day to get the breakout started and the Caps headed towards a much needed line change.

Andre Burakovsky could have been more helpful to Niskanen but chose to remain on the half-wall, likely because he was in need of oxygen and water.

13 seconds and 3 additional shot attempts later, a rebound goes to the high slot, where Marcus Johansson gathers in the puck and exits the zone, thus bringing to an end the worst shift of the Caps season.

Three Caps’ Numbers: Episode One

Editor’s Note: This is a new column in which we will look at 3 Caps-related numbers or stats with a brief commentary on each number. As always, if you have questions or feedback, feel free to let us know in the comment or on Twitter. Thanks for reading. 

 

——97.75——

Our first number, 97.75, represents the Caps PDO through the first 12 games of the 2014-15 season. For those who are unfamiliar with PDO, it is the found by combining a team’s 5-0n-5 shooting percentage and save percentage. In short, it regresses towards 100. So, a team with a PDO below 100 is thought to be getting bad “puck luck” while a team with a PDO above 100 is thought to be getting the good bounces. (For those who want a more nuanced definition of PDO, here’s a great article.)

So, why is this number significant? The Caps’ current PDO of 97.75 is the lowest of any regular season PDO on record for the team since 2002. This isn’t to say that the team hasn’t had 12 game stretches like this. But it does say that if this “puck luck” continues for the Caps, we would be able to call this the unluckiest Caps team on record.

Yes, this team has had some defensive lapses. And maybe we need our goalies to come up with some bigger saves. But the Caps will see better results simply by continuing to do the same things they are doing. Their puck luck will change. I’d be willing to bet a large sum of money or drinks on the fact that the Caps PDO will be above 97.75 at the end of the season.

mojo
Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRGB Photography

——1.83——

The number of shots per game Marcus Johansson is averaging so far this season. This is up from a career mark of 1.29 shots per game. This would lead to 44 more shots over an 82 game stretch. If Johansson were to shoot his career mark of 12.7%, this would mean 5.58 more goals per 82 games for him. This is not insignificant. We are talking 5-6 more goals per 82 games from #90 by doing nothing else but continuing to shoot the puck more. If Johansson keeps his current shot per game pace, without shooting any more accurately, and plays in 82 games, he will have 18 goals this season, which is great for a guy with a previous career high of 14. KEEP SHOOTING MARCUS!

 

——9.89——

Points per 60 minutes of PP time for Evgeny Kuznetsov. This not only leads all Caps forwards, but is 8th among all NHL forwards who have 13+ minutes of PP time so far this season. Small sample, sure, but if he can keep up a pace anywhere near this, the Caps PP will be relentless this season, with two high octane units.

 

Caps 2014-15 season preview

We didn’t post very much last season. Personally, I didn’t post much the past two seasons as I navigated my way through Grad school while working a full-time job. But we’ve started posting more this summer and plan to be much more active this season. We’ve even added a new writer, Margaret Stuart, who you should follow on Twitter. So thanks for reading. Check back often throughout the season for more frequent posting than last season. 

There is no shortage of season previews available on the Caps. Given that, this preview isn’t meant to be an exhaustive recap of the summer or of story lines certain to arise during the season. Instead, I wanted to give answers and opinions on a few things.

Additionally, some of our recent posts have covered preview-ish type material.

Brooks Orpik and what we know about 34-year-old defensemen

What Todd Reirden could mean for Mike Green

Marcus Johansson: Where he fits and what to expect

First, here’s a question we got on Twitter

Pat Holden: I’d expect a defensemen to get dealt before a forward, but sticking to the subject of the question, my guess would be Marcus Johansson. Johansson has had 4 seasons to find his niche here in Washington and he’s yet to do so. Barry Trotz has already said that Johansson will be used at wing this year, not the greatest vote of confidence for a guy on a team lacking Center depth who was drafted to play Center. If Johansson doesn’t have a coming of age prior to the return of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson, he’s going to be fighting to get a sweater each night. Johansson is an asset who probably has some value on the trade market. If he can’t realize that value here in Washington and becomes scratched on a regular basis, he will be dealt.

Margaret Stuart: The easy and accurate answer is Marcus Johansson. A quick look at the roster sets him apart from his teammates, and not in a positive way. Who else is a viable trade candidate? The Caps can afford to ship him off–he doesn’t fill a specific, in-demand need. Every other forward on the team has a clearly-defined role, even if his place among the lineup is undefined. Johansson, on the other hand, lacks this clarity.

Is he a center or a left wing? Having scored eight goals last season, where does he fit on a team in need of secondary scoring? His lack of physicality isn’t ideal for a bottom-six player, and his even-strength production doesn’t merit top-six minutes.

With a cap hit of $2 million, Johansson won’t be difficult to take on. A change of scenery might benefit Johansson, although it’s unclear what exactly a team would acquire him for. His all-around play is solid, and his relative Corsi was positive. The latter will help the Caps shop Johansson, given the rise of advanced stats. But Johansson deserves another shot to slot into the lineup, and a handful of new coaches could mold him into the type of player the Caps can’t afford to lose. If this isn’t the case, he’s in the last year of a two-year deal–he’s a natural choice for trade bait.

One optimistic prediction about the season

Holts_28

Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRBG Photography

Pat Holden: Braden Holtby will be widely considered an elite goalie around the NHL by the end of the season. (Peter from RMNB covered this in his predictions. I pinky swear this was in my draft of this post before reading that. I was going to remove it from my post but decided not to. Because really, Holtby’s play took such an undeserved beating last year that it doesn’t hurt to hammer home the point that he’s quite good).

Last season, Holtby caught a lot of heat for the Capitals problems. Last season, ultra-tinkerer Adam Oates messed with his style and Holtby played in front of a defense often comprised of multiple players who should have been in Hershey or the press box. Yet, Holtby still finished 8th in 5-on-5 save% of all goalies who played in 41 games or more. His 92.89 mark finished just below Henrik Lundqvist, who posted a 93.06%. Was Holtby shaky at times last year? Absolutely. But Holtby wasn’t the problem in Washington. In fact, Holtby has never been the problem.

Holtby is now being coached by Goalie Whisperer Mitch Korn. The defense in front of him is stronger than any other defense during his time here in Washington. This is Holtby’s year.

One less optimistic prediction about the season

Pat Holden: Joel Ward, meet regression to the mean. Regression to the mean, Joel Ward. 

Ward_1

Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRBG Photography

 

Ward was great last season and figures to play a big role on the Caps 3rd line again this year. However, if you’re expecting Ward to match the 24 goals and 25 assists that he piled up last season, you’re going to be disappointed. Ward shot 18% last year, which is well above his career mark of 11.1%, and about 10% above the league average. Ward’s PDO of 102.66 last year is certain to come back down closer to 100. This is not a knock on Ward or to say that he won’t play well this year. Ward was a good player last year and will almost certainly be a good player again this year. But he was also lucky last year. That luck is likely to regress a bit and it’s not because of a drop in quality of Ward’s play.

For example, last year Ward had 133 SOG and shot 18% for 24 goals If Ward again manages 133 SOG again but shoots at his career mark of 11.1%, he will score 15 goals. Ward will still be a contributor to this team, but his offensive totals are all but certain to drop.

Margaret Stuart: Caps trade Green and get little in return. To state the obvious, defense has long been an Achilles heel for the Caps. MacLellan addressed this weakness by signing Niskanen and Orpik to long-term deals. The moves raised questions about Green’s role with the team, given the capabilities of the former Pittsburgh defensemen.

Green is the epitome of an offensive defenseman, but the past few seasons have signified a drop-off in his scoring abilities. Enter the fancy-stats argument: last season, Green had some of the highest possession numbers on a lousy possession team. If the Caps wanted to trade Green tomorrow, they’d find some takers. His stock has gradually fallen, but he’s still a valuable asset.

What could the Caps get in return for Green?

Worst-case scenario, they receive a meaningless draft pick or two, coupled with a bottom-four NHL defenseman. The Caps have enough budding young blueliners in their system to fill that role. Calling for trades is premature, but the Caps should receive a high-quality offensive talent in return for Green. Parting ways with No. 52 means losing a veteran leader and weakening the defense. But if the Caps are struggling enough to trade him, they probably can’t afford to be choosers.

Where will the Caps finish this year?

Pat Holden: I’m not big on predictions of where a team will finish in the standings, but this is a season preview so I feel some sort of obligation to provide one. The only team in the division that I think will definitely finish above the Caps are the Penguin (sorry!). But the only team in the division I think the Caps are certain to finish above are the Hurricanes. I’d say it’s unlikely that the Caps will finish above the Rangers. In the end, I think the Caps will end up in a tight battle for 3rd in the division/a Wild Card spot with the Islanders, Devils, Blue Jackets and Flyers. How’s that for vague? Fine. In the end, the Caps will grab the 2nd Wild Card spot in the East with 95 points (41-28-13).

Margaret Stuart: The Caps will finish among the top-four Metro teams. The Metropolitan Divison is unique in that it lacks a truly elite team. The Penguins are still in the running for a Cup, but they’re arguably on their way to becoming fringe contenders. Even the Rangers, who made it to the Cup Final, look weaker on paper than they did a year ago. Beyond these “frontrunners,” the rest of the division is up for grabs–only Carolina is poised to be a true basement-dweller.

If the Caps can patch up the 2C situation, their revamped blueline makes them a far greater threat. And the penalty kill and shots-allowed, two areas in need of fixing, are being addressed. The preseason is…well, the preseason, but it’s yielded mostly positive results thus far.

On the offensive front, Burakovsky may be the team’s most pleasant surprise, providing secondary scoring to supplement Ovechkin. If Trotz & Co. can elicit a Young Guns-era performance from Green, that alone is a red flag to other teams.

Given their improved play in both zones, I predict the Caps will finish fourth in the division, and their 96 points will qualify them for the postseason via the first wild-card spot. Their record will be 42-28-12. (Bear in mind predictions are notoriously inaccurate.)


Thanks again for reading and be sure to come back and visit us often this season.

 

Marcus Johansson: Where he fits and what to expect

Mojo_2 copy

Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRGB Photography

In previous posts, I’ve discussed certain line combinations and made a case for why some make sense and others should be avoided. One of the conclusions I’ve made is that Eric Fehr should be on the first line alongside Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Another post looked at the fact that Troy Brouwer should be a winger on the 2nd line and Brooks Laich should center the 3rd line.

Barry Trotz has said that the 2nd line center job is essentially a battle between Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov and that the loser of the battle will likely be shifted to the wing. So where does the loser fit best? All sample sizes involving Kuznetsov, he of the 17 NHL games, are entirely too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, so I’m not going to focus on him for now. Instead, I want to look at Johansson.

I’m skeptical of his ability to be an effective 2C for any team that hopes to compete this season. Johansson is an alright player, but he’s yet to become the player the Caps hoped he would when they made him a 1st round pick. But even if he loses the 2C job, if Trotz sticks to what he says and puts Johnasson on the wing, it’s hard to believe he won’t be on the 2nd line (or maybe the first, but I’m going to hold out hope Fehr gets that spot). The 3rd line wingers are almost certainly Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and it’s hard to see Johansson demoted to the 4th line in favor of any of the remaining wingers.

As I’ve said, Kuznetsov’s sample sizes are too small to draw much from. So, if Brouwer and Johansson end up on the 2nd line together (whether MoJo is a C or W), is this a duo that’s likely to be part of an effective 2nd line? Here’s a look at their CF% together and when apart.

mojobrouwer

Brouwer and Johansson together are sub 47%. This is not a good start to the makings of an effective 2nd line. That’s not to say a change in systems or a boost in chemistry from the 3rd player on the line couldn’t help things, but this is starting behind the 8-ball, so to speak.

But what’s really interesting here is that Johansson’s CF% isn’t good with or without Brouwer (Brouwer’s overall CF% w/out Johansson is solid). In his career, over 3411 minutes of play, Marcus Johansson is only a 47.6% CF player. Johansson has played 191 or more minutes with 20 different players during his NHL career. He has a CF% of 50 or greater with just one of these players, Nick Backstrom. Only 1 of these players, Jay Beagle, has seen an increase in CF% with Johansson than without him. In general (as in, 95% of the time in our sample) Johansson is a sub-50% CF player and drags down his teammate’s possession numbers.

But, a closer look is cause for some hope when it comes to Johansson’s possession. Here’s his career FenClose rel numbers by season.

mojofenclose

So, after being a negative possession player, relative to his team in his first two seasons, Johansson has been a positive possession player in the two seasons since. This won’t necessarily show up as a +50% CF since Johansson was a positive possession player on relatively weak possession teams. This isn’t a knock on Johansson, in fact it’s a credit to him for doing more with less, so to speak.

What to expect moving forward

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Johansson is only entering his age-24 season (determined by the player’s age on Feb 1st of that season). Since 1998, 4 other players have played at least as many career minutes as Johansson (4327) with his point total (139) or less by the end of their age 23 season. Taking a look at these players in their age-24 seasons can help us see if it’s realistic to expect any sort of jump in production from Johansson this year or if he is what he is at this point, so to speak.  Here’s each player’s goals, assists, and points per 60 minutes entering their age-24 season, which Johansson is about to enter.

Player G/60 A/60 P/60
Marcus Johansson 0.5 1.11 1.60
Dustin Brown 0.59 0.85 1.44
Martin Hanzal 0.43 0.96 1.39
Josh Bailey 0.58 0.78 1.36
Brandon Sutter 0.62 0.71

1.33

Johansson has been the most productive player/60 minutes of play among those who met the criteria. It should be noted that all players on this list are former first round picks. Further, all of these players except Brown are listed as Centers. But what about production when these players enter their age-24 season? Can it tell us anything about what to expect from Johansson this year?

G/60 A/60 P/60
Through age-23 season 0.55 0.83 1.38
Age-24 season 0.45 0.95 1.4

While the goals and assists were distributed a little differently, the overall production is within .02 P/60, an insignificant difference. So, those expecting a drastic uptick in production from Johansson will likely be disappointed.

But, his improved relative possession play over the past two seasons is encouraging. Can this result in better possession from him and Brouwer a a duo? I’m not sure, but my guess is that we’re going to find out, whether Johansson plays as the C or W on the line.

To recap this and other posts, here are the conclusions I’ve reached about the Caps lines so far:

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr

Johansson (as W or C)-?-Brouwer

Ward-Laich-Chimera

I’ll have some thoughts on the 4th line next week.

War on Ice, Hockey Analysis, and Hockey Reference all used as resources for this article 

On Nick Backstrom, appreciation, and linemates

Backstrom_1

Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography

Barry Trotz has not been shy in heaping praise upon Nick Backstrom since becoming head coach of the Caps. Trotz has also noted how under appreciated he feels Backstrom is around the league. I think Backstrom is deeply appreciated by Caps fans, generally recognized as one of the most important players on this team. But, just in case you forgot about how great Backstrom is, here’s a reminder.

backstromusage

Backstrom’s career usage chart displays a few things,none of which are surprising, but that I think are  cool to see in visual form. The first is that he’s only been a negative possession player relative to his teammates once in his career. That is was in 2008-09, and it was by less than 1/4 of a %. Other than that, the Caps, season-by-season, have always been a better possession team with Backstrom on the ice than without him. Backstrom has also faced pretty stiff competition, almost always finishing a season north of 29.2% TOI competition. That’s what we’d expect to find from a 1C who is often deployed with Alex Ovechkin.

Much has been made about the fact that Alex Ovechkin will likely start the season back at LW. It’s a fairly safe assumption that Backstrom will line up at Center on a line with Ovechkin. What potential RW would benefit the most by being centered by Backstrom? And what player would Backstrom most benefit from having on his right side?

I’m making a few assumptions in my considerations. One is that Brooks Laich and Evgeny Kuznetsov are not candidates, as I expect them to fill the 3C and 2C spots, respectively. I’m also assuming that most any winger is eligible. It is safe to assume that Trotz won’t be as obsessed with handedness as Adam Oates was, right? I’ve also excluded Tom Wilson from my list of viable options to play alongside Backstrom because their sample size together is minuscule, so there’s nothing to learn from their history together. Here’s how the remaining options for Trotz stack up, measured in Corsi For with and without Backstrom. These are career numbers.

backstromwowy

A note on the sample size here. Minutes with Backstrom are as follows: Brouwer 758:32, Johansson 991:41, Ward 88:53, Fehr 391:26, Chimera 314:37.

Here’s how Backstrom fared with and without each player listed above.

Backstrompart2

 

The “with” sample sizes here are obviously the same.

Brouwer and Johansson have by far the biggest sample sizes playing with Backstrom. It’s clear that Brouwer and Backstrom are not a good match as they both see their possession numbers plummet when playing together. Johansson sees his possession numbers improve with Backstrom, but he’s dead weight to Backstrom, who sees a significant jump in possession away from Johansson. Jason Chimera also appears to be a poor fit with Backstrom.

Joel Ward’s sample size with Backstrom is quite small, but the results are decent. That being said, his skill set is one that thrives on a 3rd line and is likely not suited to play with the likes of Backstrom and Ovechkin on a regular basis.

That bring us to Eric Fehr. Fehr’s success with Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski is something we’ve already talked about here in other posts. Fehr’s possession benefits from playing with Backstrom and Backstrom’s possession drops the least when playing with Fehr out of all of the RW options. Long story short, if Eric Fehr is not playing RW alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom on opening night, I’ll consider it a mistake by Trotz.

Nicklas Backstrom is awesome, isn’t he? And boy, an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr line on opening night sure does make a lot of sense.

All stats pulled from War on Ice and Hockey Analysis 

 

Examining the Caps’ possible line combinations

Barry Trotz’s projected lines are still a mystery, but his Q&A with Dan Rosen shed light on possible combinations. Trotz revealed who he’d like to keep on the wing and try at center, in addition to his vision for the Caps’ fourth line. With this new information in mind, here’s a look at mixing and matching certain players.

 

Who will play alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom?

While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have two of the top line’s three slots locked up, questions still abound. Will Trotz play Ovechkin as a right or left wing? Once that’s decided, who will complete the trio?

Marcus Johansson typically played with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but Trotz plans to try him at center. Should Johansson perform well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see him playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom–he’s a viable candidate for second-line center, and it’s possible that Trotz will move Ovechkin back to left wing to account for the Caps’ surplus of right wings.

Should Ovechkin line up on the left, Troy Brouwer seems like the Caps’ go-to guy. He’s seen plenty of ice time as a second-liner, so making the transition to top-line minutes is feasible. However, the majority of his production came on the power play–a problem that plagued Ovechkin and Backstrom. Furthermore, Brouwer’s Corsi-for with Backstrom was 49.5%.

So, is Brouwer really the best fit to play right wing on the top line? Given the excess of right wings in the Caps’ system, I say no. Throw in Trotz’s belief that Tom Wilson should play top-nine minutes, and it’s almost difficult to see where Brouwer fits into the equation. He could very well be a trade candidate. Second-line center, anyone?

This leaves Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, and Wilson. Trotz expressed his desire to keep Ward on a line with Jason Chimera, so Fehr and Wilson are probably the most likely options. Wilson isn’t a likely choice, given his relative inexperience. On the other hand, playing Fehr and Ovechkin saw time together as wings and boasted a Corsi-for of 50.9%.  Fehr and Backstrom are an even more promising combination, as their career Corsi-for clocks in at 54.4%. (Last season’s 47.6% was a bump in what’s been an otherwise smooth road.) Statistics aside, Fehr is a creative player and good skater. He can get the puck to his teammates and capitalize on chances himself. Should Ovechkin return to left wing, I’d like to see Fehr as one of his linemates.

 

What if Ovechkin remains a right wing?

Of course, the above scenarios assume that Trotz doesn’t keep Ovechkin at right wing. An opening still remains, so who fills it? We can rule Johansson out for aforementioned reasons, thus leaving Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brooks Laich. Note: even if Andre Burakovsky cracks the lineup, I’m skeptical of how he’ll handle top-line minutes during his rookie season. As I said earlier, Trotz would be foolish to split up Ward and Chimera. However, he stated his intentions to try Kuznetsov and Laich (assuming he’s healthy) down the middle. Both are promising options.

However, someone will be the odd man out, and in turn, likely play an important role on the second line. The need for a 2C is no secret, and Johansson could trump Kuznetsov and Laich in that department. If he can’t find his scoring touch as a winger, he might be more successful at setting up plays than finishing them. He also has previous experience playing center and tallied 36 assists last seasons, second only to Backstrom.

If Trotz wants to use Kuznetsov to supplement the top line’s offense, he’s narrowed the search down to Laich and Johansson. Since there are no guarantees of Laich’s health, Johansson might be the better option–it’s hard to find good centermen, and the Caps need consistency down the middle. Johansson’s also in the last year of his contract, and his role with the Caps is still uncertain. If he succeeds as a 2C, he’s made a strong case for a contract extension.

 

Where do Burakovsky and Wilson fit?

Two players I haven’t discussed in detail are Burakovsky and Wilson. Trotz has made known his plans for each: Burakovsky is a possibility down the middle, while Wilson should see top-nine minutes. The former will, at the very least, begin his season in Hershey. If he sees NHL ice time, I’d prefer it to be at his natural position, left wing. If the Caps wish to mold Burakovsky into a center, Hershey is the best place to make that happen. A player of his talents shouldn’t be stuck on a checking line.

That statement also applies to Wilson, who saw minimal ice time last season. Since Chimera and Ward will likely comprise two-thirds of the third line, that leaves an opening for Wilson on the second line (granted, Brouwer would have to be playing on the top line or with a different team for that to happen.) Wilson cannot spend another season trapped on the fourth line, and it appears as though Trotz will give him the chance to step up offensively with increased minutes and tougher competition.

The issue in the Caps’ top six forwards

Ovechkin and Backstrom

Oveckin and Backstrom (Photo: Mike Holden)

There are many ways to win consistently in the NHL. One of those can be by having the right talent, another by having a great system and sticking to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s offense or defense-oriented or a little of both, a team with a solid approach that plays it well game-after-game can sometimes make up for talent issues on a roster. And even teams with the best players need a good plan.

In this lockout-shortened season that came without a proper training camp and preseason, it’s apparent that the Washington Capitals could have used that time to learn their new coach’s system. It’s also clear that Adam Oates and the Caps could use a bit more talent in certain areas, one of them being within the six forwards on their first two lines.

With the Caps coming off a 4-0 win in Winnipeg Thursday night, now might seem like an odd time to talk about one of the areas where the team is lacking. But, if the Caps keep winning and make the playoffs or even just miss it, the issue could rear its head again. And, going into next season, it will likely need to be addressed for the team to become a true threat.

In their top six forwards, the Caps have three very talented skill players in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro. They also have several wingers who are top six material as a compliment to these players.

For example, Brooks Laich, just back from an injury, is a talented and capable left wing that the team can try pairing up with the Ovechkin-Backstrom duo. 22 year-old Marcus Johansson has struggled to develop further as a player while showing promise at times in his still-young NHL career, but he may be another who can be plugged in alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin as he was on Thursday.

Matt Hendricks has also been tried on the top line, though he may deliver better value skating on a lower one. And it appears that Wojtek Wolski and Jason Chimera are done, at least presently, getting time with the top unit.

On the second line with Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer is a solid choice at right wing. With 11 goals and 21 points in 29 games this season, Brouwer is putting up numbers that justify his $3.6 million cap hit and the move the team made to acquire him two summers ago.

On the left side of the second line, Oates can plug-in any number of players, such as he did with Laich last night while skating Johnasson in that spot on the top line. Eric Fehr is also an option as are some others. However, with their current roster of players, it is here on that left side of Ribeiro that the Caps run into the hole in their top six.

Washington has good players that can be used in this second line role, but they are guys that, when put in a top six spot, should mostly be used to complement a skilled duo. The top line currently has Backstrom and Ovechkin. The second has Ribeiro and needs someone else in the highly skilled department, even with Brouwer putting up some nice numbers this season.

In past years, the Caps had a legitimate goal-scoring threat on the left side of their second line in Alexander Semin, but he rarely had the opportunity to play with a second line-caliber center. The Caps now have that center in Ribeiro, but let Semin go and have yet to properly replace him.

Should Washington play well the next week or so and decide to become buyers at this season’s April 3 trade deadline, a deal for a sniping or highly skilled left wing should be high on their list. And going into October and the 2013-14 season, it’s an issue they should eliminate if they are to become a top team again.

The Caps could get by without this player, if they execute Oates’ system consistently. But even then, to take the team’s play to the next level and make them tougher to shut down, the Caps could use someone to fill this gap in their top six.

What’s next for the Caps?

Some of the Caps fanbase on Twitter and other social media outlets seems a bit uneasy about the fact that the Caps have not yet made a big splash in the free agency market.  While certain players may have made some sense (i.e. PA Parenteau), I’m in no way bothered by the Caps lack of activity thus far.  I would rather the team save the cap space to address needs at a date later than July 1st than rashly fill a hole in a manner that will likely prove to be inadequate or with a contract that will become regrettable.  That being said, there are holes on this roster that need to be fixed, most notably, a winger to replace Alex Semin on the second line.

The Caps filled a major hole on the roster by acquiring Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars. However, with the impending departure of Semin via free agency, the Caps still have some work to do in terms of their top 2 lines.  Given the lack of top-6 talent on the free agent market, the Caps may be best served to make a deal for a winger to play on one of the top two lines, which brings us to scenario one…

Trade for Bobby Ryan or a similar player.

This scenario was brought up recently over at Japers’ Rink with the hypothetical package of Dmitri Orlov, Marcus Johansson and a 1st round pick going to Anaheim for Bobby Ryan.  For a good debate on the value of that deal, head on over and read the comments section.  For my purposes here, I’ll assume the value makes sense for both teams.  If this trade were to happen, or one for a player similar to Ryan, the Caps group of forwards would look like this:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Perreault-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Ryan( or similar player)

Chimera-Laich-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

Is Perreault a top-6 winger? No.  But could he be a serviceable option given the quality of the players on his line as well as the quality of the other lines?  I would vote yes.   The top two lines would have plenty of scoring and prove difficult to play against with physical players such as Ovechkin, Brouwer and a Ryan-type player.  I see no question marks with the third and fourth lines listed above, they’d make Dale Hunter proud (and probably be his first and second lines).

However, we can play arm-chair GM all we want, but it doesn’t magically make Bobby Ryan or a similar player available and/or affordable.   So what if the Caps can’t bring in a second-line winger?   What if the contract or asking price for such a player is currently at a level that will do more harm than good for the Caps?  This bring us to scenario 2…

Sign Jason Arnott

This comes with a disclaimer. Ultimately, the Caps need a to acquire a 2W, not Jason Arnott. Without acquiring a winger to play on the second line, the Caps are not legitimate Cup contenders.   But what if nothing makes sense? Should the Caps stand pat?  Depending on the what’s available, possibly, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.   Instead, the Caps should put a band-aid on the situation and wait until a trade for a 2W opens up.  A band-aid type fix would involve bringing in a player on a short-term, low-risk deal so as not to handcuff the team should a 2W becomes available.   To me, the easiest way to do this is to sign a player to solidify the center spot on the third line to free up Brooks Laich to play wing on the second line.  Of all of the available free agents, Jason Arnott strikes me as the player best suited to serve in this role.  He’d likely be available on a one-year deal for a reasonable amount of money.  The forward lines would then look like this:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Laich-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Perreault/Johansson

Chimera-Arnott-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in this team contending for the Cup, but I don’t think it’d be a disaster over the short term, either.  The intention here is to put a band-aid on the 2W situation until a legitimate one hopefully becomes available via trade during the season.  This is  certainly not an ideal option, but it’s better than signing Player X, who is questionably adequate to play as a 2W for the duration of his contract, to a deal that will be harmful to the team’s cap management.

Regardless of what the Caps end up doing, I like the patient approach they have opted for thus far.  Doing nothing to address glaring needs is generally a better approach than addressing those needs in an inadequate or fiscally irresponsible manner.  That being said, signing a player such as Arnott makes sense for the short-term.  The would allow Laich to fill-in as a 2W while also not handcuffing the team financially when/if a 2W becomes available.

Is Alex Semin being held to a higher standard than other Caps players?

My brother Pat wasn’t happy with Alex Ovechkin’s effort defensively on the Rangers first goal in Game 1 of their second round playoff series. He tweeted, “The listless, one hand on the stick effort in support of his D man who was clearly beaten is not really my thing.”

I hadn’t noticed this during the game. I was mostly focused on watching Artem Anisimov out-muscle Mike Green. But I tend to agree with my brother on this one. Where was the Ovechkin that seems to relish crushing opposing players with an explosive hit? This would have been a great time for one of those. At the very least, just a solid shoulder or a strong poke check might have done the job. I can’t help but wonder if Ovechkin would have had more spring in his step had this instead been an opportunity for a big play in the offensive zone.

Artem Anisimov scores in Game 1

Somewhat related to this, Alexander Semin has been demoted to the fourth line for Game 2.

Semin took two penalties in Game 1, one for unwisely retaliating after being slashed by a Ranger player and another for tripping a player while forechecking. The second penalty didn’t bother me much, as it appeared he was going for the puck and got too aggressive.

Caps’ Coach Dale Hunter told reporters regarding Semin, “We need him to score goals for us, we need him to play good on the power play.” (Note: Semin leads the team in both goals and power play goals so far in the playoffs.)

As I said via Twitter earlier today, I don’t care a great deal either way about Semin’s move to the fourth line. Maybe it will pay off through a more balanced set of lines or perhaps it will motivate Semin and we’ll see a big game from him. However, I do find it odd that Semin gets banished to the fourth line, while other highly-skilled offensive players on the team often don’t when they’re guilty of less-than-stellar play. Nor do I think they should necessarily.

For example, Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of hustle cost the Caps a goal in Game 6 against the Bruins (I’m not talking about the game-winning goal that was a result of his turnover and was easier to forgive). Marcus Johannson has been giving the puck away far too often these playoffs with careless passes. Ovechkin took a bad penalty Saturday against the Rangers for tripping, put in a questionable defensive effort on the Ranger goal highlighted above and was kept off the score sheet like Semin, but there’s no way Ovi or Backstrom is going to get demoted to the fourth line—and for good reason. Yet Semin does?

Maybe there’s more to the Semin story than I’m aware of as a spectator who isn’t in the locker room, but the higher standard Semin seems to be held to confuses me. Even the league seemed to have something against the guy when he was the first 40 goal scorer I know of to be left off the All-Star ballot the next season (I don’t mean Semin just didn’t make the game…I mean he scored 40 goals and then you couldn’t even vote for him unless you wrote him in).

NBC’s Pierre McGuire doesn’t give Semin a break, even when he’s scored a goal on more than one occasion right after McGuire calls him out. As NHL.com writer Dave Lozo recently noted, “Alex Semin is the only guy who can score on national TV and have people spend the next 5 minutes questioning why he doesn’t try. Amazing.”

ESPN and Washington Post contributor Neil Greenberg said on Twitter today, “Surprised ppl continue to underappreciate Caps Semin’s contributions beyond points (and off zone penalties). If he walks, tough to replace.” Greenberg also did a statistical analysis last fall about how the criticism of Semin is unfair.

I don’t deny that there are occasions when Semin is—like many players—deserving of some criticism. However, I find it odd that other key Caps make mistakes and it doesn’t become half the story it does when Semin isn’t playing the way people would like him to.

But putting all that aside, if the demotion of Semin to the fourth line for tonight’s game results in a two-goal night, Hunter’s a genius.

Looking back on Winnipeg, looking forward to Chicago

There was a lot of talk after the Caps 3-2 loss in Winnipeg last night about a possible suspension for a Jets player and a stick-holding incident, but there were a couple of things that bothered me more than either of these because they were within the Caps control:

  • Why was Troy Brouwer sent out to take the offensive zone faceoff at the start of the Caps PP with 2:22 remaining in the game and the Caps down a goal?  The Caps lost the draw and the puck was cleared, ticking off the first 20 seconds or so of a PP with the game on the line.  One reason for this, directly or indirectly, is the decision to scratch Jeff Halpern. It’s doubtful that Halpern, who is one of the top faceoff men in the league, would have been out because of the PP and the need for a late goal.  However,  him not being in the lineup pushes everyone up a spot on the faceoff depth chart that led to a winger, who took one other faceoff the entire game, on the dot at a crucial time in the game.  Mathieu Perreault was also on the ice, and may have been tossed out before the CSN camera panned to the dot, but the fact that Brouwer was even put in that spot, whether being first or second choice, is questionable coaching.
  • The Caps were rightfully upset with Mark Stuart for his high and late hit on Marcus Johansson in the 1st period.  Unfortunately, we only came to find out after the game that the Caps were upset, since there was absolutely no visible response from the Caps during the game.  Is this team aware that you don’t have to wait for a player to be traded to Montreal in order to respond to a dirty play on a teammate?  The Caps and Jets meet again next Friday and there may be a response then, but why didn’t that happen last night? That’s the kind of hit where I’m okay with a Caps player immediately charging at Stuart and risk giving the Jets a five minute PP.
  • Let’s be totally clear about this, Caps fans:  “Crosby Sucks!” is not an appropriate chant on Friday when the Jets visit DC.  I’ll be at the game and will personally remove anyone from the arena who participates in this.

Overall, I’m still upbeat about the Caps chances of making the playoffs.  There is plenty to like about the way the Caps have played in this most recent stretch of games.  Additionally, Nicklas Backstrom has been skating and ramping up his workouts.  While no return date has even been discussed yet, this is significant progress for the Caps number one pivot.

The Caps now look forward to the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday night.  Almost two years ago to the day, on a Sunday in Chicago, Backstrom provided the Caps with a thrilling overtime goal to end a game that is one my favorite post-lockout Caps memories.

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