STATISTICAL ANALYSIS | To the anguish of all who rock the red, the Washington Capitals are once again underwhelming. Since beginning the season 1-5-1, the Capitals have spent most of this year languishing in last place of either the entire Eastern Conference or the Southeast Division. Still, with the win in Winnipeg putting them just six points out of the eighth playoff seed and Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the roster, the Capitals can always be one good run away from lifting expectations. But even with that optimism, there are five big issues/questions facing the team as the second half of the season approaches.
1. What is the Capitals’ biggest concern?
The team’s biggest issue is the lack of talent among the top six forwards, especially on the wing. If we agree that the Capitals’ top line is the one with Ovechkin, here have been the wingers on the other side, in descending order of time spent during even strength: Jason Chimera (85:32), Wojtek Wolski (81:22), Joey Crabb (37:13), Troy Brouwer (16:20), Eric Fehr (7:47) and Joel Ward (4:53). Small sample size caveats apply, but only when paired with Wolski has Ovechkin been on the ice for the same level of scoring than when Ovi is with someone else. Incidentally, Wolski was a healthy scratch for newly-acquired pugilist Aaron Volpatti.
During the loss in Philadelphia, Coach Adam Oates dropped Jason Chimera from the top line to the fourth and replaced him with Matt Hendricks to start the third period. Oates then kept Hendricks on the top line, who made the most of the opportunity, scoring the first goal Saturday in Winnipeg. But while Hendricks is a good hockey player, he is not the solution to the void on the top line, or anywhere else in the top six. And until the Capitals solve that issue, they will struggle.
2. What should the Capitals do with Mike Ribeiro?
Ribiero is having a wonderful season. He leads the team in points (24) and assists (17) and is a big reason why Washington’s power play is in the top five of the league. But he is also an unrestricted free agent who turned 33 last month and could be looking for a raise from the $5 million he is making now. That would be a risk considering his age, especially in a year that will see the salary cap decline from $70 million to $64 million. Since the last lockout, only Saku Koivu has registered more than 50 points in each of the seasons when he was aged 33 to 35 (as of Feb. 1 in the season they played). Only five others have hit the 50-point mark twice.
Fiscal asset management suggests Ribeiro should be dealt unless the Capitals are firmly entrenched in a playoff spot at the deadline. Last year, as an unrestricted free agent, Dennis Wideman logged more than 23 minutes per game for Washington and was second on the team in points on the power play with 20. The Capitals ended up trading his negotiating rights to the Flames for a fifth-round draft pick in 2013 and impending free agent Jordan Henry, while Alex Semin brought back nothing. In a year that has a deep entry draft, Washington shouldn’t make those same mistakes and instead would be better served turning Ribeiro into futures that can help down the line.
3. What is going right that could go wrong?
The power play. Washington has converted on 26.1 percent of its power-play opportunities, good for fourth best in the league. Much of that is fueled by a 19.6 percent shooting percentage, which would be the highest any team has had since the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Aside from increased puck luck, the underlying metrics of this power-play to last year’s version is strikingly similar.
4. What is going wrong that could go right?
The Capitals will start to play better with a lead. They have to if they want any chance at playing beyond the end of April. Currently, they are tops in the league in losses (3) when leading after two periods after going 86-0-8 over the past three years in those situations.
The first step is to generate shots on goal when trailing. During the loss to Philadelphia, the Capitals managed just one shot attempt on goal (a shot by defenseman Karl Alzner that was blocked) in more than 10 minutes of game time encompassing the middle of the second period to the beginning of the third. Those types of stretches are tough to rebound from. Right now, when the Capitals are trailing, they see just half of unblocked even-strength shots in their favor. Last season they were in excess of 53 percent in a more defensive system, so expect a rebound shortly.
5. Can the Capitals make a serious playoff push?
The surest way to the playoffs is by winning the Southeast Division, and on paper that looks doable: The Capitals trail leader Carolina by six points with more than half a season to play. But when you look at how this team has performed on the road (3-6-1) and the nine of 11 games away from Verizon from March 14 to April 2 coming up, you have to think it is a longshot.
Sure, Washington has four games left against Carolina, three against Winnipeg and two against Tampa Bay, but they would still need to take almost 60 percent of the points overall the rest of the way to have a chance at the playoffs after posting a .425 points percentage thus far. So even if you factor in some improvement, it is not impossible, but it is not likely, either.