The Capitals are in the midst of their five-day bye week, with most players vacationing somewhere more tropical than Washington. The team has sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division with 59 points, perhaps exceeding even their own expectations. The Vegas Golden Knights sniped defenseman Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft, and salary cap constraints meant the team had to trade away skilled forward Marcus Johansson and part with free agents Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Daniel Winnik. For the first time since the 1980s, Washington has played the majority of its games to this point with four rookies in the lineup.
Yet the Capitals are once again one of the NHL’s top teams at the season’s midpoint. The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty, Neil Greenberg and Isabelle Khurshudyan discussed which players have impressed them, whom they want to see more from going forward and what moves the team might make at the trade deadline and during what could be another busy offseason.
Who has been the team MVP through 45 games?
Dougherty: John Carlson, all-star snub and all. Alex Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby have obviously had standout starts to this season, but those are contributions the Capitals have come to expect (though one could argue Ovechkin leading the league with 28 goals is well beyond expectations in his 13th NHL season). Carlson has given the Capitals much-needed assurance and production on the blue line, as he is currently second among NHL defensemen in points (35, with five goals and 30 assists) and averaging 26:09 of ice time. This comes after the Capitals lost three key defensemen this summer — Shattenkirk, Alzner and Schmidt — and they also missed top-pairing defenseman Matt Niskanen for parts of the first half due to injury.
Greenberg: Alex Ovechkin — and it isn’t close. He leads the NHL in goals (28) and has created a team-high 174 scoring chances (126 at even strength), 72 more than Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’s second. According to the numbers-crunching website Corsica, no player skating at least 800 minutes this season has a better chance of being named one of the three stars of the game than Ovechkin (24 percent).
Khurshudyan: Carlson and Ovechkin are worthy selections, but I’ll go with Holtby, who has won 24 of his 33 starts. With Niskanen injured for 13 of the first 20 games and two rookies on the blue line, where would the Capitals be had Holtby not kept them afloat so many nights early in the season? On the surface, his 2.66 goals against average and .916 save percentage aren’t as impressive as his numbers in the past two years, when he was a Vezina Trophy winner and then a finalist again. But he’s seeing roughly four more shots per game than he did a year ago and, among goalies who have played at least 1,000 minutes, his even-strength save percentage (.927) ranks third.
Who has surprised you the most?
Dougherty: Tom Wilson. He flashed his offensive potential during last spring’s playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs and has carried that production into this season. In 41 games, he is just a point away from the 19 he finished with in 82 games last season. He has six goals (one below a career high) and 12 assists (tying his total from last season and four away from a career high). He is also the player Capitals Coach Barry Trotz has looked to when a line isn’t faring well, inserting Wilson with hopes that his energy spreads to those skating alongside him.
Greenberg: Wilson. He’s looked great on the top line and is developing into the “power forward” the team thought it was drafting in 2012, when it selected him 16th overall. Wilson also draws a team-high five penalties per 60 minutes, giving the Capitals’ power play more bites at the apple.
Khurshudyan: Yes, this has been a breakout season of sorts for Wilson, but rookie defenseman Christian Djoos has surprised me most. Maybe that’s because I — and Washington’s coaches and management — didn’t really know how his impressive numbers in the American Hockey League (13 goals and 45 assists last season) would translate to the NHL level. At 6-foot and 169 pounds, he’s undersized, and there were understandably questions about how he could handle the physical toll of playing with the big boys. But the more I watch Djoos, the more I marvel at his poise for someone who has appeared in fewer than 40 NHL games. The Capitals agree, because they’re playing him more and more beside Carlson, and when the two are on the ice together, Washington takes 54 percent of the shot attempts, according to Natural Stat Trick. And about that undersized thing: Djoos has taken the fewest hits (32) of Washington’s top-six defensemen, which is pretty amazing considering how much he likes to hold onto the puck.
Who needs to step up in the second half of the season?
Dougherty: Andre Burakovsky, who has played just 21 games due to injury (and a few healthy scratches) but isn’t producing like the Capitals need him to. He has three goals and five assists, and he only recently worked his way back into Trotz’s lineup. It’s not that Burakovsky put up ridiculous numbers over the past few seasons, finishing with 12 goals and 23 assists in 64 contests last year, but it seemed like this would be when the 22-year-old took a big step forward after a productive 2017 postseason. Instead, he has, when healthy, bounced around the Capitals’ four lines and is still trying to gain his footing. The Capitals could use the boost in secondary scoring that Burakovsky, a streaky player throughout his young career, can provide.
Greenberg: I’ve written about this: The Capitals’ underlying numbers aren’t very good. And after adjusting their shot quantity to account for quality, they have the worst expected goal differential in the NHL (minus-26), a huge difference from their actual goal differential of plus-13. If we are looking to point fingers, T.J. Oshie generates 6.1 even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes, last on the team among forwards skating at least 500 minutes this season.
Khurshudyan: It’s pretty amazing that the Capitals are in first place in the uber-competitive Metropolitan with just three goals from Burakovsky and just four even-strength tallies from Oshie. I agree Washington could use more production from those two, but for the sake of being different, I’ll point to rookie Jakub Vrana. Entering the bye week, he doesn’t have a goal in 12 games, and he has just one point in his past nine, even though he has been skating in the top-six forward corps beside Kuznetsov. He’s one of the NHL’s fastest players, and when he’s using his legs, he’s deadly, likely to get a quality scoring chance or draw a penalty and get the power play on the ice. I’d like to see him do more of that because, with 10 goals already, he could finish with 20 if he finds a little more consistency. That’d be a stellar first full season.
If you’re General Manager Brian MacLellan, what are you doing by the Feb. 26 trade deadline?
Dougherty: I’ve always wanted to be 6-foot-3. I think the most logical move the Capitals could explore is seeing what kind of blue-line help they can get for backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer. The 26-year-old will be a restricted free agent this summer and currently has a 2.60 goals against average in 15 starts (12 starts). It’s unlikely the Capitals, who will have their hands full trying to re-sign unrestricted free agents Carlson and center Lars Eller this summer, move to extend Grubauer as one of the league’s most-reliable backups. So if there is a chance they could get a veteran defenseman for their playoff push and not give up any top prospects in the process, dealing Grubauer could be worth it.
Greenberg: The team needs depth. The Capitals are one injury away from being a non-contender. Sure, they managed to get by during Niskanen’s injury, but how long can Carlson sustain skating close to 30 minutes a night? If there is a significant injury to Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom or Kuznetsov, it could be the end of their playoff hopes.
Khurshudyan: I’m doing … absolutely nothing. MacLellan’s trade-deadline tinkering has ranged from depth additions like Tim Gleason and Mike Weber to last season’s blockbuster Shattenkirk acquisition. The result has always been a second-round exit. So, rather than mortgage any more of the future by trading away picks or prospects, both of which the organization isn’t exactly rich in at the moment, why not buck the trend and give the team a vote of confidence that it’s good enough as is? It takes time for players to adjust to a new system and new teammates, so midseason deals are always risky. What will a trade do to team chemistry? Will a young player get pushed out of the lineup for the stretch run, and is that really for the best?
But I’m not MacLellan, which is very good news for the Capitals. I expect him to acquire a veteran depth defenseman as postseason insurance. Washington is still in win-now mode, and it’d be a shame to waste a season when Ovechkin is playing like he’s 25 instead of 32. But the Capitals are also at the point where they have to think about the future, so I don’t expect them to be willing to part with too many assets at the deadline. Washington will probably wait to trade Grubauer this summer because, while so many teams have struggled to find adequate goaltending depth, the Capitals have an embarrassment of riches, and they’ll want to have some security in net, just in case something happens to Holtby.
Who’s looking like the unrestricted free agent the Caps are most likely to re-sign this summer?
Dougherty: Carlson. He has proved himself invaluable to the Capitals this season with his numbers, ice time, revitalized role on the first power play and ability to do all of that while mostly playing alongside a rookie in Djoos, who has also benefited from Carlson’s play. The 28-year-old will not be cheap, but the Capitals should definitely meet the heightened price.
Greenberg: Carlson. There are four other UFA defensemen in addition to Carlson skating at least 20 minutes per night in 2017-18, and only one has 20 or more points: Mike Green. The former Capital is also the only one of the four who is right-handed like Carlson, reducing the team’s options even further.
Khurshudyan: We’re all agreed here. Carlson’s stellar play has left Washington with little option but to re-sign him and pay him like the top defenseman he has proved to be. But extending Carlson will make it difficult for the Capitals to keep Eller, which is a shame because he has been one of the team’s most consistent players. That doesn’t always show up on the score sheet — although he’s close to matching his point total from last season already, with nine goals and 12 assists — but his puck-possession ability gives Washington at least a three-line attack, no matter who’s playing beside him. The Capitals also don’t have a very deep prospect pool at forward, so there’s no natural replacement for him, and acquiring another third-line center in free agency will likely be out of Washington’s price range. The Capitals need the salary cap to go up significantly.