WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Washington Capitals are just over a quarter into the season and have a record of 17-7-3, good for 37 points and 5th place in the Metropolitan Division, though they have a few games in hand. At times their play has been very good, other times quite ugly, and for the majority of the season it has been a big pile of average.
Their overall play has left the players, coaches, and management befuddled at times. General Manager Brian MacLellan recently told CSN Washington, ďI think everybodyís a little frustrated that weíre not where we think we should be.Ē
The question that results from MacLellanís quote, is where should the Capitals currently be? Regression from last yearís record breaking regular season was expected, and they are still on pace for over 100 points this season. Expecting last yearís results would be foolish from anyone in the organization.
So far, their play is exactly what I expected heading into the season. I felt they would struggle at times, the rest of the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division improved, and this team would be in a dog fight to make the playoffs. So far this is currently exactly what is happening.
The Capitals offense so far this year has faced consistency issues and left you wondering what is going on with a few of their highly skilled players. They are currently 13th in the league in GF/G. As expected, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin have been their top two producing forwards. Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie have also held their own, though Oshie missed a handful of games due to a suspected shoulder injury. The rest of the teamís forwards have been average or below average from an offensive output perspective.
Evgeny Kuznetsov (3 goals, 11 assists) and Andre Burakovsky (2 goals, 8 assists) have not delivered as expected for top 6 forwards. Burakovsky has not scored a goal since opening night and Kuznetsovís wizardry from last season just has not been there. Justin Williams, who excelled last season playing with Kuznetsov, started the season very slowly but over the last handful of games he has shown life as he has been slotted back among the top 6 forwards.
Tom Wilson was expected to be the Capitals version of Joel Ward this season, but he has not been able to do much of anything offensively. He has 2 goals (both against Vancouver) and 0 assists on the season through 27 games, one of which was an empty-net goal. This is now Wilsonís fourth season and he just is not developing offensively. Is some of this Wilsonís fault? Yes. Is most of this Capitals management and coaching staffís fault? Absolutely. For a young player he has been asked to change his role multiple times in his first four years, how exactly can he be expected to develop properly without a consistent plan for him? Fortunately, Wilson has developed his defensive game and turned into a reliable penalty killer, but for his fourth year that simply isnít enough for what is expected from him.
This offseason, Capitals management set out on adding to the clubís offensive depth because they believed that was the teamís weakness last season. To fill the perceived holes, MacLellan acquired Lars Eller in a trade with Montreal and signed Brett Connolly as an unrestricted free agent. So far this season, Eller and Connolly have both scored 2 goals and added 1 assist. Six points over 25 games into the season from the clubís two new acquisitions is not enough. Eller has averaged 26 points in his previous four seasons, and is on pace for 12 points. The trade for Eller looks like a big swing and a miss by MacLellan as he just doesnít seem to fit in with the club so far.
Defensively the Capitals have been above average more often than not this season. The team ranks 5th in the league in GA/G; however this number is largely due to the play of Braden Holtby. John Carlson has been battling an injury through most of the season and just hasnít been himself. There has been some criticism of Carlsonís play and some of it is deserved. However, you have to look at who he has been paired with and this season that is Dmitry Orlov. Orlov is a turnover machine and for a player like Carlson, who has played with steady stay at home defenseman for most of his career that is a big change. Orlov likes to jump into the offense even more than Carlson and that can leave Carlson on an island quite a bit.
In recent games, the Capitals coaching staff finally moved away from this pairing and reunited Carlson with Karl Alzner, the steady stay at home D whom Carlson began his career with. Carlson will now be able to play his typical game and not have to worry about the mistakes of his partner.
The Alzner-Niskanen pairing has not played as well as they did last season either, and that isnít to say they were playing badly. Last season the tandem worked very well together. Niskanen now has the responsibility of being paired with Orlov and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. Head coach Barry Trotz said of Niskanen, ďHeís one of the most underrated defensemen in the league.Ē So Trotz is hoping that pairing Niskanen with Orlov can provide consistency to the teamís top 4 defensemen.
Perhaps the Capitals best defenseman for what is expected of him so far this season has been Brooks Orpik. He has been steady in his pairing with Nate Schmidt. Among defenseman who have played a minimum of 20 games this season, Schmidt and Orpik both rank in the top 49 for CF%. Orpik has also been on the ice for only 8 GA, only Shea Weber and Markus Nutivaara have been on the ice for less at 5v5 that have played in a minimum of 20 games.
Style of Play
At the crux of all the Capitals issues and inconsistencies is their style of play. Over the summer I wrote that the Capitals should move to a slower, more defensive focused style while the rest of the league is attempting to play at a faster pace. Instead, the Capitals are attempting to do what the rest of the league is doing and play fast, unfortunately their roster is a mix of both of these styles and they havenít been able to nail down a true identity yet this season.
The struggles are evident against the faster and quick decision making teams. The Capitals have not fared well against that style of opposition this season. They are capable of winning some games playing his style against the better teams; but that does not mean it will work long-term this season or over the course of a playoff series. The Capitals are not a slow team, but they arenít built to play quickly. When the Capitals are forced to make quick decisions it typically does not end well for them.
So far this season the Washington Capitals are the 5th best team according to Jeff Sagarinís computer rankings on USA Today. The eye opening issue though according to the computers is the Capitals are 5-6 against other teams in the top 16. So they are doing most of their damage against the bottom half of the league with a record of 12-1-3, six of these wins have come against Buffalo, Vancouver and Colorado. In order to have long-term success they need to perform better against teams in the top half of the league.
The Capitals need to start playing more consistently and create an identity for themselves and they need to do it quickly. If they do not find a way to do it in the next 15 games, it will become even more concerning to management and at that point a trade may have to occur.
If I am in MacLellanís shoes I am working the phones hard now to see who is available and am ready to pull off a trade after the holiday roster freeze later this month. If they arenít able to create an identity, the organization may be left asking what happened come April.
Patrick Greissing is the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.