By: Joe Pohoryles
The Caps have played 41 games this season, and with 41 games to go, look to be in good shape for another playoff run at the end of the season. They are tied with the Boston Bruins for most points in the league with 59, they lead the Metro division by six points, and look like one of the best teams in hockey.
They’ve dropped a few games recently, which is to be expected after such a hot start, but this is a team to be reckoned with. Alex Ovechkin is still a scoring machine, John Carlson is the front-runner for the Norris Trophy, and Jakub Vrana is poised to smash his career-high for points in his third full NHL season. This team appears to have what it takes to lift Lord Stanley just two years after they did it the first time.
But more has to be done, and quick.
The window is closing. The team’s core is aging, and this appears to be the last year in which winning a Stanley Cup is realistic. Ovi is 34, Nicklas Backstrom is 32, T.J. Oshie is 33, and Carlson turns 30 in a week. Braden Holtby is 30 and under the last year of his contract, and Backstrom will be a free agent as well.
With little cap space available, GM Brian MacLellan will have to be crafty when coming down to potential deadline deals, but for now, here’s what the Caps will need to do to get into the best possible shape through the second half of the season.
Solidify the defense
When Nick Jensen was acquired at last year’s deadline and immediately signed to a four-year extension, it was assumed he’d be able to slide right in and contribute as the right-shot defenseman on the second pair, especially once Matt Niskanen was swapped out for Radko Gudas before this season. That has not come to fruition.
So far, Gudas has been playing more in the second pair, and that says more about Jensen’s play than it does about Gudas’s. Neither are terrible, but both just appear to be better suited as third-pair defensemen, leaving a hole in the second pair.
Filling that hole is much more difficult with a tight salary cap, and with the team currently trying to “bank” space for later in the season, a move cannot be expected until right before the deadline. There are not too many top four right-shot defensemen on the market, much less ones the Caps could afford to take on, so they may be forced to resolve the issue internally.
Whether it’s as simple as Jensen stepping up his play (which really can’t be relied on as Plan A), or bringing someone up from Hershey – namely Martin Fehervary, who has been performing really well, can play on either side, and would have a low cap hit – the blue line must be strengthened by season’s end.
Find the best combination for bottom-six production
This one is less time-sensitive, as specific line combinations don’t really matter too much until the postseason actually begins.
Despite the fact that many of the top point producers are 30 or older, Evgeny Kuznetsov is 27 and is currently third on the team in points. Tom Wilson and Vrana have also stepped up their production this year, and are 25 and 23, respectively, so there’s a good mix of experience and youth.
The biggest concern for the offense is the third line. The fourth line has been nearly as productive as the third, and has even got more ice time in some recent games. That should not become a usual occurrence. Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller and Richard Panik make up the third line. Hagelin and Panik each experienced long-term injuries at different points in the season, so the line’s chemistry is not the best, but that’s not the only issue.
Capitals’ point-scoring distribution after 41 games
Panik has largely been a disappointment since he signed this offseason. He has just six points (4g, 2a) in 31 games. He was never expected to be a top producer, but the numbers have to be better. Hagelin is not paid to score goals, but he did not even light the lamp this season until Dec. 27, his 28th game. Both guys are in the first year of four-year deals, and have virtually zero chance of being moved to another team, so they simply have to start playing better.
With the need at defense, and the cap tight enough as is, it would be hard to imagine the team making a big move for someone to bolster the third line, so the second half of the season will be all about finding the right fit. Eller is locked in at third line center, but it will be interesting to see who will be with him by season’s end.
There’s speculation Oshie could move down to third line, being 33 with many hard minutes played in his career, having less ice time on a nightly basis could work out better for him in the long run, and his offense would certainly boost the third line. However, there is not a strong candidate to replace him in the top six, and there’s no use in hurting the top six just to help the third line.
Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic are strong fourth liners, and should stay there, and there does not seem to be any worthy replacements in Hershey, so there are not too many options in this situation either.
Avoid winning the Presidents’ Trophy
This one is more superstition than actual hockey, and it’s certainly not on the team’s list of objectives, but history does not bode well for Presidents’ Trophy winners. Since its inception in the 1985-86 season, the Presidents’ Trophy winner went on to win the Stanley Cup just eight times, the last one being the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.
The Caps themselves won their first Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10, and famously got dropped in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens in seven games. It was considered by many to be the worst first round upset in NHL history. That is, until the 2019 playoffs, where the historic 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, the most recent example of the Presidents’ Trophy winner falling short.
The Caps were considered title favorites in both the 2016 and 2017 playoffs, winning the Presidents’ Trophy in both seasons, but falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round both times. Pittsburgh went on to win the Cup… both times. It appeared the championship window had closed for the Caps after the 2017 playoffs.
We all know how that story ended. Though the Caps did not win the Presidents’ Trophy the next season, they did win the Stanley Cup. Of course, failing to win the Presidents’ Trophy will not guarantee the Stanley Cup. It didn’t happen last year. However, the Stanley Cup playoffs churn out more upsets than any other seven-game series playoff system, so overcoming the Presidents’ Trophy jinx should be one less thing this team has to worry about, especially in a sport as superstitious as hockey.
The team is in good shape, just one or two pieces away from being in the best position possible. Whether they can afford that or not is another story, and something worth monitoring as the season goes along.
(Cover Photo Credit: russianmachineneverbreaks.com)