We are Day Four of the All Star break, and the cousins have been helping out in our look back at the first half. So let’s see…what to look at next.
Who is the most valuable player of the first half for the Caps?
Fearless: Nicklas Backstrom. Sometimes you do not know how valuable a player is until he is out of the lineup, and the fact is that the Caps are only 5-4-1 since Backstrom was elbowed by Rene Bourque in a 3-1 win over Calgary in the first game of the new year. When the Caps skated off with their 3-1 win over Calgary on January 3rd – a game in which Backstrom assisted on all three goals – the Caps were averaging 2.97 goals per game, ninth in the league in offense.
Since then, the Caps have a total of 22 goals in ten games. They have scored more than three twice in that span and have been shut out twice. In the first 16 games under Dale Hunter, the Caps wouldn’t make anyone think of a Gatling gun with their shots on goal, but they were averaging 26.2 shots per game. Since Backstrom went out, that has dropped to 21.6 shots per game. In those first 16 games under Hunter, with Backstrom in the lineup, the Caps were 11-for-45 on the power play (24.4 percent). In the last ten, with Backstrom out, that has dropped to 15.4 percent on 4-for-26 success. Backtrom’s value has been underlined by his absence from the lineup. He is the most valuable player of the first half for the Caps.
Cheerless: Well, if Backstrom is out, it’s good that Tomas Vokoun is in. He didn’t have such a good start with the Caps, even though he had a good record. Under former coach Bruce Boudreau he was 10-5-0, but he had a goals-against average of only 2.82, and his save percentage was only .905. And even after there was a change behind the bench, there were a few potholes on the way – Vokoun played in only five of the first 11 games under Hunter. He was 2-3-0, 2.80, .912 in those games.
Vokoun has played in 13 of the Caps’ last 15 games, though, and over that span he is 8-4-0, 2.17, .931. Although two of the losses came in the road trip out to California – Vokoun gave up four goals in each of the 5-2 losses to San Jose and Los Angeles -- in the other two losses the Caps were shut out.
Peerless: Well, you guys covered the obvious choices, so we will put in a plug for Dennis Wideman. The Caps have employed ten defensemen so far this season, but that number does not reflect the churning that has taken place on the blue line. Only three defensemen – Wideman, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson – have played in all 48 games; only four have played more than 30 games so far. With Mike Green hurt, Jeff Schultz benched, John Carlson having an up-and-down year, and Dmitry Orlov getting significant minutes as a rookie, Wideman has provided some semblance of stability on the blue line. Like a lot of Caps, he had a bumpy ride early. In 22 games under Bruce Boudreau, Wideman was 3-10-13, minus-6, but even that 22-game stretch could be cut in half. He had a difficult time in the second 11 games of that stretch, going 0-3-3 and a minus-14.
That has turned around with the change in coaches. Since Dale Hunter took over, Wideman is 6-15-21, plus 6 in his last 26 games. He is 3-7-10 on the power play, which has made up a large portion of the power play production one might have expected from Mike Green. If we could only keep him from playing teams from the state of New York. In seven games against Buffalo, the Rangers, and the Islanders, Wideman is 0-1-1, minus-8. He is 9-24-33, plus-8 in 41 games against everyone else.
Let’s assume that the Caps need to have the Young Guns firing with a little more frequency in the second have than they did before the All-Star Game. Who from among the rest of the players on the roster needs to raise his game from his first half performance for the Caps to make the playoffs?
Cheerless: Joel Ward. In his first dozen games with the Caps, Ward was 4-3-7, plus 6, and the Caps were 9-3-0. Since then, Ward is 1-6-7, even, and the Caps are 17-16-3. Even his four goals in his first dozen games was a bit of a stretch. He got them on a total of 12 shots. In his last 35 games he has that one goal on 39 shots. Of course, not all of the Caps’ slump can be placed at Ward’s feet, but it just goes to show that the Caps need to have some secondary goal scoring to jump up in the standings. And then there is this. In three seasons in Nashville, Ward averaged about two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, never ranked lower than fourth in any season among Nashville forwards and second among Predator forwards in 2009-2010. He is averaging about half of that with Washington – 54 seconds per game – eighth among Caps forwards. Would Ward, and the Caps for that matter, benefit from his having more time a man down?
Fearless: John Carlson. One might have thought that having played for a season in juniors for Dale Hunter, that Carlson might have thrived in Hunter’s system. That has not been the case, at least so far. In 22 games skating for Bruce Boudreau, Carlson was 4-8-12, plus-5, and had only five “minus” games in all. But under Hunter, Carlson is 1-10-11, minus-5, and has had a total of 11 “minus” games in the 26 he has played under the new coach. His goal production has declined in step with his shot production – 54 in 22 games to start the year, only 42 in 26 games since the coaching change. More specific to his position, he has spent too much time and too many instances of seeing pucks head into his own net. To date this season, only five defensemen have been on the ice for more goals against. Part of that is ice time (he is second on the team to Wideman in total ice time per game), and part could be due to his assuming some more responsibility in the absence of Mike Green, but the 61 goals for which he has been on ice this season is almost equal to his entire total for last year (66). That is going to have to improve in the second half.
Peerless: I'm going to pull rank here and cheat by taking Alexander Semin. The fact that Alexander Semin has only 12 goals has to be considered something of a surprise. His pace of 21 goals for the season would leave him with a career low for a full season (he had 10 in 52 games as a rookie in 2003-2004). But looking for a cause does not seem to be a long trip. In 44 games so far, Semin has 89 shots on goal. His 13.5 percent shooting percentage is not far off his career average (14.4 percent). However, he is on a pace to finish with 158 shots on goal, about 30 percent lower than his average season shots on goal over the last five years. His shooting percentage is about half as high under Dale Hunter (9.6 percent) than it was under Bruce Boudreau (18.9 percent), even though his shots are up (2.26 per game versus 1.76 under Boudreau). Getting more production from Semin is going to be an important ingredient in ensuring the Caps finish these last 34 games of the season well.