Technically, by our standards, it was not a “losing” week for the Caps. They did win a standings point in their 5-4 Gimmick loss to the Edmonton Oilers. It sure did have a losing air about it, though. If you want to rehash that, by all means, go here and here.
The remainder of Week 15 gave Capitals Nation an opportunity to recharge and refresh for the race to the finish of the regular season. It also gave us the chance to ponder the terrain of the last 36 games of the season. With the Capitals holding onto seventh place in the Eastern Conference and the first wild card for playoff eligibility, they seem to have a firm grasp on a playoff spot with a seven-point lead over the ninth-place Florida Panthers (the Panthers have two games in hand). Nothing is certain in the NHL, though.
So, let’s bring in the cousins for their always trenchant analysis and…
Cheerless: “What?...Trenchant?...Is that like ‘trench foot?’”
Fearless: “’Trenchant….it means ‘insightful; or ‘perceptive.’”
Cheerless: “Well good, because I take good care of my feet.”
Fearless: “Odor-eaters would help and…”
Peerless: Guys, can we?
First, let’s take a look at how we got here. Is this what you expected under a Brian MacLellan/Barry Trotz administration in the first half?
Fearless: The first half, as it were, seemed to go as one might expect. The new front office operation put an imprint on the roster in the off-season with signing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik as free agents. There were a couple of surprises in training camp with Andre Burakovsky earning a spot on the parent roster and an even bigger one with Liam O’Brien getting a spot on the roster. Otherwise, of the 22 skaters having appeared for the Caps so far this season, 18 of them are holdovers from last season. I don’t see this as surprising. Ever since the rebuild, the Caps’ approach to change seems to have been more incremental than tectonic. Brian MacLellan was the headline change in the front office. There wasn’t much changing around that personnel action. And the front office has played things very conservatively, the only moves being farm club transactions involving marginal players or prospects moving between Washington and Hershey.
Cheerless: Getting Barry Trotz was surprising only because of who the Caps hired before him. Five guys…hmm…Five Guys…I could go for a burger with bacon and mushrooms with…
Peerless: Hey, lunch can wait…
Cheerless: Oh yeah…five guys who never had any NHL head coaching experience. But Barry Trotz was right in the mainstream of coaches who might have been hired by another NHL team. He had 15 years of experience (look at guys like Lindy Ruff and Peter Laviolette, who managed to get new jobs the past couple of years), had some success (seven straight 40-or-more win seasons, four 100-or-more point seasons), had a body of work that wasn’t part of a Caps’ new hire since they signed Ron Wilson to coach the team in 1997. In that sense it was a pretty conventional hire.
Peerless: The Caps are not a team that adheres to the old Baltimore Orioles philosophy of “pitching, defense, and three-run homers,” at least the three-run homer part. The Caps have been, especially in the post-2005 lockout period, a team that builds on the margins and from within. They have not dipped into the high-end free agent market, nor have they been inclined to “blockbuster” trades. They departed from that game plan this past summer with the signings of Niskanen and Orpik, but even those signings were almost of the “we had to” variety after the club employed 14 defensemen in 2013-2014.
OK guys, but what about the on-ice product with Trotz. What you expected?
Cheerless: Pretty much. Trotz didn’t have much in the way of offense in Nashville and coached that way. Only twice in 15 seasons there did he have a team whose scoring offense ranked in the top-ten. Eight times, his teams ranked in the bottom ten, although five of those were in his first five seasons with what was an expansion team.
But the big thing is one-goal games. In 15 seasons with Nashville, 520 of 1,196 games ended in one-goal decisions (43.5 percent of all games played). He was really good at it, too. The Predators had a 267-151-102 record (the 102 part being ties and extra-time losses). His teams earned more than 60 percent of the available standings points in those games. He was even better in the post-2005 lockout period: 178-71-79, earning almost two-thirds of the available standings points. So far with the Caps, he’s coached in 29 one-goal games (63 percent of all games). He has not had quite as much success in those games, a 12-8-9 record (56.9 percent of available standings points).
Fearless: The Caps would appear to have more offense than what Trotz had in Nashville, and it has provided an opportunity to display a certain flexibility in approach. Washington is eighth in the league in scoring offense, which is high by Trotz’ standard and an improvement over last season, and 2.96 goals-per-game is their second-highest average goals-per-game since their big year in 2009-2010. Look at it this way. Trotz had four 30-goal scorers in 15 seasons in Nashville – Jason Arnott (33 in 2008-2009), Paul Kariya (31 in 2005-2006), Steve Sullivan (31 in 2005-2006), and Patric Hornqvist (30 in 2009-2010). He now has one player on his roster who has five 50-goal seasons (Alex Ovechkin) and is on pace to be within striking range (48 goals at the moment) of a sixth. Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom also have 30-goal seasons in their history. And, the Caps have six players on a pace to finish the season with 20 or more goals. Trotz appears to have more tools in Washington, at least on the offensive side of the puck.
Peerless: The Caps under Barry Trotz might be a bit surprising in terms of their ability to score, give the profile that accompanied Trotz to Washington. Fans might have expected more of a grind-it-out offense that was risk-averse and tended to low scoring games, but the Caps are tied for tenth in the number games in which they scored three or more goals (27 of 46). What they are not getting yet, though, is a lot of success in those games relative to that enjoyed by the rest of the league. The Caps are 18th in total standings points won in such games and tied for 25th in the league in available standings points won (74.1 percent).
They have done better on the other side of the ledger, but not by a lot. A 20-2-2 record when allowing two or fewer goals is impressive on its face, but that ranks in a tie for 11th in the percentage of standings points available won by the Caps (87.5 percent).
Fearless mentioned Alex Ovechkin. Perhaps the biggest issue coming into this season – beaten to death, actually – was whether or not Alex Ovechkin, fresh off a minus-35 season, would “buy in” to the hockey philosophy of Barry Trotz. Well, has he?
Fearless: Ovechkin is on a pace to finish with 48 goals and plus-21. As it is, he is third in the league and among forwards in goals scored (27) and is tied for 23rd among forwards in plus-minus. Last season he was on ice for 80 goals scored against the Caps. This season he is on a pace to finish on ice with 53 goals scored against. It is worth noting that there are 119 forwards who have been on ice for more goals against than Ovechkin. Many of those forwards have stiffer defensive responsibilities than Ovechkin, but last year only 12 forwards were on ice for more goals against.
Cheerless: A lot of that plus-minus Ovechkin has is streakiness. He has not had a minus game since December 23rd, a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers. He is plus-7 in the 12 games since then. He also has 11 goals over those 12 games, six of them at even-strength. In six games his goal (or goals) was accompanied by a plus, and in three others he was “even.” There seems to be something going on there between his goal scoring and his being a “plus” player.
Peerless: Alex Ovechkin is never going to receive Selke Trophy votes for best forward (more accurately, “again,” since he did receive votes in three consecutive seasons: 2007-2008 through 2009-2010). But neither is he the slug, fairly or unfairly characterized, who posted a minus-35 last season. As a group, the Caps do not have the sort of offense that would enable him to get close to his plus-45 in 2009-2010, but he is right in the ball park, pace-wise, to finish this season consistent with his best efforts otherwise (plus-28 in 2007-2008 and plus-24 in 2010-2011). Drilling into the next level of numbers, Ovechkin’s 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage (all situations) is his best (54.3) since 2009-2010 (57.8) and is the fourth-best of his ten-year career (numbers from war-on-ice.com). His Corsi-for percentage, relative to time off ice, is the third best in his career to date (+4.2). Part of this might be favorable offensive zone starts at 5-on-5 (57.2 percent of his offensive plus defensive zone starts have been in the offensive zone this season), but there is an odd twist to that statistic. His neutral zone starts pace (488 total) is on a pace to obliterate his career high (436 in 2007-2008). As a share of total zone starts, he is not getting all that favorable treatment relative to his career history.
Is he “buying in?” Maybe it’s a coach with enough games under his belt to earn a star’s respect. Maybe it’s the nature of the game Barry Trotz is asking Ovechkin to play. Maybe it’s just being in sight of his 30th birthday and counting gray hairs on his head, along with the maturity such things bring. But he is a different player than he has been. Perhaps not so different as media who lambasted him last season might think, but different nonetheless.
Cousins, let’s turn to the future. Is this team capable of reaching the playoffs, and if so, can they make a deep run?
Cheerless: This time last year, well after 46 games, anyway, the Caps were playoff-eligible, third in the Metropolitan Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference. Things happen. They lost 20 of their last 36 games, the Rangers, Detroit, and Columbus passed them, and they missed the playoffs. Is this team better than that one? Well, as Fearless said before, it isn’t a lot different. A lot of guys who were part of that slump last year are skating this year. Yeah, Adam Oates wasn’t what anyone hoped for as head coach, and Brooks Orpik brings “leadership”…blah blah blah. They’re capable of making the playoffs, but they could be overtaken, too.
Fearless: Cheerless needs to check his math. Columbus overtook the Caps last year having been behind by just four standings points after the Caps played their 46th game. The Blue Jackets finished three points ahead of the Caps in the final standings. So, even if you think seven points is the outer edge of what a team can make up against the Caps, it would take two teams to catch and pass the Caps to knock them out of the post-season. Boston is tied with the Caps in standings points, but the Caps have two games in hand on the Bruins, too. After that, Ottawa is ten points behind the Caps. It looks as if it is a nine-team race for eight spots in the East, and the Caps have an advantage. So, it is possible that the Caps could fall two places, but I don’t think it’s the way to bet.
Can they make a deep playoff run? That one is harder. There is still so much disappointment that encrusts this franchise, even among the players on this roster. Orpik has a Stanley Cup, as does Troy Brouwer. But the core of this team hasn’t ever been past the second round of the playoffs and is three seasons removed so far from that deep a playoff run. It is a team that has yet to find the key to unlock a deep run.
Peerless: Making the playoffs is by no means a certainty, but it would take a something bordering on a complete collapse for the Caps to be overtaken. The arithmetic alone argues for this. They are on a 102-point pace at the moment. While that is no doubt inflated by a 14-1-4 run in December and January, those are points in the bank. If Boston, currently in eighth place, is a floor for playoff eligibility, they are on a 97-point pace. For the Caps to finish with 97 points they would have to be held to 40 points in their last 36 games. On the other hand, if Florida was to get to 98 points (they have only 15 regulation and overtime wins, the first tie-breaker in the event of a tie; the Caps have 23, so passing the Caps would be the order of business), they would need 48 points in their last 38 games. A 104-point pace would not be impossible for the Panthers, but it would be a stretch for a team that has only one three-game winning streak this season.
As for a deep playoff run, it would be out of the ordinary for the entire Caps organization. As a franchise the Caps haven’t advanced past the second round in any of their last 15 seasons, and they have only three playoff series wins in that span of time. And this is where adding Barry Trotz might not be quite the solution to that particular problem. In 15 seasons in Nashville his teams made the playoffs seven times, advancing as far (and no further than) the second round twice.
Finally, guys, what (if any) impediments are there to the Caps’ chances of making the playoffs or making a deep run if they do?
Fearless: The institutional issues – the baggage of years of disappointment on the ice, behind the bench, and in the front office – are an important impediment to a deep playoff run. But there is the matter of roster issues. The Caps have not found a dependably productive top line right wing, there have been intermittent issues with the production of the second line, and they have had disappointing performance with relief goaltending. Those are matters that might have to be addressed by MacLellan at the trading deadline, and this is his first season in the lead chair in the front office. The Caps need to improve, because their competition will, and there are two ways this can happen. Either kids like Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson will grow up a lot in the last ten weeks of the regular season and provide some dependability and consistency that the Caps have lacked at those positions. Or, the team will trade for those needs. If the Caps cannot address those holes, a deep playoff run seems unlikely.
Cheerless: There is the 500-pound raccoon in the room (Fearless: “raccoon?”…really??) that no one talks about. The Caps have dressed only 22 skaters this season. Of that group, 13 have skated more than 40 games, and 19 of them have skated in at least 30 games. Of the three who have skated fewer than 30 games, two – Liam O’Brien and Chris Brown – were probably going to end up in Hershey for the season anyway. As of January 20th, according to mangameslost.com, no team in the league has lost fewer games to team-reported injuries than the Caps (11). That does not include players such as John Erskine, who has been out the entire season with injury, and the counting of games at that site does not include the games missed by Tom Wilson to start the season, but the Caps have been a healthy bunch.
Peerless: There is another thing that might cause some anxious moments over the last 36 games of the season – the schedule – both its strength of opponents and its configuration. In the month following the All-Star break the Caps have a 16-game gauntlet that could well determine their fate this season. Over that span they play 11 different teams with a current combined record of 275-170-60 (on average, a 45-27-10 team – a 100-point team – every night). They face Pittsburgh three times, Anaheim twice, and the Los Angeles Kings twice among serious contenders. They also have to face Montreal, St. Louis, San Jose, the New York Islanders, and the surprising Winnipeg Jets in the next month.
Then there is the matter of where this schedule unfolds. There is the annual west coast trip (San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim) to contend with in mid-February, plus road games in Montreal and Pittsburgh, and a game in Philadelphia, always a difficult venue for road teams.
Finally, there is the calendar. Of those 16 games, ten of them will be played as five back-to-back sets of games:
- January 27/28: at Columbus/vs. Pittsburgh
- January 31/February 1: at Montreal/vs. St. Louis
- February 5/6: at Ottawa/vs. Anaheim
- February 14/15: at Los Angeles/at Anaheim
- February 21/22: vs. New York Islanders/at Philadelphia
Back-to-backs are something the Caps have struggled with this season, going 6-9-1 in the 16 games played in back to-back fashion so far, 1-6-1 in the second game of those sets, their lone win coming in overtime against the struggling Carolina Hurricanes. The distressing part of that is that in the second game of those eight back-to-backs, the Caps allowed four or more goals six times in the seven losses (the one time they did not was a 3-2 overtime loss to Philadelphia) and averaged 4.38 goals against in the eight games overall. If the Caps do not improve on this record in the five back-half games yet to come, going perhaps 1-4-0 in those games, they would need 38 points in the other 31 games remaining (a 101-point pace) to get to 97 points by year’s end.
In the end…
The Caps started slowly this season, going 10-10-4 in their first 24 games under a new management and coaching regime. They caught fire in their next 19 games, though, going 14-1-4, but all they managed with that run was to keep pace with the New York Rangers, who had quite a run of their own. Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins, who were 15-13-3 as late as December 16th, are 10-3-4 in their last 17 games and tied with the Caps in standings points after the Caps lost their last three games (0-2-1) going into the All-Star Game break. That is how tough it is to get separation in the standings in this league unless you are consistently dominating in ways that teams like Anaheim and Nashville have been this year, a feature missing from the Caps’ performance to date.
The Caps have some difficult terrain to negotiate over the next month. If they can come out of that 16-game stretch with their playoff-eligible position intact, they should – which not to say they will – reach the post season.