With the Capitals rolling their way to a 6–1 start and goals piling up, it would be easy to think the Caps are on fire and it can’t get much better (until playoff time). Well I’m here to tell you it can get a lot better. And it will.
First we should take a closer look at what’s been going right so that we can understand where they can play better. Lets go line by line.
The first line is on fire to say the least. Alex Ovechkin just played his first game without scoring a goal. TJ Oshie has been better than advertised in every way. Evgeny Kuznetsov….. what can we say about this kid? Simply incredible. I don’t think anyone could imagine that on a line with Ovechkin and Oshie, Kuznetsov would be the story. He’s making a case for being the best center on the Capitals. Hell, he’s making a case for being the best PLAYER on the Capitals! Thats no disrespect to Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom or anyone else. He’s just been that good! To say he was worth the wait might just be the understatement of the year. These guys are delivering the goods every single game.
The second line is playing like a first line, and why shouldn’t they? Backstrom, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson could be the first line on the majority of teams in the NHL. Backstrom is shooting the puck like never before. Williams is the grit in front of the net, and along the boards, and is proving his reputation for being a player that comes alive in the playoffs to be wrong. In a good way! You can see the chemistry between Backstrom and Williams growing every game. Johansson adds the speed element and is showing a willingness to play heavy on the boards and in front of the net that we first saw flashes of in the playoffs last season.
The third line is rounding into fine shape with Jay Beagle looking as good and as comfortable as we’ve seen him. Jason Chimera apparently visited the fountain of youth over the summer, he looks 25 again. For a guy who looked like the end was near just a season ago, a new contract seems not just possible, but probable. Tom Wilson needs a big year and so far he’s delivering. More under control and showing more playmaking ability than we’ve seen over the last few seasons, Wilson’s upside looks better than ever.
The fourth line looks a bit like it’s trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. That’s not to say it’s been bad, it hasn’t. With Michael Latta sitting the last few games in favor of Chandler Stephenson, the depth at center is reassuring. Brooks Laich has played well on the wing, particularly defensively, and Andre Burakovsky has shown tantalizing flashes of what he’s going to become. In some ways this is a line where coach Trotz is stashing pieces and deciding how to use them game to game. Burakovsky has been moved up for a shift or two after a penalty kill or power play fairly regularly now with good results.
The defensive core is rounding into shape nicely. Only the third pairing is looking unsettled. Dmitry Orlov is looking better game by game and looks secure in the fifth spot. Chorney and Nate Schmidt meanwhile have alternated on the last spot with Chorney looking to have the upper hand for the moment at least.
The goaltending has been good to great as expected. Braden Holtby is making his new contract look like the good deal we all hoped it was. Phillip Grubauer has only had one start, and surrendered 4 goals in that start. Given the ”run and gun” style of that game, it’s hard to fault him though the stats won’t be so kind. Everything looks at least good in net.
Overall, the team is playing pretty well to outstanding 5 on 5. For the first time in a long time, 60 minute efforts have been the rule not the exception. With a lead in the 3rd period, they’re shutting teams down and adding to the lead. The blue liners are chipping in with goals to a degree we haven’t seen in a while. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen every defensive line look like an offensive threat the way we’re seeing over the first 7 games.
With so much going well, how can we expect even more? Lets start with the system we saw the Capitals perfect as the previous season wore on. We’ve seen flashes of that shutdown and counter attack system, but we haven’t seen THE system as such yet. Expect to see that develop as this season rolls along, and much faster than we saw last season. With that comes the pounding game we saw so much of in the playoffs. I think the Capitals are probably working towards a middle ground that’s not as physically taxing as the playoff game but just as effective. Pounding combined with speed is a tough combination to attack. The Capitals are much better equipped to play that game on every line than in the past. Expect to see that continue to develop.
The overall puck control numbers look good but to my eye, we were better at the end of last season. The new additions and some improved Caps veterans are no doubt responsible for the possession improvements, but we can be better tape to tape through the middle of the ice. We saw games last season where the Capitals looked like they were playing keep away, playing well over half of the game in the offensive zone. We can do that again. It just needs some time for the chemistry between players to develop a bit more. Puck hogs (in a good way) like Oshie and Kuznetsov are capable of skating circles around defenders while holding onto the puck, and as their communications get better we should see even more from that line. Likewise Backstrom and Williams and Johansson on the second line. They’re all good possession guys and great passers. We’ve seen flashes of that, with the results to show on the scoreboard. Expect that to become more the norm shift to shift as the season goes along.
Now we get to specific players. Backstrom is still only a few games back from surgery. As well as he’s playing, he’ll be even better as the season goes along. The chemistry with his line mates still has plenty of room to grow. Oh, and you can rest assured, Backstrom IS your second line center. He’s simply playing too well as is Kuznetsov, to see that changing any time soon. I pity the opposing coaches trying to shut down those two lines. Speaking of Kuznetsov, he still has some room to grow on face-offs. We can expect the top line trio will continue to build chemistry and experience with one another one game at a time.
Tom Wilson is only going to get better. You can see in his play how close he is to figuring out how to score consistently with his line mates. The defense of all three lines has overall been good but still has room to get better, and it will. The pieces are there. It’s just the experience playing together and knowing who’s going to be where and doing what.
As the overall defense improves and the 3rd D pairing settles down, the goaltending numbers will benefit as well. Holtby hasn’t seen many shots, but the percentage of high quality chances against has been higher than you’d like. It skews the numbers but we should expect that to change in a positive way.
Even the power play can get better. We have to remember they’ve only had Backstrom back four games now. The first unit is still settling in. Likewise the second unit now that Kuznetsov has settled into the Backstrom slot of that line. They’re still learning to work together, but the overall level of talent on both lines is impossible to miss. We know there are some new wrinkles coming, and we’ve already seen some of them. We also have to question does Kuznetsov at some point challenge Backstrom for that first pairing slot? It’s hard to imagine, but two weeks ago the fact that he would supplant Backstrom on the first line was pretty unthinkable to most.
All this and we haven’t even talked about Burakovsky. That’s how good things are. How he’ll be used and where he’ll step up from the fourth line remains to be seen, but that’s a hell of a weapon to have for coach Trotz. He’s going to make things happen somewhere.
So the Capitals are absolutely playing great but I think it’s easy to see how much better they can be. This team has the potential to be as dominant as any we’ve seen in recent memory. The season should be a great one for the Caps fans.
By Ernie Mudd
Graphics by Aaron Davis