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The Washington Capitals were the best team in the regular season last year. They were number 2 in both offense and defense and top 5 in both power play and penalty kill. So finding a weakness for them isn’t easy, but there are always ways to improve.
If not in big ways, then in the small things that separate Cup winners from losers. Here are 3 ways the Caps could be even better this upcoming season.
The Caps were 7th in the NHL last season in shots for per game, clocking in at 30.6, which is pretty good. But if you consistently watched the Caps play last season then you probably caught yourself yelling at the TV “SHOOT THE PUCK!” way too often. If there is one thing the Caps are guilty of, it’s being too fancy. Often, players found themselves 10-15 feet from the net, in the slot and elected to pass. No players were more guilty of this than Oshie and Kuznetsov, which is interesting considering they scored 26 and 20 goals respectively. How many more would they have had if they shot on more of their prime chances? But it isn’t just those 2; the whole team is guilty. There needs to be more of a killer instinct in the Caps shooters, they need to be selfish!
Something that could help improve the shot total, besides actually shooting, is getting defense a little more involved. Carlson is a perfect example; not only does he jump up in the play through the neutral zone but in the offensive zone too. Here is a perfect example.
After Carlson passes it to Wilson, he doesn’t just stay at the point like most defensemen do, he sprints into the open slot and gets the pass from Wilson for the goal. The only other Caps defensemen I see do this regularly are Orlov and Schmidt. And you don’t need to have the best shot to do this. Anyone shooting from that close creates a very good scoring chance and it’s something more defenders need to be doing.
Carlson also looks for every opportunity to get the puck on net. He was averaging 181 shots last season (if he had stayed healthy). The second best defenseman was Niskanen with 150, then Alzner with 75, while Orpik would have averaged 62 shots. That is your top 4 and the Alzner and Opik numbers simply aren’t enough (granted they didn’t get power play time). This is why it’s important to activate the defense more, on rushes and off the cycle. It also helps to give more ice time to players like Orlov (90 shots) and Schmidt (averaged 91 shots) who can move the puck up the ice and get more pucks on net, resulting in more scoring chances.
Adam Oates was easily one of the worst coaches in the past decade. One of his many flaws would be his breakouts, where he seemed to tell players to just throw the puck up against the boards and HOPE that one of our players would get to it first. Trotz’ system is one of the best in the league, but it seems that sometimes the Caps revert back to that Oates era with their breakouts. Often, there will be room to skate it out of the zone or even pass it out, but too many times relied on throwing it against the boards when they felt the forecheck coming. I understand that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but sometimes it’s okay to pass to the guy in the middle of ice or skate it around a forechecking player.
Nates Schmidt is another example. Every time he sees open ice he skates it out, which results in more control through the neutral zone, which is the first step in getting a scoring chance. Orlov is also a champ at doing this; by now you should see a pattern in my suggestions: give Orlov and Schmidt more ice time while removing Orpik’s TOI. Nothing against Orpik, he knows how to take care of the puck in his own zone. But the Caps must be able to move the puck up the ice much faster, which is something that both Brian MacLellan and Trotz stressed that they must change. The name of the game now is speed. Now it doesn’t mean your whole team needs to be fast, but the system must revolve around getting the puck out of your zone and the quickest into the offensive zone.
Will giving more time to younger players and having them skate the puck out of the zone cause turnovers? Yes. Will it result it some goals against? Yes. But the Caps have a Vezina winner in net and should limit those goals against. The Caps are too talented and they should be able to create more goals with a smoother breakout with higher risk than the amount of goals they’ll let in.
Odd Man Up
This is kind of a part 2 to the break out; because with a better breakout you can create more odd man rushes. No one keeps track of odd man rushes but I’m sure if they did it would reveal that the Caps were one of the best teams at limiting them. But they were probably one of the worst at creating them. Again, the Caps have too skilled of a team to not create more when going through the neutral zone. The Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins’ bread and butter was odd man rushes, no one was better. The Caps have arguably a more skilled group than Pittsburgh when you consider the Penguins had Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust in their top 6, and both are 4th line players. The Caps top 6 is full of top 6 talent that has speed and skill, which needs to be utilized more to create odd man rushes.
It’s easy to say “get more odd man rushes” but it’s obviously harder in theory. One way the Caps could create more is to have the defensemen step up a bit more in the neutral zone to cut off passes and disrupt skaters. The Caps defense tends to give the first 5-10 feet to the opposition inside their own zone, which is probably a “controlled defense” system that Trotz likes; he would rather give the enemy a little space, but be in defensive sound position than take a chance stepping up. Trotz understands defensive structure, but it’s time he lets loose the leash a little to play the faster style that he said he wants to. That means taking more higher risk/higher rewards plays. The Caps have a good enough team that most of those risks will be higher rewards than negative outcomes.
The Capitals looked poised to be a top team in the league like they were last season. But if they want to lift the Cup they need to speed up their game in transition and shoot the puck whenever they are given a chance. Additionally, they need to put players on the ice that can get the puck up the ice in order to increase their shot and scoring chance total, thus increasing their chances for the Cup.
By Luke Adomanis