Photo: USA Today
It’s no secret that the Washington Capitals are off to a rough start to the season, going 6-6-1 in their first 13 games. Not exactly terrible, but not the start the Capitals are used to having, compared to the last two seasons. They Capitals have ugly possession numbers, their power play is hot/cold and their penalty kill is horrendous. There are three reasons why the Capitals are struggling, and luckily all of them are fixable.
First is the obvious: the injuries. Top defenseman Matt Niskanen has been out for weeks and will be out for at least another couple weeks. Top six winger Andre Burakovsky has been out a little over a week, and will be out until mid to late December. Reliable 3rd liner Brett Connolly has concussion issues, and has been out the last couple games and is day-to-day. None of those injuries are ideal, especially the first two, since the Capitals are nowhere near as deep as they were the last two seasons. But the fix simply just getting and staying healthy. The issue is, there’s no control over injuries. The Caps just have to hope they get healthy and stay that way moving forward.
Secondly, the Capitals are full of new faces. Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, and Nathan Walker are all rookies or close enough to it. You can even throw Aaron Ness in there, who isn’t young but doesn’t have a lot of NHL experience. Add to this list Devante Smith-Pelley, Alex Chiasson, and Tyler Graovac (also injured) who are all brand new to the team. That’s a lot of new players, most with little experience coming to the team. Those nine new faces are nearly half of the roster. But Braden Holtby said it best, “It doesn’t take one or two weeks to build team chemistry and a team identity, it takes awhile.” The Capitals just need time to get that chemistry going then they’ll start to click.
To add to this, currently the Capitals have two pure rookies, Djoos and Bowey, in their top four defensive unit. That’s asking a lot of them. The good news is they are looking more and more comfortable as each game goes by. Capitals reporter Mike Vogel asked some of the defensive vets how long it takes for a young defensemen to get used to the NHL. They answered that it happens after going through the league once, meaning playing each team once. Vogel added to this, saying that is usually about half the season. So come January, we should see a much more reliable Djoos and Bowey, which means better play.
Lastly, the Capitals are struggling because of their strength of schedule. Until recently the Capitals had the toughest schedule in the whole NHL, but over the last week have dipped to 20th toughest. That’s still pretty difficult, especially when you consider the injuries and the rookies still trying to find their NHL groove. The Capitals should be getting some breaks in the schedule coming up, which should help with the injury situation. But so far it’s been kind of a perfect storm of bad for the Capitals, so they’re just trying to survive.
And that’s what they have to do right now: survive. Last night’s win vs the New York Islanders was a perfect example of how they’ll have to win ugly in the meantime. They need to scrape together as many points as possible until January, by any means necessary. Because in January, the Capitals should, hopefully, get a full healthy squad and all of their young guys should be comfortable. If they can stay within striking distance of a playoff spot until that point, than that’s all they need. All of this adversity could really pull them together, so come January they’ll start to go on a roll.
Now they can do things to help themselves at that moment too. First, they have to fix their special teams. They should be better than 11th on the power play and 28th in penalty kill. All of the new personal can certainly add to the struggle, but it shouldn’t be that bad. The penalty kill has already cost them two games. Also, maybe don’t give Brooks Orpik 22+ minutes a night against the opponent’s top 6 while Dmitry Orlov sits on the bottom pairing. Or increase the time of Walker who has been pretty good every game but is sitting the press box too much. Just little things like that can be huge and help the Capitals snag some points as they wait for their team to get healthy and young guys ready.
By Luke Adomanis