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While the focus coming into this season was that of defending their Stanley Cup championship season, the Capitals’ performance this season was also somewhat of a question mark with a new bench boss in former Associate Coach Todd Reirden. So far, the Capitals have performed well, with an 18-9-3 record through 30 games, sitting atop the Metropolitan Division. However, like any team, the Caps have areas in which to improve and things that need refining. In this piece, NoVa Caps takes a look at five things that should be on the team’s wish list heading into the holiday season and New Year.
5. Determine Where Andre Burakovsky Fits
While he may be in his fifth season in the NHL, forward Andre Burakovsky is still just 23-years old and has room to grow his game. That said, the former first-round pick (23rd in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft) has disappointed despite staying healthy this season. Through 29 games played, Burakovsky has just five goals and three assists, putting him on pace to match his worst season as an NHL player (he is currently on pace for 14 goals, eight assists, and 22 points). While he has shown flashes of the potentially dangerous offensive talent he was expected to be, Burakovsky hasn’t been able to find consistency to his game this season. After struggling with injuries over the previous few seasons, it was expected that the 2018-19 season would be the one in which he finally broke through.
In the final year of a two-year contract, Burakovsky will be a restricted free agent this summer, and per The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan (who wrote a piece on Burakovsky and his future, which can be found HERE), if the Capitals want to retain him, they would need to extend him a qualifying offer that would at minimum, be the same as his current salary of $3.25 million. Given his lack of production thus far, it may be hard to envision the team doling out that much. However, Burakovsky’s age means that he still has the potential to grow. A decision must be made to place Burakovsky in a position to succeed or at the very least, give him enough playing time to allow him to prove himself worthy of a new deal.
4. Don’t Overwork Alex Ovechkin
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has always played the game with a passion and he continues to amaze and climb the record books, leading the league in goals at the age of 33. And while the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner is averaging just a hair under 21 minutes a night (20:59) for Coach Todd Reirden, it is important that the Caps do not overwork their most valuable offensive asset. While he may be on pace for the second 60-goal season of his 14-season career, he is still 33-years old. While he has been arguably one of the NHL’s most durable players, and has continued to stay in good shape, managing his playing time while still allowing him range to run is essential come playoff time (assuming the team does make the playoffs, which seems more likely than not). That said, Ovechkin continues to play at seemingly 100% and hasn’t disappointed.
3. Continue to Receive Secondary Scoring From the Bottom-six
Prior to this past spring’s run to the Cup, one of the Capitals’ biggest problems in their early playoff exits was their lack of secondary scoring. The team received some timely goals from their depth/role players and their bottom-six en route to the franchise’s first championship and through 30 games this season, that continues to be the case. The recent performance of the team’s fourth-line of Travis Boyd, Nic Dowd, and Dmitrij Jaskin has been key in the team’s recent victories and the team’s bottom two lines (consisting of Lars Eller, Devante Smith-Pelly, Dowd, Boyd, Jaskin, and Chandler Stephenson) have accounted for 15.3% of the team’s 111 goals this season, and have combined for 51 points.
Combined with the production of the team’s top players such as Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Caps are once again a dynamic offensive team, something that will only continue to give them a chance to win on a nightly basis.
2. Improve The Penalty Kill
Under former Head Coach Barry Trotz and with Reirden in charge of the defense and penalty kill, the Caps were annually ranked among the league’s best defensive teams, finishing as the sixth-best team on the PK over the four years Trotz was Head Coach. So it’s a surprise that the Caps have struggled mightily this season down a man. While the loss of longtime penalty kill stalwart Jay Beagle to free agency, and injury to defenseman Brooks Orpik, and the absence of Tom Wilson for a majority of the season haven’t helped, much of the personnel who served on the units remain on the roster, and with Reirden now Head Coach, the dramatic drop to 22nd (or 10th-worst) in the penalty killing department with a 77.8% is unusual. The team has allowed 24 goals with the opposition on the man-advantage, which accounts for 26.4% of the team’s 91 Goals Against.
With both Wilson and Orpik making progress in their return efforts, the team will have two of its top penalty killers back in the lineup, which will hopefully help improve a unit that was one of the team’s biggest strengths over the last four seasons. Come playoff time, when goals are hard to come by, having a successful penalty kill will go a long way towards maintaining their title as world champions.
1. Stay Healthy the Rest of The Way
After being among the healthiest teams in the league over the last few seasons, the Capitals have struggled to ice a full, healthy lineup this season, with keys players in Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Brooks Orpik, and Tom Wilson all missing time due to ailments. Oshie just returned from a 12-game absence due to his fifth career concussion, while Kuznetsov has only been in the lineup slightly longer, with Orpik still recovering from knee surgery and Wilson seeming set to return to the lineup tomorrow against the Carolina Hurricanes. Defenseman Christian Djoos went down yesterday with a lower-body injury and is day-to-day. The Capitals will need every player healthy if they are to make another deep playoff run come springtime. While that is a long way off, it is no secret the team is better with every player healthy.
While the team still has more than half a season to play before it needs to worry about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having these items checked off on their wish list will aid in preparing the team if it wants to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, in addition to helping the team maintain a good performance in the long run.
By Michael Fleetwood