The first fifth of the Capitals’ season leaves the club with a 10-3-4 record, 24 points, and a first-place tie for the the conference lead with the archrival Penguins. But is the Capitals position in the standings reflective of an authentic Cup-contending team? At the moment, Washington is the streakiest team in the league and has been incredibly inconsistent through 17 games. After two wins to start the season, DC lost four in a row, then won six consecutively, followed by three straight losses.
Here are some trends, stats, and pros and cons for each position:
Washington has alternated goalies very regularly throughout the season, but I would argue that if Theodore did not sustain a back injury, he would have played in more than just nine games. He has been the better goalie, but the Capitals seem to play better – and more importantly – get wins in front of 21-year old Semyon Varlamov. Theodore’s play was outstanding during a four-game losing streak, except for two shaky goals to the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik. During that streak, Theodore took the loss for Varlamov against the Flyers, after the Russian had been shelled four times.
The young Russian goalie has a 5-1-0 record, yet has been mediocre in the seven games he has started. He owns a 3.18 GAA and sub-.900 save percentage. The trend here is the Capitals don’t play more defensively when playing in front of Varlamov; they just score more goals and allow more goals. Varlamov has played in three games – two against Atlanta and one against Toronto – in which the Caps had jumped out to huge first-period leads only to allow the opponent to make a quick comeback. Come playoff time, a 3.00 GAA is not going to cut it against the likes of the Penguins and Flyers. While Theo’s stats are not much more spectacular than Varly’s, he’s been the better of the pair.
The league-leader in defensive scoring isn’t Mike Green, but instead comes from the second-worst team in the league. Thomas Kaberle leads the league’s D-men with 18-points in 14 games. Number 52 does have a respectable 13 points in his 16 games played, but his two-goal season thus far is modest. Now he’s banged up a bit. ESPN projects him to total 11 goals and 71 points this season — which is all well and good — but his $5.25 million paycheck invites expectations approaching 25 goals a season. In his own end, Green remains a work in progress. He’s been noticeably absent physically as well.
Other defensemen have picked up the slack to support the team. In the first part of the season, the defense is better than it was last year. It is virtually the same corps as last year, plus Tyler Sloan, who had a two-game goal scoring streak. One more year of experience and playing together has helped the Caps tremendously. Tom Poti has been solid. Offensively, it’s nice to see Brian Pothier contributing for the regular D-men — he might be playing the best hockey of his life these days. I suspect he’ll be the go-to-guy on defense while Green’s lost to injury.
However, there’s tons of space for improvement on that end. Jeff Schultz and Milan Jurcina are the biggest guys on the team, but it amazes me how often they get beat to the puck, even when they’re in an advantageous position. Schultz seems scared to use his body and Jurcina often gets beat because his stick isn’t on the ice when he goes to the corners to clear the puck. It’s nice to see a healthy John Erskine in the line-up again.
What is up with Semin?
As of last night, approximately $15 million worth of offensive cap space has vacated the roster through injury, but the slick Russian hasn’t made an impact on a game yet. Check that, a positive impact. He had two secondary assists on Sunday against Columbus in Ovi’s absence, but his last worthwhile contribution was October 27 at home versus Philly in which he scored the game-winning goal with a sick wrister to the roof. This is Semin’s contract year, and his opportunity to make his next contract as valuable as possible. Read Andrew Tomlinson’s piece titled Stand-in Savior for more on Semin.
Alexander Ovechkin had six two-goal games and one one-goal game through the first 12 games of the season, meaning he scored in seven of those 12 — perfectly respectable for the league’s best player. He’s been an impact player in just about every game, and the Caps are hopeful of having him back in the lineup as early as this week.
Enter Mathieu Perreault. I’ve been a big fan of this guy since he was a Junior player when the Caps drafted him in 2006. The Quebecer put up monster numbers for Acadie-Bathurst in the Q and despite playing fourth line minutes in Hershey, he still put up 50 points in 2008-09. In the three games he’s played, he’s been an impact player despite his diminutive size, shaking off hits and physical play to keep possession of the puck. He assisted twice in his first game against the Devils and scored the first goal of his NHL career against Florida last night. He might not be returning to Hershey as soon as either the Caps or Bears imagined a week ago.
Speaking of AHLers, I was watching the New Jersey broadcast of Wednesday’s game when Mike “Doc” Emrick noted that Alexandre Giroux is a 28-year old 60-plus goal scorer in the AHL. The commentator said, “You’d think some team would have picked up on his skill and put him in the NHL.” I completely agree. I don’t think Eric Fehr or even Tomas Fleischmann have got the offensive upside of Giroux, though they may have more NHL career potential. If Boudreau wanted three scoring lines he’d perhaps consider rolling out Fleischmann, Perreault, and Giroux on the third line.
The Caps are tied for fewest regulation losses in the NHL with three. Buffalo, Colorado and Dallas are the others. They have collected points in 14 of their 17 games.
Some key questions ahead: Will Tomas Fleischmann show he is a reliable, top-six talent? Will Mathieu Perreault show he can stay in the big league this season? How will Eric Fehr contribute? What do we think of Alexander Semin’s play — most particularly in the past week — in this the most important year of his NHL career to date?
We may well have the answers to these questions by the midway point of the season.