By Bill Sands
After sharing our Christmas wish list last week, it’s now time to look ahead and start planning for the 2018 calendar year. The Caps don’t exactly get a fresh start like the rest of us, but that’s no reason not to make a few resolutions for the rest of the season. Here’s our list of what we’d like to see Washington focus on for the second half of the year.
1. Give Philipp Grubauer Some Help
The life of a backup goaltender is not an easy one; coming in during a blowout to cover for the starter, getting stuck playing behind a tired team on the second night of a back-to-back, and spending most of your time sitting on the bench isn’t exactly the life that most goalies dream of when they’re young.
Unlike some teams that have struggled with goaltending depth this year, the Caps have been lucky enough to have Philipp Grubauer, who has posted impressive numbers on the year. Unfortunately for Grubi, his win-loss record is far less impressive, which is a direct result of a lack of offensive support.
Maybe it’s the aforementioned back-to-back schedule taking a toll, or maybe it’s something else, but for whatever reason Washington has a bad habit of dropping the ball when Holtby isn’t in net. Before blaming Grubauer, consider this: in Grubauer’s first six starts (all losses), the Caps managed to score just ten goals. Even Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur, and Carey Price can’t win games on their own; they need their team to score goals, which is something the Caps haven’t done for Grubauer.
Things have started to turn around, as the Caps finally broke out of their slump and scored 3 and 4 goals, respectively. against the Lightning and Sharks. Grubauer returned the favor by only allowing one goal in each game, both of which were Caps wins (and Grubi’s first of the year). These examples serve as proof that the Caps can win with him in net if they can just put points on the board.
For the new year, the Caps need to find a way to play better when Grubauer is in net. Grubauer may not be an elite goalie like Braden Holtby, but he’s absolutely proven that he’s a capable goaltender that can be relied on in important games. The least the Caps can do is put forth a better effort to make sure that his efforts aren’t wasted.
2. Stay Healthy
Avoiding injuries in the NHL usually boils down to a simple matter of luck; everyone TRIES to stay healthy, but hockey is a violent game and players get hurt on a regular basis. The Caps have managed to avoid injuries in recent years, so whatever they’ve been doing, they’ll need to keep doing it. The team is rolling as it heads into the new year, but it doesn’t have the same kind of depth that past teams have had. Andre Burakovsky, TJ Oshie, and Matt Niskanen have all missed extended time this year and it’s forced other players to step up and play bigger minutes.
While the Caps have been holding down the fort in spite of injuries to key players, they’ll need their full roster in order to keep pace with an extremely competitive Eastern conference and secure a favorable first-round match-up in spring. The team is finally healthy, and it is essential that they remain so throughout the second half of the year.
The team has responded well by relying on contributions from their younger players, but asking too much of less-capable players will only lead to trouble in the long run. John Carlson has been great, but playing over twenty-six minutes a night is unsustainable. Having Niskanen back in the lineup will help take the load off, but the Caps will need the entire D corps to start helping out on a more consistent basis.
In the forward ranks, Jakub Vrana has proven himself to be a legitimate top-6 forward and Tom Wilson is finally looking like the power forward that the Caps envisioned him as, but Alex Chiasson doesn’t belong on a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov. Having TJ Oshie back is a huge help not just on the power play, but on a shift-by-shift basis, where coach Barry Trotz now has the freedom to create more balanced lines and match his most capable goal-scorers with playmakers like Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom.
3. Get All Forwards to 20 Points
Washington has been a balanced team this year. The top two lines are certainly doing their part, but it’s the depth forwards that have stepped up to help keep the team competitive. At the Christmas break, ten Caps forwards have at least ten points. For the second half of the year, we’d like to see everyone maintain this pace and finish the season with at least twenty points.
This won’t be a major issue for guys like Alex Ovechkin, TJ Oshie, and Nicklas Backstrom (all of whom have already passed this mark), but there are a few players who will need to start chipping in if they want to meet this goal. Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelley have had excellent first halves, but the two have ten and eleven points, respectively. They’ll have to continue scoring at their current rate if they want to join the 20-point club.
Also in jeopardy are Alex Chiasson and Jay Beagle. Beagle is less of a concern because he contributes so much more than just putting up points, but Chiasson was brought in to contribute offensively. He has been an excellent penalty killer, but the Caps need more than just 8 points in 36 games.
Andre Burakovsky is also a risk with only 8 points, but that comes largely from missing 20 games with a thumb injury. Assuming he stays healthy, he should post somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 points.