Something is amiss in Washington; why did the Capitals – and their ‘top four’ stars start out so well through five games, only to struggle through their next 15?
By Glynn Cosker
DCpuckDrop Managing Editor
The Washington Capitals’ 2017-18 season was never intended to match seasons past; a solid year and possible playoff berth was always on the cards. However, with all of their star talent still in the starting lineup through the first 20 games, just what is going on these days with the once mighty Capitals?
Where Is The Domination?
After those 20 games so far this term, we’ve yet to see a string of two games where the Capitals dominated their opponents, or owned and destroyed their opponents. We’ve seen a few groups of games where Washington deserved to lose but somehow escaped with two points. We’ve also seen a few games where the Capitals were impressive all over the ice (the 4-1 defeat of Pittsburgh, for example). However, a lot of the team’s games – including the last two on the road against Nashville and Colorado – were downright hideous. The defeat to the Avalanche on Thursday drew this comment from Capitals’ head coach Barry Trotz following the game:
“I am absolutely disappointed, angry, a lot of different emotions, I expected a lot better … puck battles and races and one-on-one play, it was all junk.”
That’s surely not the first time this season that Trotz has offered such criticism – inside or outside the locker room. Yet, the Capitals are somehow unable to inject any kind of enthusiasm into their performances the way they could in years past after ugly games or spells, and that’s with the same core players of Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. More on them later.
It’s Been Ugly At Times For The Capitals
Some miserable tidbits from this season so far: In Nashville on Tuesday, the Capitals went 18 minutes into the first period before recording their first shot. Against Edmonton, two nights earlier, Ovechkin played through regulation and overtime without a single shot on goal. The team recently went 21 (twenty-one) consecutive power plays at home without a goal. And, most mind-boggling of all, here is the current list of players with a positive plus-minus rating: Taylor Chorney, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness, Madison Bowey, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Nathan Walker. All are adequate enough players, but they are way down there with the least-paid talent on the Capitals’ books – and they’re on the ice when good things happen.
In the offseason, the Capitals lost six key players in Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Daniel Winnik, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner; after providing Kuznetsov, Oshie, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitry Orlov with mammoth, long-term contracts, the team then brought in Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly. Washington lost some good players, but they’ve gained forward talent in Chiasson, Smith-Pelly, Stephenson, and Walker – along with Djoos and Bowey on the blue line. So, what gives?
Ovechkin started the season on fire, fizzled out, and is now hit-or-miss; Backstrom recorded his longest streak of games without a point (seven games); Oshie went eight games without a goal; and Kuznetsov is underplaying and simply not performing to his pay grade.
Let’s break that down some more:
- Backstrom has three points (all assists) from his last 13 games;
- Kuznetsov has four goals from the 20 games he’s played this season;
- Oshie has had only one multi-point game over his last 16 outings;
- Ovechkin recorded 10 points in his first five games and nine points in his following 15 games.
Since That Philadelphia Debacle, Something Odd Has Occurred
The two most recent games were bad for Washington, but the worst of the season was the embarrassing 8-2 defeat against the Philadelphia Flyers. And, for some odd reason, that awful game on Oct. 14 seems to be the turning point of the Capitals’ season; it’s where the ‘top four’ of Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, and Ovechkin began to go downhill (stats wise).
Here are the ‘top-four’ players’ stats leading up to that Flyers game:
- Backstrom: Five games, 10 points (two goals, eight assists) plus-minus: +3
- Kuznetsov: Five games, 10 points (all assists) plus-minus: +5
- Oshie: Five games, seven points (five goals, two assists) plus-minus: +3
- Ovechkin: Five games, 10 points (nine goals, one assist) plus-minus: +5
- TOTAL: 37 points (16 goals, 21 assists) average of 1.85 points per game, plus-minus: +16
And, here are the ‘top-four’ players’ stats since (and including) that Flyers game:
- Backstrom: 14 games, three points (all assists) plus-minus: -5
- Kuznetsov: 15 games, 10 points (four goals, six assists) plus-minus: -8
- Oshie: 15 games, seven points (four goals, three assists) plus-minus: -5
- Ovechkin: 15 games, nine points (four goals, five assists) plus-minus: -7
- TOTAL: 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) average of 0.5 points per game, plus-minus: -25
If it wasn’t for other players stepping up, namely Wilson, Stephenson, Lars Eller and the team’s best player, goalie Braden Holtby – the Caps’ record would be closer to 5-14-1 than its current 10-9-1. The Caps played some excellent teams prior to the Flyers game including the seemingly unstoppable Tampa Bay Lightning, the much-improved New Jersey Devils and the defending Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve played some bad teams since Philadelphia.
It’s probably a coincidence that the star players have offered somewhat pedestrian showings since Philly. It probably coincides with a ton of plane-hopping, travel and living out of a suitcase. It may just be that the team had its footing early on and then lost it for some reason. It may be the injuries to Matt Niskanen and Burakovsky. It may be that the lines have lost any semblance of synergy and chemistry. Or, it could be something else altogether.
And, it’s not just the star players. Of late, the whole team has looked listless at times; the whole team has been poor on the back-check; the whole team has been guilty of puck-watching, guilty of missing assignments, guilty of giving the puck away – and has recently shown zero killer instinct in front of net. Whatever happened to take the heavy-hitters’ stats from spellbinding through five games to underwhelming through the next 15 is anyone’s guess. Sadly, if things don’t change soon, bad things might happen.
Time To Mix Up The Capitals’ Lines
There is a simple truth in the NHL: when a team starts to under-perform, they don’t fire the players. Therefore, it is up to Trotz to think outside-of-the-box and get his troops in line, starting Saturday night against the Minnesota Wild. It’s time for Trotz to re-invent the lines going into the next 10 games – nine of which are at home – because the current setup is not working. It’s time for Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie to reunite on the top line; and it’s time for something more like this:
The Capitals can no longer point to losing six players in the offseason, extended travel, infrequent rest days, rookies, or anything else as an excuse. The other NHL teams with superstars, travel schedules and rookies seem perfectly able to string some big wins together – and they all have the same obstacles as the Caps to face.
Effectively, the season reboots and starts Saturday against the Wild.