By Bill Sands
Though things usually tend to slow down around the holiday season, the NHL works on a different schedule. The league takes a few days off for Christmas, but then the Caps and the other 31 teams are right back on the ice.
Despite this lack of holiday cheer, there’s no reason that we can’t take a minute to jot down some things that we’d like the Caps to receive this year.
- A Healthy T.J. Oshie
T.J. Oshie continues to miss time with an “upper-body injury” (most likely a concussion) after taking a nasty hit from Joe Thornton in the Caps win over the Sharks. Washington has been coping in Oshie’s absence, but there’s no denying that he plays an important part on the team, particularly on the power play, where his presence in the slot leads to plenty of goals while simultaneously drawing attention away from Alex Ovechkin.
If it is indeed a concussion that has T.J. sidelined, it could be tough to determine just how long he’ll be out. He’s been skating recently and has shown promising signs of improvement, but rushing him back could potentially backfire in a big way. The Caps are playing well, so there’s no reason for Oshie to hurry back, but the top item on Barry Trotz’s wishlist has to be the return of one of his most valuable and dynamic forwards.
- Depth on the Blue Line
The hallmark of last year’s Caps team was its unmatched depth. The 2016-17 roster had four solid lines and six quality defensemen. With Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Shattenkirk wearing different uniforms this year, it was fairly apparent that the defensive corps would need to rely on less-proven players such as Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness this time around.
At the turn of the new year, those two have proven unreliable and the Capitals coaching staff has instead turned to rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey. Both youngsters are products of the Capitals’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears and have been impressive so far, logging big minutes and providing fans with a promising glimpse of the future. Djoos has excellent mobility and Bowey is especially adept at moving the puck out of the zone either by skating it himself or by connecting with a strong breakout pass.
Despite these encouraging performances, the Caps will need more help if they want to make a deep playoff run, ideally from a veteran presence who can settle things down on the bottom pair and lighten the load for John Carlson and Matt Niskanen. With limited cap space, trade deadline deals seem unlikely, but if Washington can send money the other way or get another team to retain salary, there are a number of impending free agents who may be available, including Ian Cole, Erik Gudbranson, and even old friend Mike Green. The Caps may also do well to get in touch with their former GM George McPhee, whose Vegas Knights may be looking to offload expiring contracts and stockpile draft picks.
- A New Playoff Match-up
Heading into the new year, the fight for the Metropolitan Division is a free-for-all. As of Dec. 15, just 10 points separate first-place Columbus (41 points) from last-place Carolina (31 points). The usual contenders (Caps, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers) are in the mix, but the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are having surprising seasons and find themselves right in the the thick of the race. A week and a half of bad play is enough to drop a team from first to worst, which means that the playoff picture is far from a certainty.
Caps fans are all too familiar with their playoff hopes being crushed by a Game 7 loss (usually at home) to the Rangers or Penguins, so for Christmas this year, we’d like to see the Caps play somebody, anybody, other than those two teams. The Caps-Islanders series in 2015 was a memorable affair, with big hits, huge momentum swings, and an unforgettable series-winning goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov late in the third period of Game 7.
If Washington falls to the wild-card spot, they’re guaranteed to play new teams from the Atlantic Division and would avoid their familiar foes until at least the conference finals, assuming they make it that far. Likewise, a strong second half from New Jersey, the Islanders, and even Carolina could bring fresh blood if the Caps win the division or end up playing in the 2nd vs. 3rd match-up in the first round.
- Better Play on the Road
There’s not much to complain about recently in Washington; the Caps are 8-2 in their last 10 games, all four lines are playing well, and the team looks like a legitimate playoff contender once again. That being said, there’s always room for improvement somewhere, and one particular sore spot is the Caps’ record away from Capital One Arena.
Washington is just 7-7-1 on the road, a record that is by no means terrible but could definitely use some improvement. More important than the overall record is the Caps’ tendency to under-perform in big situations. Last week’s clunker against the New York Islanders was a poor showing and recent road trips out west have been big disappointments, with resounding defeats in Nashville, Colorado, and Vancouver.
Those losses came over a month ago when the Caps weren’t playing nearly as well as they are now, but the coming months feature plenty of divisional games on the road and the Caps will need to play well to keep pace in the standings and build some confidence for the impending playoff run.