Originally posted on Rock the Red  |  Last updated 1/3/14
Adam Oates' men have some positives to build on but also som serious underlying issues. (Caps.com) 41 games have come and gone for the 2013-14 Washington Capitals, and it’s been a weird season to far to say the least.  At the midway mark of their campaign, the Capitals are 20-15-6 for 46 standings points.  They sit in second place place in the Metropolitan Division, sixth place in the Easten Conference and, according to SportsClubStats, have a 63.1% chance to make the playoffs. And as always, there are things that need to be looked at: good and bad.  So let’s get after it. The first good thing: Alexander Ovechkin.  The Capitals’ captain, despite his recent (relative) cool streak, has been an absolute sensation this season.  He leads the NHL in goals and has continued his assault on opposing defenses with a revitalized style of play that has his coaches, teammates, and analysts (not named Ron MacLean) gushing.  He’s physical, gets to the net well, and has been shooting at a very high volume.  The result has been a lot of goals, and though his shooting percentage, currently slightly above his career average, is a tad high, he is still on pace to score over 50 goals and could reach 60 or more if the chips fall in his favor.  The one area of concern is the fact that he has only collected one even strength assist this year.  However, he’s proven just about everyone wrong over the last calendar year and things seem to be back to normal for him. Along with Ovechkin at the head of Washington’s attack in Nicklas Backstrom, who is quietly making a play for the Hart trophy with one of his best seasons yet in the NHL. His 45 points rank 4th in the NHL and his 35 assists rank him 5th in the league.  I’ve said it before here but I will say it again: he is one of the finest players in all of the NHL and a significant argument can be made that it is he, not Ovechkin, who stirs Washington’s drink – particularly at evens. CLICK HERE TO READ ON. John Carlson has played very well for the majority of the first half of this season and he was rewarded for that excellent first half with a selection to the United States Olympic team.  He’s got 15 points in 41 games and has really improved his ability to read the rush and his in-zone defensive play, as well.  Playing big minutes in all situations, he and his defensive partner Karl Alzner have proven their value and with the contracts they have signed, they might be two of the best bargains in the NHL right now. Mikhail Grabovski has been as advertised.  With 30 points in 39 games and a corsi rel behind only that of Eric Fehr at 7.1, the Toronto castoff has fit like a glove with the Capitals now that he is actually getting to skate with skilled players and see power play time.  He’s given them a second center behind Backstrom that they have craved for so long (yes, he’s superior to Mike Ribeiro) and now he has helped them stay in the playoff race despite some poor overall team possession and holes in the squad.  Now, to get him signed long-term… Now on to some not-so-good things.  This Braden Holtby and Phillipp Grubauer drama is getting to be beyond ridiculous.  Adam Oates said three times in December (here, here, and here) that Holtby was “still his number one guy” and that, by extension, he was “just riding the hot hand” with Grubauer’s play.  The Capitals were playing along with that company line, as well.  And yet, here we are at the beginning of January and despite three consecutive losses, Grubauer has started nine of 12 games while Holtby hasn’t played since December 21.  That's not riding the hot hand.  Look, there’s no denying that the young German goalie has played very well for most of his tenure with the Capitals.  But casting a young, franchise-caliber goaltender like Holtby by the wayside, and probably really making him mad, is a very stupid way to conduce business.  I go in this whole ordeal in more detail here, so I won’t go on much more other than to say stuff like this is the reason Washington hasn’t had a true number one since the heyday of Olie Kolzig. Brooks Laich has been an absolute disaster this season.  For one, he’s been hurt – missing about 40% of the games played by Washington this year with a recurrence of the groin injury that has been constantly affecting him since Novemebr 2012.  Before he was forced to miss time, and after he has returned, he has really struggled this season with a -12.9 corsi rel, four goals, and only six points in 27 games played.  For a man that makes $4.5 million per season against the cap this year and for the next three seasons after this, that is simply unacceptable.  It’s true that Laich is a great third line player when healthy (or at least he was), but right now, he’s not fully healthy, even when he plays.  If his health does not improve dramatically along with his play, he must be considered for a compliance buyout this offseason.  He is beloved by the organization and by fans, but the Capitals simply cannot afford to have that amount of money tied up in a player who is not producing. The defense is still really struggling, allowing a lot of shots every game and putting enormous pressure on the goaltender, whoever it may be.  Carlson and Alzner have played very well for the most part, but after that there are some serious questions.  After finally getting his chance following an inexplicable continued benching by the coaching staff, Dmitry Orlov has really impressed me with his skating ability, speed, and general defensive play for someone so young and inexperience.  He’s playing with Mike Green at evens, which produces a very good puck possession pairing but also one that can give up very costly mistakes.  To cap it all off, Washington has two slow, significantly below-average defensemen at their five and six slots in Steve Oleksy and John Erskine. Unfortunately, help is not likely to come in the form of a trade.  The Capitals are all the way up against the salary cap right now because of a slew of bad an unnecessary signings such as Erskine, Jack Hillen (though he is on LTIR), and Aaron Volpatti, as well as the fact that they’re carrying three goalies.  Three players have requested a trade out of Washington: Orlov, Martin Erat, and Michal Neuvirth.  If management has any sense at all Orlov won’t go anywhere, which leaves Erat and Neuvirth – both of whom I expect to be moved in the relative near future.  That would open up $7 million in cap space, but you’re not likely to get a whole lot for those players that can make the Caps any better now.  There are only two names that I’m comfortable with out there right now who might be available – Christian Ehrhoff in Buffalo and Jake Gardiner in Toronto.  Those are unlikely, which means that the Caps are likely stuck with this team unless George McPhee can pull off an absolute heist. The Capitals are still not a good possession team.  In fact, they’re a very bad one.  Washington has posted a mediocre 47% fenwick percentage when the score is close, which ranks 26th in the NHL and in the same ballpark as teams such as Calgary, Edmonton, Carolina, and the Islanders.  We’ve been over this before, but I’ll say it again: this is not a club that can keep these numbers up and expect to compete for anything other than a playoff spot – and even that may be a stretch.  Just look at the teams around them at the bottom – all of them, save Toronto, are very bad teams – and the Leafs’ demise is likely just around the corner.  The power play is still elite, which can win them some games in the regular season, but it won’t get them far in the playoffs.  Their 12 regulation and overtime wins is 13th in the conference and 25th in the NHL, too.  What that means is that Washington is in its playoff position right now because of the gimmick and the loser point, which is also unsustainable.  Their weak conference and division may be enough to get them to the playoffs, but it will take a miracle for them to get much farther than the first round.  The talent, coaching, and depth are just not there for them right now. 41 down, 41 to go.  Maybe this will all change by April. Harry Hawkings is a college student who writes about the Capitals. Follow him on Twitter here for all your needs this season. Note: Corsi and Fenwick data compiled from BehindtheNet and ExtraSkater.
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