While a compelling narrative could be made for the New Jersey Devils, a quick look at the divisional standings shouts hosannas to the Buffalo Sabres, I continue to hold on to the belief that the Washington Capitals are the strongest team in this year’s Eastern Conference.
The Sabres’ case is strengthened by their 7-0 record against the West (prior to Saturday’s shoot-out loss to Colorado). I know they are widely considered to be the strongest conference, but that mark is held aloft by getting out the gates quickly. Three of those games were among their first four, and resulted in wins against the pre-surging Coyotes, the low scoring Predators (also pre-surge) – both one-goal victories, and a resounding win over the Red Wings, who still saw Chris Osgood as the man to lead them back to the Cup. That victory happens to be the only one of their seven against the West that was won by a margin over 2 goals.
The Devils may not get the respect they deserve. Outside of the ageless Brodeur, they aren’t very sexy, are they? Their special teams are currently in 8th place, on the strength of being above-average (but not terribly so) in both power play and penalty kill efficiency. The Devils have racked up winning streaks of 8, 5, and 4 games, as well as a few more 3-gamers. Since blowing their first two games of the season, they have not embarked on a regulation losing streak of more than 1 game all season (8 times). There was that three game road trip in mid November (Philadelphia, Nashville and Dallas) that held the Devils to a single point, but the issue remains that they have been remarkably consistent. So why do I not give them a chance? Brodeur seems ageless, but proved human last year, with his first long-term injury. His expected role as the #1 goalie for Team Canada next month may leave him vulnerable for a slump. Anyone who says they expected Scott Clemmensen last year is probably lying, and I don’ think anyone would have much faith in the Devils if they had to rely on Yann Danis for any stretch this year. Take away their defense (first in the East and second only to Chicago in the league) and their prowess is doubtful. At 2.85 goals per game (GPG), they rank 10th in the NHL and well behind conference foes Philadelphia (2.95), Pittsburgh (3.02), Atlanta (3.07), and the topics of this article, the Washington Capitals, currently the most prolific scorers in the NHL at 3.51 GPG, more than a quarter GPG over the runner-up Blackhawks.
So…about those Capitals. Unlike the Sabres, the Caps have a very sustainable record, as their 5-5-1 performance against the West is balanced by going 8-1-0 against their Southeast Division foes (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina). With a 14 point lead on second-place Atlanta, their place as a top-3 seed come playoff time seems to be secure. They have 6 games remaining against Western teams, which are more than balanced out by 15 more games within the division – unbalanced schedules are kinder to some teams than to others. This schedule should allow them to earn a few more cheap victories down the stretch than the Devils and the Sabres, not to mention trailers like the defending champion Penguins and the Bruins.
Like the Devils’ offense, the Caps are not known for being strong when their opponents have the upper hand. They have thus far (through Jan.8) allowed 2.74 goals per game, 12 in the league, more than 0.5 a goal more than both Marty’s Devils or Ryan Miller’s Sabres. This is even more manifest in their deficiencies on the penalty kill, sitting 19th in PK efficiency through the end of December. But while it is difficult to believe that the Devils’ offense will improve going forward, it is easy to envision drastic improvements in the defensive game of the Capitals. For one thing, their best goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, has been out with an injury since shutting out the Lighting on December 7. His rehab is underway, and if coach Bruce Boudreau is to be believed, he is about one week away from an NHL return. The relevance of his return is proven by a GAA that is 0.79 better than his nominal replacement, Jose Theodore, and 0.68 better than the third-stringer, Michal Neuvirth. Varlamov’s save percentage is likewise much better than the other two, as he has stopped .924% of all shots against, compared to .898 (Theodore) and .899 (Neuvirth). As a team, the Caps have surrendered 2.92 GPG since Varlamov went down. Expect their team GAA to shrink in the coming weeks.
Moving out from the crease, the Washington blue-line is very much a star-and-scrubs affair. Mike Green, a nominee last year for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman in the NHL, and a “just missed”, almost member of Team Canada at the upcoming Olympics, represents the “Star” faction. Last year, when Green broke out and averaged over 1 point-per game ( 31-42-73, in 65 games), was just the beginning. Through 42 games (he’s only missed one so far), Green has ten goals (4 on the power play) and 31 assists. Looking at the advanced numbers, he is currently 2nd in the league (behind only Duncan Keith of the ‘Hawks) in Tom Awad’s Goals-Versus-Threshold (GVT) statistic, comparing a player’s contributions to what would be expected from a non-prospect from the AHL at +11.8. His adjusted +/- is currently +8.2. One thing worth keeping in mind, however, is his Quality of Competition score, as tracked by behindthenet.ca. At 0.021, he is only 5th among Washington blue-liners, suggesting that Boudreau may be shielding him from the best their opponents have to offer, and leaving the heavy defensive lifting to Tom Poti, big Shaone Morrisonn and bigger Jeff Schultz. With a relative +/- of 11.4 (2nd on the team), 23-year-old Schultz, a former 1st rounder may be an unsung hero on the Washington blue-line. Among regular D-men, Schultz also leads the Caps in blocked shots per 60 minutes at 5.6 and has the highest Corsi Rating (measuring the difference in shots on goal for and against while a given player is on the ice), at 7.1 among Capital defenders. The strength of their top four defencemen has allowed the Capitals to trade away Milan Jurcina, as well as exhibit great patience with former 5th overall pick, Karl Alzner, as he has not yet shown NHL readiness in his limited ice time with the big club. His extended AHL development may yet pay dividends down the road.
Any look at Washington’s forwards must begin (but definitely does not end) with #8, Alex Ovechkin. The Big O currently has the best GVT among NHL forwards, at 15.5 and is behind only Zach Parise in relative +/- at 2.82. In simpler numbers, Ovechkin has an incredible 27 goals and 26 assists (53 points) in spite of missing 8 games, putting on pace for 113 points over 74 games – assuming he doesn’t miss any more time. The current NHL leading scorer, Henrik Sedin, is also on pace for 113 points – but he has the benefit of not having missed a game. How does he do it? Beyond the at turns bullish and graceful stick-handling, akin to Maradona with the ball in his prime, Ovechkin plays with All-World line-mates, generally teaming up with compatriot Alex Semin on the other wing, sandwiching Nicklas Backstrom, possibly the most overshadowed player in the game today. By virtue of playing of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin are ranked 1 and 2 respectively in Behind The Net’s Quality of Teammate score, measuring a given player’s shift-mates. Semin, injury-prone and electrifying would be even more valuable if he was able to fine-tune his marksmanship (among the league leaders with shots missing the net). Semin was slated for free agency after this season, but was recently signed to a one-year extension for $6 million. Ovechkin is locked in until the summer of 2021, at a cap hit of $9.291 million. On the other hand, Backstrom’s entry level contract expires in less than six months. A roughly comparable player, such as Joe Thornton, was signed to a three-year, $20 million contract after reaching restricted free agency. It could easily be argues that Backstrom, being 5 years younger now than Thornton was then, might even be worth more. The Caps have 12 players locked up for next year at a cap hit of $35.902, giving them in the neighbourhood of $20 million for 11 players. In addition to inking Backstrom, Washington also must come to terms with a number of other restricted free agents including the aforementioned Jeff Schultz, the unsung and improving duo Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr, backup goalie Michal Neuvirth (if he isn’t traded), and role players Boyd Gordon, Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle.
We’ll round out the Capital forwards with a look into the character guys, the 2nd and 3rd liners whose job it is to ensure that the opposition cannot rest when the top line takes a breather. A feel-good story among this group belongs to Brooks Laich. A former 6th-round pick, Laich’s career began its ascent in his third full NHL season. After compiling 40 points in his first 151 games, Laich scored 21 goals and 37 points for the Capitals in 2007-08. That was followed up by a 53-point season last year. After 44 games this year (he has not missed a game since the 2006-07 season), Laich is currently on pace for a new career high, with 58 points. Rounding out the character portion of the line-up are seasoned veterans Mike Knuble, Brendan Morrison and Jason Chimera (all added since the end of last season.
While the second and third lines are a drastic drop-off in talent after the big three, they are all potent enough to provide ample scoring support if Semin is knocked out for a game, or Ovechkin is somehow neutralized. As is, the capitals have only been shut-out once this year (by Ryan Miller and the Sabres on December 9) and were held to a single goal twice. This type of scoring depth can only bode well for the team, as does the valuable experience gained in last year’s playoffs, including the comeback against the Rangers in the first round and the riveting, and ultimately doomed, matchup against the eventual Stanley Cup champion, Pittsburgh Penguins. It says here that this depth, in the forward lines as well as the back-line, and the solid goaltending provided by Varlamov, will propel the Washington Capitals to the top of the Eastern Conference in May and to the Stanley Cup Finals.
– Ryan Wagman