5 Burning Questions the Washington Capitals Must Answer Early in the 2013 Season

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIIFebruary 4, 2013

5 Burning Questions the Washington Capitals Must Answer Early in the 2013 Season

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    It is still rather early in the 2013 NHL season and already the Washington Capitals have a lot of explaining to do.

    When you are 2-6-1, lots and lots of people will have all sorts of questions for you.

    When you get blown out by your arch rival, on home ice, on Super Bowl Sunday, those questions will be mixed in with a lot of harsh criticism.

    For the Washington Capitals, this is unfamiliar territory. The Caps have not gotten off to a poor start like this since they began the 2007-2008 campaign 6-14-1.

    That dreadful start cost Glen Hanlon his job and some are starting to wonder just how short a leash new coach Adam Oates might have.

    This is not the way the season was supposed to go. After upsetting the Boston Bruins in the 2012 NHL playoffs—and very nearly upsetting the New York Rangers as well—Caps fans went into the 2013 abbreviated season with very high hopes.

    To a great extent, those hopes have been dashed.

    After the 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday (ESPN), the questions continue to mount and concerns about whether the Caps can recover have gone from being just extreme pessimism to unfortunate reality.

    Why?

    Why have the Caps failed to take the next step after a great playoff run last spring.

    Why is a team loaded with star talent struggling so badly right now?

    These are just some of the questions many have as far as the Washington Capitals are concerned.

    Here then are five burning questions the Washington Capitals must answer early in the 2013 season.

1. Are They Really This Bad?

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    I'll put it this way—they are not good.

    It's not just the 2-6-1 record though. It is a combination of many things that raise a multitude of concerns about this team's prospects for 2013.

    A quick look at the sortable stats page at NHL.com will reveal some numbers about the Caps that are just not too encouraging.

    The Caps have the second worst record in the NHL right now. Only the Calgary Flames at 1-3-2 have a worse record—and they have played in three fewer games than the Caps.

    Adam Oates was supposed to revitalize the offense, wasn't he? Thus far, the Caps are averaging 2.33 goals per game. That has them ranked 26th in the NHL. No...that's not too good either.

    Defensively, the Caps are no better as they are allowing 3.67 goals per game. That has the Caps ranked 27th in the NHL.

    Obviously, when you are ranked 26th in goals formed and 27th in goals against, you are not going to fare very well at all.

    Oates was also supposed to make the Caps' power play formidable once again. Thus far, the Caps' power play is operating at 16.2 percent efficiency, good for 18th in the NHL. That's not too bad, but it could, and likely should, be better.

    One of the Caps' biggest problems so far has been the number of times they have been shorthanded. The Caps have been shorthanded 44 times already this season (NHL.com). Only the Dallas Stars, at 45 times, have been shorthanded more.

    This is what has been killing the Caps as they are only killing off penalties at the rate of 72.7 percent. That has them ranked 25th in the NHL.

    So, they are drawing more penalties than almost all other teams in the league and they are not killing them off too well once they draw them.

    Is it any wonder why they are 2-6-1?

    The Caps are averaging 28.7 shots per game, which has them ranked 18th in the NHL.

    They are allowing 30.9 shots per game, which has them ranked 21st.

    They have an NHL worst minus-12 in goal differential. They are ranked dead last in the ESPN Power Rankings.

    As you can see, in most major categories, the Caps are ranked in the bottom half of the NHL.

    So to answer the first burning question it would seem like the answer is yes—the Caps, so far anyway, are really that bad.

2. Is Braden Holtby a Flash in the Pan?

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    Even though the Caps fell short in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Rangers, as the team left the ice at Madison Square Garden Caps' fans still had to feel optimistic about the future, particularly the goaltending situation.

    After all, Braden Holtby had just turned in a spectacular performance over the course of 14 games, many of them as pressure packed as any a rookie goalie could possibly face.

    How good was Holtby's playoff performance?

    Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average during the 2012 NHL playoffs (ESPN).

    Only Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the 2012 NHL playoffs, and Lundqvist had a better goals against average than Holtby, among goalies who played more than 10 playoff games last year.

    Holtby also had a .935 save percentage.

    Only Quick and Phoenix's Mike Smith had a better save percentage among goalies playing in more than 10 playoff games.

    With numbers like that, it was easy to believe that Braden Holtby would be the answer in net for the Caps for many years to come.

    To say that Holtby's 2013 performance, thus far, has been a disappointment would be an understatement. So far, Holtby has been very underwhelming, to say the least.

    Against the Lightning (ESPN), on opening night, Holtby surrendered six goals on 34 shots. He had a .824 save percentage. The Caps defense let him down on several occasions, to be sure. But some of the goals scored by Tampa Bay would have had no chance against the Braden Holtby from the 2012 playoffs.

    Holtby would get the next start against the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets beat the Caps, 4-2 (ESPN). Against the Jets, the Caps gave up 39 shots on goal and Holtby stopped 35 of them. He had a .897 save percentage in that game, so there was some level of improvement.

    But, again, some of the goals were quasi-soft. One goal banked in off his skate. Another one just seemed to somehow trickle into the net behind him.

    In both games, Holtby's glove side was a target and a weakness.

    Holtby took a back seat to Michal Neuvirth for the next five games. He returned to action on Friday night against the Philadelphia Flyers. Holtby played quite well and looked like the Holtby of old as the Caps edged the Flyers, 3-2, to capture their second win of the season (ESPN).

    Against the Flyers, Holtby stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced for a .935 save percentage. He made some good saves and kept the high powered Flyers off balance for much of the game.

    But then came the Super Bowl Sunday battle with the Pittsburgh Penguins and this was probably Holtby's worst outing so far.

    Holtby allowed six goals on just 26 shots against for a pretty dreadful .769 save percentage as the Pens crushed the Caps 6-3 at Verizon Center (NHL.com).

    A few of the goals Holtby allowed could be considered soft. The goal he gave up to Kris Letang that put Pittsburgh ahead to stay is a save Holtby has to make. There is no other way to sugarcoat it.

    So Braden Holtby's record now sits at 1-3 for the season. He has a 4.52 goals against average, which ranks 39th in the NHL. He has a .862 save percentage, which ranks 38th.

    To steal some dialogue from ESPN's Stan Verrett and Neil Everett:

    "Is that bad?"

    "It's not good."

    No, it's not good at all.

    Compare that to the Caps other goalie, Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth has a 2.97 goals against average (26th in the NHL) and a .899 save percentage (23rd in the NHL). No, those are not all-star caliber numbers either. Still, Neuvirth is outplaying Holtby right now and that is something else that was not supposed to happen.

    Is Braden Holtby a flash in the pan? Or is he, like the Caps, just off to a slow start?

    Time will answer this burning question. But so far, there are plenty of reasons for Caps fans to be concerned about the play of Braden Holtby.

3. When Will Brooks Laich Return to the Lineup?

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    I do not believe I am alone in my feelings that one of the Caps' biggest problems so far this year is that Brooks Laich has not been in the lineup.

    Laich is one of those players who brings energy, leadership and enthusiasm to a Caps team sorely lacking in all three so far this season.

    The great thing about Laich is he can be plugged in up and down the roster and this creates opportunities for the Caps to create different lines and, at the same time, create additional matchup problems for opponents.

    For instance, last season Laich had to spend a great deal of time trying to be the Caps' answer for a second-line center. Laich might actually be better situated on the wing and using him as a second-line center did not help his productivity.

    Last year Laich scored 16 goals and 25 assists.

    For three seasons, from 2007-2010, Laich was a 20 goal scorer in each of those seasons.

    As can be seen, Laich brings some stable scoring to the team. But it is that intangible quality he has that the Caps are really missing right now. Laich has a nose for the net and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

    The Caps, in my opinion, desperately need him back in the lineup if they are going to have any chance at doing anything this season.

    But, thus far, no one really knows when Laich will return to the lineup. Laich injured his groin playing in Switzerland during the lockout and he has not played in any of the Caps nine games so far.

    The last update any of us got on Laich's status was prior to the game last Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs when Katie Carrera of the Washington Post reported that Laich had participated in the morning skate with the team for the first time this season.

    Laich did not play in that game, nor did he play Friday against the Philadelphia Flyers or on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    As best as I can tell, there have been no new updates as to Laich's status.

    I think the Caps miss Laich more than they could have anticipated. He brings stability, leadership and will also add some chemistry back to the team.

    But recovering from a groin injury can be a tricky thing. That is why, at this point in time anyway, there just are not any good answers to the burning question of when we will see Brooks Laich take to the ice for the first time.

4. Are Alexander Ovechkin's Best Years Already Behind Him?

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    Last week, I wrote an article discussing three reasons why the Washington Capitals should seriously think about cutting ties with Alexander Ovechkin.

    Despite the rather controversial topic, I was surprised to learn that many of you out there agreed with me.

    Since I wrote that article, Ovi has not exactly done a lot to make many of us change our minds.

    On Friday, in the win against the Flyers, Ovi had no goals or assists. But he played probably his best game of the season from the standpoint of intensity and determination.

    Ovi had seven shots on goal, a season high for him. He had good energy and was a key part of the Caps' win.

    As for the game on Sunday, the mere presence of Sidney Crosby brought out the best in the Great 8.

    Ovi was again very active and into the game. He had an assist and a plus-one rating. He had five shots on goal and his energy level was pretty good. He played physical as well and even got too physical when he drew a roughing penalty in the closing moments.

    While all that is encouraging, the same problems with Ovi's game remain. He is just not scoring. He had some great scoring opportunities against both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and he could not find the back of the net.

    2013 was supposed to see Ovechkin return to form. So far though, it has been an extremely disappointing season for Ovechkin and the Caps.

    Through nine games, Ovi has just two goals, two assists, four points and a minus-two rating.

    If you want to be really depressed, take a look at Ovi's stat card from ESPN. Look and see what his projected totals are: 11 goals and 11 assists for all of 22 points. If this were an 82-game season, Ovi would end up with just 19 goals and 19 assists.

    Can anyone in their right mind imagine a season in which Alexander Ovechkin did not score at least 20 goals? It is borderline unthinkable.

    But that is where we are with Ovechkin lately. His game continues to decline and so too do his numbers.

    It is almost absurd to think that at the ripe old age of 27, Alexander Ovechkin could be past his prime. But when you look at those projected stats, they are rather frightening.

    We are, after all, talking about the Great 8.

    He was the first player to win the Art Ross Trophy, Maurice Richard Trophy, Lester B. Pearson Award and Hart Memorial Trophy in a single season.

    He holds the record for most goals scored by a left-winger in a season—65 during the 2007-2008 season. He led the NHL in scoring for that season as well.

    He also holds the record for most points scored by a left-wing rookie—106 during the 2005-2006 season.

    He won his second consecutive Hart Memorial Trophy after the 2008-2009 season.

    So, are Ovechkin's best years really behind him? It does not seem likely and, yet, it is something that has to be considered.

    Out of all the burning questions surrounding the Caps, this one might be the most disturbing.

5. Will the Caps Other Absentee Players Ever Show Up?

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    As much criticism as has been directed towards Alexander Ovechkin, it is absolutely not all his fault that the Caps are struggling so badly.

    Without question, we cannot fault players like Joel Ward, who shockingly leads the Caps with four goals.

    Nor can we question a player like Mike Ribeiro who is leading the Caps with 10 points.

    But go through the rest of the Caps' roster and the number of players who are coming up small is shocking. It is a huge reason why the Caps are struggling as badly as they are.

    Start at the top by looking at Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom missed 40 games a season ago due to injury. During that time, the Caps really faltered. With Backstrom in the lineup though, the Caps excelled. Backstrom figured to be critical to the Caps' chances for success this season.

    Thus far, however, Backstrom has only one goal and that came Friday night on a great breakaway against the Philadelphia Flyers.

    To be fair to Backstrom though, he does seem to be heating up as he has a goal and three assists in the past three games. He is currently ranked second on the Caps in points with seven on the season.

    Still, the Caps need Backstrom's goal-scoring touch to come back if the Caps are going to make a run at it.

    What about Jason Chimera? After scoring 20 goals a season ago, Chimera has done very little this season. He has no goals and just three assists on the season. He has only one assist the past three games.

    Again, to be fair, Chimera does have five assists on the season, which has him ranked fourth on the team in points. Still, Chimera has to find a way to score goals if the Caps are going to get back into things.

    Or what about John Carlson. After signing a six-year, $23.8 million contract extension (Washington Post), many in D.C. had to feel that Carlson would break out this year and really stamp his seal on the Caps' defense.

    Instead, Carlson has only one goal—and it was a fluke goal at that—and two assists. He is also a minus-two for the year. That is just not going to cut it for Carlson or for the Caps.

    And then there is the train wreck that is Marcus Johansson. MoJo is simply lacking any sort of mojo of any kind. He has played in seven games so far. He has no goals and no assists. Yet he is still a minus-seven and has put the puck on net all of three times this season.

    Mathieu Perrault also has no goals, no assists and a minus-three rating.

    Review that list of players for a moment:  Backstrom, Chimera, Carlson, Johansson and Perrault.

    With those five players struggling like they have, is it any wonder the Caps are struggling just as much?

    If any of these players actually gets hot, it could go a long way towards changing the Washington Capitals' fortunes.

    Whether any of these players actually does decide to show up this season is the real burning question.