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Grading the Washington Capitals' Performance for the First Half of the Season

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIMarch 17, 2013

Grading the Washington Capitals' Performance for the First Half of the Season

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    The Washington Capitals seemingly saved their season Thursday night with a stirring, comeback, road win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

    Not even halfway through the first period in Raleigh on Thursday night, the Caps found themselves down by two goals. In fewer than four periods of hockey, the Caps had been outscored by the Canes 6-0.  Carolina looked to be on the verge of delivering the knockout blow on the Caps' hopes for a Southeast division title this season and, possibly, any playoff berth at all.

    Somehow though, the Caps fought back and captured a 3-2 win over the Canes. Third period goals by Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro rescued the Caps from the brink and—for the time being anyway—kept the Caps' rather slim hopes for making the playoffs alive.

    Then came Saturday, and the Caps turned in a real stinker of an effort in a disheartening 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. While losing to the Bruins is nothing to be ashamed of, the manner in which the Caps were pretty well dominated by the B's was very demoralizing.

    In a microcosm, it has been that kind of a season for the Caps.

    A terribly slow start to the season saw the Caps stumble out of the blocks to a 2-8-1 record. Brooks Laich was not playing, the team could not score and they were racking up penalties at an alarming rate.

    Since then, however, the Caps have been better, sporting a record of 9-7-0. Nevertheless, the Caps' chances for making the playoffs seem bleak. With just 21 games remaining in the season, Washington sits eight points out of the final playoff spot in the eastern Conference, and they are nine points behind the Winnipeg Jets—yes, the Jets— for the Southeast division lead.

    Declaring the season officially lost might be a bit premature—but thinking the Caps have a real shot at making the playoffs this season might just be too optimistic.

    With more than half the season in the books, it really looks like the Caps will have to go back to school in the offseason to try and figure out how they can improve so that they can be competitive once more for the 2013-2014 season.

    Like any good student though, the Caps must receive their dreaded report card here at the mid-term of their semester on ice to see just how well or poorly they have been doing.

    So let's pass out some grades for the Washington Capitals' performance for the first half of the season.

Offense

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    One of the reasons Adam Oates was hired by the Capitals was because the feeling was that Oates would bring a more up-tempo style of offense to the Caps, similar to the way they were during the Bruce Boudreau era.

    Felt to be not dynamic enough while Dale Hunter was the coach, the Caps were still competitive in every playoff game they played in last spring. If only they could have scored a few more goals, who knows how far they could have gone. But with Hunter's defense first philosophy, large outbursts of goals were not in the cards.

    With Oates behind the wheel of the Caps' sports-car like offense, many fans and analysts had to feel that the Caps' scoring machine of old would return with a vengeance.

    Halfway through the 2013 season, the results have been largely hit and miss. Currently, the Caps are averaging 2.70 goals per game. That is good enough to have them ranked 14th in the NHL.

    A season ago, the Caps ranked 14th in the NHL scoring, on average, 2.66 goals per game. So, in that respect, the Caps have improved very little.

    Still, compare that to 2009-2010 when the Caps averaged 3.82 goals per game, and it is easy to see that the Caps are nowhere near the same team they were a few years ago.

    The shots per game also do not demonstrate a team that is very "up-tempo" at all. The Caps are averaging 27.7 shots per game, and that has them ranked 22nd in the NHL.

    Last year, with their oh so pedestrian offense, the Caps averaged 28 shots per game and they were ranked 23rd in the NHL. So, in this area, the Caps have actually regressed some. It is an important stat to keep in mind, because it sure seems, at times, as though the Caps are not getting nearly enough quality scoring chances. Perhaps that is because they are just not shooting the puck enough.

    Then again, the Caps are outshooting their opponent 57.1 percent of the time this season; a season ago, the Caps only outshot the opposition 50 percent of the time.

    So what do we make of all this and what sort of grade does the Caps' offense get at the turn? In reality, the Caps' offense, for the most part, seems rather average. Nothing more and nothing less. That's not a bad thing—but with the Eastern Conference as strong as it is this season, average just is nowhere near good enough.

     

    Mid-Term Grade:  C+

Defense

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    One of the concerns with the Caps resorting to a more up-tempo style of hockey was that their defense would suffer as a result. While the hope was that the Caps' offense could go back to its 2009-2010 form, no one really wanted the Caps to abandon the defensive style of hockey that had brought them to the doorstep of the Eastern Conference finals a season ago—at least not completely.

    During the Caps' record-setting season of 2009-2010, the Caps would frequently engage opponents in goal scoring outbursts and just try and win games by pretty much abandoning anything resembling a defensive scheme. At least that is what it looked like at times.

    Interestingly though, during that 2009-2010 season, the Caps gave up an average of 2.77 goals per game, which had them ranked 16th in the NHL. The Caps also gave up, on average, 30.9 shots per game, which had them ranked 18th in the NHL.

    Compare those numbers to last season, when the Caps were supposed to be a much more defensive style of team under then coach Dale Hunter. The Caps gave up 2.76 goals per game, just .01 percent of an improvement over 2009-2010. They gave up 30.2 shots per game, again just a slight improvement.

    Now during the 2011-2012 playoffs, the Caps' defense improved some. The Caps gave up only 2.14 goals per game, but they allowed even more shots, giving up 32.8 per game.

    When Adam Oates was hired then, the hope was that he would be able to strike a balance between the offensive style of Bruce Boudreau from 2009-2010 and the defensive style of Dale Hunter from 2011-2012.

    The solution that Oates came up with was, in essence, a hybrid of the two systems. Prior to the season starting, Katie Carrera of the Washington Post reported that Oates was going to call upon his defensemen to be something really special in his system.

    Oates was going to place immense trust in his blueliners by giving them the discretion to jump up into the offensive zone with the forwards. Moreover, Oates was giving all the defenders the green light to do this.

    The results, however, have not been good. The Caps are giving up 3.04 goals per game and are ranked 25th in the NHL. They are giving up 32.0 shots per game, which has them ranked 26th in the NHL.

    Thus, their defensive performance so far is quite a bit worse than it was during the 2009-2010 season—when the Caps were supposedly not playing defense at all.

    The problem with Oates' system is two-fold. On the one hand, there are too many examples of defenders jumping up into the zone at the wrong time, and the Caps have repeatedly been exposed to odd-man rushes all over the ice.

    The other problem is that Oates' system allows teams to fire a lot of shots. The idea is to keep teams on the perimeter and keep the goalies' lines of sight as clear as possible. That is great as long as goalies are able to control rebounds or, if they can't, the defense can effectively clear away uncontrolled rebounds.

    Midway through the season, the Caps' defensive issues have done a lot of damage. They simply do not have the offensive firepower from a few years ago to get into shootouts with teams that are, quite often, deeper and more explosive than they are.

    In most ways, it is hard to look at the Caps' defensive performance this year as anything but a step back.

     

    Mid-Term Grade:  C-

Power Play

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    One area where the Caps are passing with flying colors is with their power play.

    One of the main reasons Adam Oates was hired as coach of the Capitals was so that he could get the team's power play back to where it was during their record-setting season of 2009-10. The Caps' power play led the NHL with a 25.2 percent efficiency rating that year.

    The following season, though, the Caps' power play slipped to 16th in the league while operating at 17.5 percent efficiency. Last season, the decline continued as the Caps ranked 18th in the NHL, their power play operating at a 16.7 percent efficiency rate.

    When Oates was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, he was handed the job of getting the Devils' power play back on track. New Jersey's power play, at the time, was a mess. It ranked 28th in the NHL in power-play percentage, clicking on just 14.4 percent of their opportunities.

    By the end of last season though, the Devils' power play was ranked 14th in the NHL with a 17.2 percent success rate. In no time at all, Oates had increased the Devils' success rate by 2.8 percent and gotten them into the top half of the league as far as their power-play success rate.

    Based on the Caps' 2011-12 season numbers, if Oates could repeat the success he had in New Jersey with the Caps, then the team's power-play success rate was projected to go up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 19.5 percent.

    Thus far, the Caps' power play in 2013 is operating at a 24.4 percent efficiency rate and is ranked No. 3 in the NHL behind Anaheim, who is being coached by the Caps' coach from the 2009-2010 season, Bruce Boudreau, and St. Louis

    Oates has actually gotten the Caps' power play to be almost where it was during that great 2009-2010 season.

    How huge has the Caps power play been this year for them? Consider that when it is a matter of five-on-five hockey, the Caps' goal to goal against ratio is only a .89 percent, which has them ranked 22nd in the NHL. That means that the Caps have to rely heavily on the power play to score goals.

    Thankfully, the power play has delivered—and then some.

     

    Mid-term Grade:  A

Penalty Kill

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    While the Caps' power play has been fantastic, the other half of their special teams play, the penalty kill, has been quite bad.

    The Caps' penalty kill is currently only killing off the opposition's power play 76.5 percent of the time. That ranks 28th in the NHL. Only the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers are worse.

    A season ago, the Caps' penalty kill success rate was 81.6 percent, so they have slipped over five full percentage points this season. The Caps' troubles on the PK are a major reason they will likely miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

    It is hard to say exactly what is wrong with the Caps' penalty killing units. But if you watch the Caps' penalty killers and compare the way they play to the way a team like the league leading Boston Bruins approach the PK (operating at a 93.1 percent efficiency rate), you will notice some rather dramatic differences.

    The Bruins aggressively challenge each entry into their zone, whether it is a five-on-five situation or on the penalty kill. There are no easy passes. Open ice is hard to come by and shooting lanes even more so.

    The Caps' PK, however, seems to allow teams to creep in closer and closer to the slot or inside the circles. There is usually quite a bit of open ice to work with, and the Caps just make it too easy on the opposition.

    The Caps' rather laid back style on the penalty kill does not make for many good shorthanded scoring opportunities either, and the Caps have only one shorthanded goal all season—and that one was because of a complete misplay by the goaltender.

    The only good thing one can say about the Caps' penalty killing situation is that they are not taking as many penalties as they did earlier in the season. They are averaging 12.0 penalty minutes per game which makes them the 16th least penalized team in the NHL. They have been whistled 129 times, which has them ranked 14th.

    But until the Caps can radically improve their penalty kill, they are going to face an uphill battle each and every time they are shorthanded. For a team struggling just to survive, that might just be too much to overcome.

     

    Mid-Term Grade:  D+

Goaltending

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    The Caps' goaltending situation through the first half of 2013 has been an adventure of sorts.

    There have been some great moments along the way, such as Braden Holtby's three shutouts.

    Then again, there have been several games where goalies have been pulled after giving up some soft goals. Holtby has been pulled twice. Michal Neuvirth has been pulled once. Things have been so inconsistent with the Caps between the pipes this year that even rookie Philipp Grubauer has seen action.

    Holtby has been the workhorse so far this season. He has a 9-9-0 record on the season with a 2.97 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. None of those numbers has Holtby ranked amongst the NHL's elite. He is ranked 40th in goals against average and 27th in save percentage.

    But Holtby does have the Caps' only three shutouts on the season, and that has him ranked third in the NHL. It certainly seems that Holtby is being considered the Caps' No. 1 goalie, and this was evidenced by the Caps signing Holtby to a two-year contract extension (via NBCWashington.com) worth $3.7 million.

    Most of the backup duties in goal, thus far, have fallen to Michal Neuvirth. At times, Neuvirth has been really good and at other times, not so much. In many ways, Neuvirth's performance has mirrored the Caps' overall performance for the season in net so far.

    Neuvirth has a record of 2-5-1 with a 2.99 goals against average and a .899 save percentage. Similar to Holtby, those are not numbers for any Caps fan to be too excited over or for any opponent to really fear.

    A third goalie, however, has emerged, and he does show some potential. That would be rookie Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer came in to relieve Holtby in a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers back on February 27. In his only start against the New York Islanders on March 9, Grubauer was peppered by 45 Islanders' shots and he gave up five goals.

    Still, Grubauer shows quite a bit of promise, and he could very well be the legitimate backup to Braden Holtby. His 3.57 goals against average is nothing to be too proud of, but his .915 save percentage shows a lot of potential.

    The three goalies therefore sport a combined goals against average of 3.18 and a combined save percentage of .908. Really, all you can say about the Caps' goaltending so far is that it has been, in many ways, very average.

     

    Mid-term Grade:  C

Coaching

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    As is often the case, the success or failure of a team will fall on the shoulders of the head coach and his staff.

    The 2013 Washington Capitals are no exception.

    To a great extent, all of the other categories we have explored so far are just a piece of the bigger puzzle that represents coaching.

    When you look at what Adam Oates was brought in to accomplish—namely getting the offense back on track and getting the power play back to it's former level of greatness—Oates has been partly successful. He has exceeded expectations as far as the power play is concerned, but the offense still struggles too often, as was the case against the Boston Bruins on Saturday.

    But a big problem with Oates and the rest of the coaching staff is that his "system" is really nothing more than trying to bridge the gap between the systems implemented by Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter. By trying to find the perfect balance between Boudreau's up-tempo, offense first, style and Hunter's more defense oriented system, far too often the Caps have done neither particularly well.

    There are just far too many times when the Caps are giving up odd-man rushes. Defenders are jumping up into the zone more often, but they are not really scoring that much. John Carlson leads all Caps' blueliners with four goals. That is good enough for sixth on the team, which is not too bad.

    But the defensive lapses are troubling. The game on Saturday against the Bruins demonstrated where the Caps' coaching staff is failing. How many Bruins' goals were the result of the Caps' defenders not accounting for guys creeping into the slot area and just pounding the puck home? Blame that on the defense if you want, but the coaching staff needs to be held accountable as well.

    And that accountability goes even deeper. The Caps' problems with penalties and the penalty kill are a reflection of the lack of discipline on the team at times. That has to fall on the coaches. If they can't get the team ready to play disciplined hockey on a nightly basis, there is no one else to blame but themselves.

    Overall, though, all you really have to do is look at the Caps' overall performance to see how poorly the coaching staff has done. With the Caps a full eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference—and a whopping none points behind the surprising Winnipeg Jets for the Southeast division lead—the season is all but lost.

    When you have a team with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro (who is having a career year), and you are that far out of the playoff race at the mid-point of the season, it is hard to look at the job of the coaching staff as anything but a dismal failure.

    The only saving grace for Oates and his staff is all the injuries the Caps have dealt with. Not having Brooks Laich in the lineup all season has been a massive blow for Oates and the Caps. Add in injuries to Mike Green, John Erskine, Dmitry Orlov and Jack Hillen, and Oates has had a lot to deal with in his rookie season.

    Nevertheless, it is hard to find too many positive ways to spin the utterly disappointing job that Adam Oates and his coaching staff have done with this once proud franchise this season.

     

    Mid-Term Grade:  D

Overall Mid-Term Grade

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    Overall Mid-Term Grade:  C

    If you look at all of these various categories, add up the Caps' mid-term grades and divide by six, the Caps "GPA" at the mid-point of the season is a 2.05. By most academic standards that would make the Caps a "C" student, rather average in most every way.

    That about sums it up for the Caps and, by and large, that is a very disappointing report card. This is a franchise that had very high expectations when the season began—perhaps too high some might argue—and they have failed in most areas.

    If the Caps are going to remotely challenge for a playoff berth this season, they will really have to crack the books and get their final grade up considerably.

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