The Washington Capitals might be off to a bit of a slow start for the 2013-14 season, but several players are beginning to build a case, very early on, to be the MVP of the team at season's end.
After Saturday's tough 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, the Caps find themselves with a 1-2-0 record and a lot of time to think about things before their next game, on Oct. 10, against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Certainly, that is a much better start to the season than last season's 2-10-1 start. But it is still not quite as good as many had hoped for.
Up and down the Caps roster, there are standout players already. Seasoned veterans such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are already producing.
Young players like Connor Carrick and Tom Wilson are getting a true opportunity to show what they are capable of.
New players like Mikhail Grabovski have been more effective than anticipated.
We have seen both goaltenders play and, at times, play well.
Defensemen like Mike Green and Karl Alzner have had their moments as well in this young season.
When the season finally concludes in April, one player will have stood out as the best player for the Caps in 2013-14. One player will end up being the team's MVP.
Here are some early odds on who that player might eventually be.
Braden Holtby has struggled some so far.
Braden Holtby has definitely gotten off to a shakier start than had been anticipated or hoped for.
Against the Chicago Blackhawks, on opening night, Holtby allowed five goals. This was offset, somewhat, by the fact that Holtby made a ton of great saves during the course of that game to give the Caps a chance to win.
In the end, though, Holtby let in a soft goal from Johnny Oduya, and the Caps fell on opening night 6-4.
In the Caps' home opener against the Calgary Flames, Holtby struggled mightily and was pulled after giving up three first-period goals. Michal Neuvirth came in and helped lead the Caps to a 5-4 shootout win.
On Saturday, in Dallas, Holtby looked much better. He only gave up two goals, stopped 19 of 21 shots and was on the narrow end of a 2-1 loss to the Stars.
Through three games, Holtby has a pathetic 4.48 goals-against-average and a rather weak-looking .848 save percentage. He is still considered to be the Caps' No. 1 goaltender. But if his play does not improve, you have to figure that head coach Adam Oates will turn to Neuvirth more often.
But if you are a Holtby fan, take heart. Remember that he got off to a slow start last year as well. In his first three games last season, Holtby had a 6.00 goals-against average and an .885 save percentage.
Holtby would, however, rebound from this and end up in the top 10 in several key categories for goaltenders, including wins with 23 (good for fourth in the NHL), saves with 1,033 (eighth) and shutouts with four (sixth).
There is little doubt he is going to get his chances, although I suspect we will see more of Neuvirth as well. If Holtby begins to repeat his performance from last season—particularly after he caught fire and began dominating the opposition—then the talk about Holtby being the Caps' MVP might grow louder.
For now, though, the odds against Holtby being the Caps' MVP seem pretty long, indeed.
Mike Green's overall defensive play seems improved thus far this season.
Mike Green seems determined to convince everyone that he is more than just a goal-scoring defenseman. He is definitely trying to establish himself as a sold all-around defender.
The 2012-13 season certainly showed that Green still knows how to score. Even though he missed 13 games due to injury, Green still led all NHL defenders with 12 goals. He led the Caps in ice time, averaging almost 25 minutes per game.
He almost had two goals in the season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks. Instead, he had to settle for two assists. He now leads all Caps defenders with four assists. Karl Alzner is the only other Caps blueliner who even has an assist so far this season.
As far as ice time is concerned, Green is again the team leader on defense in this category, as he is averaging 28:18 of ice time per game. Despite his recent injury problems, Green has quietly become the iron man of sorts for the Caps defense.
But it is Green's overall play—and he's doing some things better then he usually does—which indicates that perhaps Green has evolved and improved his overall skill set.
Among Caps defenders, Green has the most blocked shots with 10. Alzner is second on the Caps in this category with just five.
Green has also been unusually physical with six hits so far. Among Caps defenders, Green is tied for the team lead with John Carlson and John Erskine.
But it is far from great with Green. He has a minus-three rating. Now, true, every Caps defender except Carlson has a negative efficiency rating.
Nevertheless, a minus-three rating from the defender who is on the ice the most is just a recipe for disaster.
Green's game thus far seems to have become more well-rounded, and he has improved in several areas. He still does not have a goal, but he has been playing pretty well. He must become more responsible in his own end of the ice, though, if the Caps are going to do anything this season.
I think Green will put up good numbers and have a solid season. But he is another long shot to be deemed the Caps' MVP once the season ends.
Nicklas Backstrom scored a huge game-tying goal against the Calgary Flames in the Caps home opener.
Nicklas Backstrom has already demonstrated a flair for the dramatic this season. It was Backstrom who scored the game-tying goal in the Caps' great comeback win over the Calgary Flames in the home opener.
Like much of what this very underrated center does, though, his heroics went largely unnoticed by most except dedicated Caps fans. Such is the life of the man who has lived in the shadow of Alex Ovechkin for much of his career.
Last season, Backstrom became one of the best setup men in the NHL. His 40 assists led the Caps, and he ended up finishing third in the entire NHL in that category. He would have been on pace for 68 assists, which would have tied him for his career high, set in the 2009-10 season.
So far this season, Backstrom looks to be as dangerous as ever, especially on the power play. His overall game looks as solid. He currently has a goal and three assists. The three assists has him ranked second on the team, but I seriously doubt Marcus Johansson will remain the Caps assist leader all season.
But Backstrom's true value is how he enhances the gameplay of Ovechkin. Ovi would not likely be half the player he is without Backstrom by his side, and Backstrom's play is a big reason why Ovechkin is off to such a hot start.
Backstrom is just one of those players who does what he does and he does it well. This becomes evident when the Caps are on the power play.
With the man advantage, Backstrom's vision, passing ability and playmaking are exceptional. Against the Chicago Blackhawks on opening night, Backstrom clearly made the Hawks nervous. The 'Hawks were third in the NHL last season in penalty-kill efficiency, yet they played somewhat tentatively against the Caps power play.
It did not work out so well. Three of the Caps' four goals were of the power-play variety. Backstrom had assists on two of them. This is part of what makes Backstrom so dangerous: Even when a team is actively trying to stop him, he can still make them pay.
One stat that concerns me so far is Backstrom's low faceoff win percentage. Backstrom is only winning 45.4 percent of his draws so far this season. Last season, he won 51.4 percent. Obviously, if the Caps top line is going to produce more, then Backstrom must win more faceoffs.
But otherwise, Backstrom is going to have a very good season. It likely will not be enough for him to be considered the Caps' MVP, but Caps fans should get a very solid outing from Backstrom in 2013-14.
Mikhail Grabovski is making a strong case for Caps MVP early on.
The beginning of Mikhail Grabovski's career with the Washington Capitals could probably not have gone much better than it has.
Not too many players register a hat trick with their new teams on opening night, and against the defending Stanley Cup champions no less. But Grabovski did just that against the Chicago Blackhawks in the season opener.
For an encore, in the home opener against the Calgary Flames, Grabovski scored the Caps' first shootout goal, and Washington would go on to prevail.
Thus far this season, Grabovski has three goals and two assists. His faceoff win percentage has been pretty good as well, as he is winning 52.8 percent of his draws.
His biggest impact has been on the power play, and seeing as how the Caps are really struggling to generate anything at even strength, they can use all the help they can get.
Grabovski is a force on the Caps' already potent power play. Unlike the man he replaced, Mike Ribeiro, Grabovski likes to get in front of the net and disrupt things. He likes to screen the goalie and look for deflections or tap-ins. Ribeiro was effective at this to a certain extent; Grabovski is much better.
Grabovski's two-way play has also been a welcome improvement for the Caps. He is excellent at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and driving it into the offensive zone, maintaining possession and creating scoring opportunities for the offense. It is something we saw a lot of in the preseason, and it has continued through the Caps' first three games.
It is not all peaches and cream for Grabo, though. Despite his stellar play so far, he is still a minus-one and he did miss a golden opportunity in the dying moments against the Dallas Stars on Saturday that would have tied the game up.
Then again, virtually everyone on the Caps has a negative efficiency rating, and Kari Lehtonen did make a heck of a save to preserve the win for the Stars.
It is hard to find a lot to complain about as far as Grabovski's hot start to the season. If he can maintain this level of play all season long, then he might very well be the only player on the Caps who can significantly challenge Alexander Ovechkin as far as being the Caps' MVP for 2013-14.
The Great 8 has been quite great so far this season.
I am listing Alex Ovechkin as even money to be the Caps' MVP this season. The truth of the matter, though, is that Ovi has been money in the bank for the Caps so far in 2013-14.
Last season, Ovechkin reminded everyone that he was, and still is, one of the best players in the world. He won his third Rocket Richard Trophy, leading the NHL with 32 goals, and he also captured his third Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's MVP.
Leading into this season, there were still the doubters out there who figured that Ovi could not duplicate the feat again this year. So far, Ovechkin is proving the naysayers wrong yet again.
He leads the NHL with four goals. He has scored a goal in all three of the Capitals' games. He also leads the NHL with six points.
Ovi led the NHL in shots last season and is currently leading the NHL in shots this season with 24.
Ovi continues to be an absolute monster on the power play. Three of his four goals have come with the man advantage. Ovechkin led the NHL with 16 power-play goals last season; he is currently leading the NHL in this category again with three power-play goals.
Ovechkin is continuing to be effective at scoring on the power play even though the opposition knows exactly what is coming. Beyond that, though, Ovi looks to be skating well, he is playing physically and he looks determined.
The only thing really missing from his game—and it is missing from the team in general—is the ability to score at even strength. The Caps absolutely have to improve in this category if they hope to have any chance at winning on a consistent basis.
Obviously, Ovechkin's pace for scoring goals will slow. He is going to have some off-nights, and that is to be expected.
But as has been the case since the 2005-06 season, there is no player on the Washington Capitals who is more important—and more directly responsible for their success and failure—than the captain.
Unless something truly unexpected occurs, Ovechkin being the Caps' MVP when the season comes to an end is about as safe a bet as you can make.