Washington Capitals' Biggest Early Surprises in 2013-14 Season

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIIOctober 12, 2013

Washington Capitals' Biggest Early Surprises in 2013-14 Season

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    After a disappointing 3-2 loss to their old, and now new, divisional rival the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals are off to a second consecutive slow start to a season.

    The Caps now find themselves with a record of 1-3-0. They are already tied for last place in the Metropolitan division and are tied for 15th in the Eastern Conference.

    Of course, you can take a different perspective on things. Of the Caps' three losses, two have been by one goal and the other was a narrow defeat to the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Caps are not really playing bad—they are just not playing well enough to win.

    It could be worse, though. At least the Caps did not fire their head coach three games into the season like the Philadelphia Flyers.

    And, the Caps have not been outscored 15-2 in their past two games, like the New York Rangers.

    But they are certainly not off to the strong start of teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Hurricanes or even the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    There are several aspects about the Caps' start to their season that have been very surprising, ranging from game play to player performances to coaching and many things in between.

    Here are a few of the biggest early-season surprises about the Caps' 2013-14 season.

Another Slow Start

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    As someone who watched the Washington Capitals' preseason performance very closely, I am surprised and disappointed that the team has, once again, gotten off to a slow start.

    The Caps' 2-10-1 start to the shortened 2012-13 season was very nearly their undoing. It took the team almost the entire season to get back on track, and, but for a rather unbelievable run near the end of the season, the Caps' run of consecutive playoff appearances would have come to a crashing halt.

    The odds against the Caps getting off to a similarly dreadful start and being able to turn things around to qualify for the playoffs again, particularly in a loaded Metropolitan division and a very tough Eastern Conference, seem rather long indeed.

    When the season started, the Caps truly looked ready to go and another slow start did not seem likely.

    The Caps had a full preseason to get ready and work on some of their deficiencies. The Caps also played more preseason games than any other team in the Metropolitan division except the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders.

    The Caps played eight preseason games this year. The Jackets and Isles also played eight preseason games but the Caps opposition was much stiffer, including two games against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins and two games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

    It sure seemed that playing that tough opposition had the Caps ready to start the season. Every game the team played seemed to go to overtime or a shootout. The Caps also notched a couple of solid victories, including a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators and a 6-3 win over their old/new divisional rival, the Philadelphia Flyers.

    Alex Ovechkin looked like he was ready as he had four goals and an assist in five games.

    Mikhail Grabovski had a goal and seven assists in the preseason. He was tied with teammate Eric Fehr for the NHL lead in preseason points with eight.

    Unfortunately, though, all that extra preparation has not translated into a good start for the Caps.
    Unlike the Islanders and Jackets, who have both gotten off to good starts, the Caps have stumbled.

    They played well against the Blackhawks on opening night but still lost 6-4.

    They had to rally furiously to defeat the Calgary Flames 5-4 in a shootout in the Caps' home opener.

    They could not get much of anything going in a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars.

    And against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, the Caps could not hold a one-goal lead, twice; played an undisciplined style of hockey; and ultimately lost to the Canes 3-2.

    On Saturday, the Caps will host the undefeated Colorado Avalanche and the team desperately needs a strong effort to get things back on track before this slow start becomes even more problematic.

Alex Ovechkins Hot Start

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    While as a team the Caps are off to a poor start, the same cannot be said about their captain.

    While many Caps fans were hopeful that Alex Ovechkin could duplicate what he accomplished a year ago—when he led the NHL in goals scored—the idea that he might actually be even better in 2013-14 seemed to be a bit of wishful thinking.

    So far, however, Ovi is off to a surprisingly hot start, and he is well on pace to being an even more prolific goal scorer this year than he was a season ago.

    In sharp contrast to last season—when Ovi did not score a goal until the fifth game and had only two through the first 10 games—Ovechkin has been on his game since the puck was dropped in Chicago on opening night.

    He has scored a goal in all four of the Caps games so far this season and has five, so far, in total. That has Ovi ranked second in the NHL, behind only 19-year-old sensation Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks—and Hertl scored four goals in a single game.

    Ovechkin is actually tied with Hertl, Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens, Jiri Hudler of the Calgary Flames and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders for the NHL-lead in points.

    As was to be expected, Ovi leads the NHL in power-play goals, with three, and he also leads the NHL in shots with 32.

    And, sure, some of this was to be expected. Ovechkin has always been one of the very best at scoring on the power play and at generating shots.

    The surprising part, however, is seeing Ovechkin producing at levels we have not seen in several years. Last season, he did not score his fifth goal until the 13th game of the season.

    During the 2011-12 season, it took Ovi nine games to get to his fifth goal.

    During the 2010-11 season, it took Ovechkin 10 games to get to goal number five.

    No, you actually have to go back to the 2009-10 season, when Ovechkin scored his fifth goal in just the Caps third game, to put his current production on a comparable level. Ovechkin would end up scoring 50 goals that season and the Caps would end up winning their only President's Trophy.

    Outside of Barry Melrose—who predicted Ovechkin to score 60—I am not sure too many of us truly believed Ovi still had it in him to score even 50 goals. His blistering start has certainly set him up to do just that, and seeing him regain his scoring touch—at least to this extent—is a very pleasant surprise.

    If the Caps are going to overcome this slow start and climb into the thick of things, they will need all of the greatness that the Great 8 can provide.

Marcus Johansson

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    Players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Mikhail Grabovski were all expected to produce and make contributions to the team at some level.

    Having Marcus Johansson be just as productive is a pleasant early surprise for the Caps.

    So far, MoJo is tied for the team lead in assists—with Backstrom and Green—with four. Backstrom leading the team in assists was to be expected. The same cannot be said for Johansson.

    Perhaps this is a carry-over effect, of sorts, from his strong run to close out the regular season last year. After a slow start to the 2013 campaign, MoJo, along with the rest of the Caps' top line, caught fire down the stretch. Over the Caps final 20 games, Johansson scored three goals and had 14 assists.

    He would finish the 2013 regular season with six goals and 16 assists. MoJo would actually finish tied for fourth on the team in assists last season. He evolved from a center to a winger and became somewhat of an unsung hero for the Caps' top line.

    With Brooks Laich dealing with injuries for most of the 2013 season, having MoJo step up and play like he did could not have come at a better time. Nevertheless, Johansson's status, heading into the 2013-14 season, was somewhat unsettled.

    Johansson was a restricted free agent at the end of the 2013 season, and the Caps took a lot of time before finally re-signing him to a two-year, $4-million contract just before the start of training camp.

    So far, though, it looks like the Caps might get a solid return on investment with MoJo. Johansson has always had a lot of potential; potential that, up to now, has been mostly unrealized. His solid performance last season combined with his strong start to this season is a positive sign.

    His three assists against the Calgary Flames were a huge reason the Caps were able to rally and win that game.

    If Johansson can remain this productive, it opens up many options for the Caps and creates some much-needed depth as the team will try and overcome a slow start to reach the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.


The Rapid Decline of Martin Erat

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    At the trade deadline of the 2013 regular season, general manager George McPhee made one of the more unpopular trades in the history of the Washington Capitals when he traded away one of the best prospects in the entire organization, Filip Forsberg, for Martin Erat and Michael Latta.

    McPhee made the trade so the Caps could win now. The thought was that Erat would add what the Caps so desperately needed to win that elusive Stanley Cup.

    Things did not work out at all. In nine regular-season games with the Caps, Erat had all of one goal and two assists. In the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Erat did absolutely nothing except have a plus-one rating—and he missed the final three games of the series when the Caps could arguably have used him the most.

    To recap, Erat was brought to D.C. to help the Caps win the Cup; did very little in 13 games-played; and was not even on the ice during the Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal when he might have made a difference.

    Despite the poor start to his career with the Caps, it stood to reason that, given a full training camp and full preseason, Erat would redeem himself. After all, Erat is a really good player. He is relatively young at 32 years old, and he has demonstrated, in the past anyway, that he can score goals.

    On the other hand, he has not had a 20-goal season since the 2009-10 campaign. Even when he was in Nashville prior to the trade, he was not the same player who scored 36 goals, had 72 assists and a combined plus-26 the previous two seasons.

    What has transpired thus far, however, could not have been anticipated. Erat has spent most of his time so far this season on the Caps' fourth line. When the trade was made, Erat was expected to be on the second line or third, at worst.

    He has played in all four of the Caps' games so far and is averaging just over eight minutes of ice time per game. He has no goals, no assists, a minus-one rating and only two shots on goal this season.

    By way of comparison, Latta has played in two games so far this season, is averaging six and one-half minutes of ice time per game and also has a minus-one rating. But Latta is all of 22 years old and was a complete surprise to make the team, anyway. Plus, Latta is a physical force when he is on the ice; Erat is not.

    As for Forsberg, he has played in two games this year for the Predators; has averaged almost 15 minutes of ice time per game; and has a power-play goal. Yes, it is still early—but that is rubbing salt in the wound a bit.

    Naturally, all of this has led to speculation that Erat is now expendable. As CBS Sports reported, though, Erat has not asked for a trade—at least not yet.

    Erat does not become an unrestricted free agent until after the 2014-15 season, but I do not think McPhee will wait that long to try and erase this mistake if Erat continues to fail to produce. Personally, I would like to see Erat switched up with Jason Chimera for a little bit to see what, if anything, Erat can do on the third line.

    But, if the rapid decline of Erat continues at this pace, don't be surprised if Erat gets dealt sooner rather than later.