The 2013-14 NHL campaign has been a relatively encouraging one for the Washington Capitals, as Adam Oates' team sits well within reach of securing a postseason berth heading into the second half of the season.
Yes, there have been some disappointing losses, as well as some troubling issues, such as the multiple trade demands that have been aired by notable players thus far. But overall, one has to think that Oates has this squad on the right track.
The Caps boast some of the league's most productive offensive players, as well as an impressive group of newcomers. For the most part, this team has adjusted well to the move to the Metropolitan Division, which was certainly a concern heading into the season.
Now, with the second serving of the schedule in clear view, it's time to hand out the hardware for the best performances of Washington's first half of the season.
With a number of rookies making an impact at the NHL level this season for the Caps, there are a couple of choices for this honor, but one has been slightly more consistent than the other front-runners.
Tom Wilson and Nate Schmidt have both become regulars for Adam Oates’ squad, but Philipp Grubauer has suddenly made Michal Neuvirth a spare part in net.
Despite the German stopper’s pedigree (which includes leading Windsor to a Memorial Cup crown in 2010), few expected that after being taken No. 112 overall, Grubauer would be ready to battle Neuvirth or Braden Holtby for time in net.
However, that’s exactly what’s happened. The 22-year-old has, at least for the moment, seized the reins as Washington’s top goaltender, and that’s why he has to be considered the team’s top rookie.
Former Capitals star Olie Kolzig (now on the team’s coaching staff as a goalie coach), a fellow German, and the 2000 Vezina winner, believes this netminder has a bright future in the NHL.
Currently, Grubauer sits among the league leaders in both goals against average and save percentage (third at .938). Unless he falters, it's tough to see how he'll lose the No. 1 job in the immediate future.
In previous years, the Capitals have enjoyed contributions from a variety of rather unheralded soldiers who have been critical to the team’s continued success.
Some notable past examples include the repeated shootout heroics of Matt Hendricks, the exceptional defensive play of Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen last season as well as the Game 7 overtime winner from Joel Ward against Boston in 2012.
This season, one guy who has far exceeded expectations is Eric Fehr. The former first-rounder has earned a spot on Washington’s second line, despite being a forgotten man just 18 months ago.
After being dealt in 2011 to the Jets for a fourth-rounder and a prospect, Fehr managed just two goals and an assist during his 35 games with Winnipeg, but following the lockout, George McPhee took a flier on the 28-year-old power forward.
The move paid off, as the former 20-goal man regained not only his scoring touch, but also his confidence under Oates. He earned a regular spot in the lineup over the course of the lockout-shortened season, finishing with nine goals and 17 points in just 41 games.
This season, the Manitoba native has been even better, as he’s already matched his point total from last season in 31 games, after once again battling back from being a healthy scratch early in the season.
Now, Fehr’s established himself as one of the Caps’ most consistent forwards. Perhaps most importantly, three of the 6’4” winger’s 15 goals since returning to Washington have been decisive tallies.
As a two-time NHL First Team All-Star, Mike Green has long been Washington’s undisputed top dog on the blue line. But nowadays, Carlson has become the type of two-way force that every coach leans on, and that’s why he’s all but locked up a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
No, Carlson’s not quite as dynamic as Green offensively, but his size, mobility and steady hand in the defensive zone have made him the Caps’ No. 1 rearguard, and his consistency is a big reason why Washington’s in a playoff spot at the halfway mark of the season.
In addition, despite Green's advantage in terms of total offensive production, Carlson ranks tied for fifth among NHL defensemen in goals with seven on the year, and he has established himself as the Caps' No. 1 option running the point on the power play alongside Alex Ovechkin.
Most importantly, Carlson leads Washington's blue line in time on ice at over 24 minutes per game, which is indicative of how much Oates trusts the former first-rounder in every situation imaginable.
With Carlson and Karl Alzner still growing as players, Washington’s got to feel good about having two elite defenders in the fold for what, at least ideally, should be a very long time.
Though most would probably hand this distinction over to Alex Ovechkin—and understandably so as the man leads the league in goals by a country mile—his usual linemate is just as deserving of the honor.
That's because Nicklas Backstrom has remained among the league’s best in terms of production all season long and, unlike Ovechkin, Backstrom’s success almost always leads to increased offensive output from the other secondary scorers on the Caps' roster.
He’s currently top-five in both assists and points, and if he’s able to keep the Capitals’ power play firing on all cylinders, he’s got a realistic shot at leading the league in helpers by season’s end.
Ultimately, this distinction should go to both Ovechkin and Backstrom, as the impact the sublime Swedish playmaker has on the performance of his teammates is just as important as the number of goals (including the numerous game-saving ones) that the reigning league MVP notches.
These two stars are arguably the game’s most dominant when they’re hot, and they each help the Capitals win games in vastly different, yet equally critical ways.
Ovechkin comes up with clutch goals (and many others) over the course of the season, while Backstrom is the catalyst and quarterback of one of the league’s most efficient power plays and has demonstrated a penchant for sealing games up with his prowess in shootouts.
Since Backstrom entered the league in 2007, these two European dynamos have been at their best when playing alongside one another. That's been no different this season, as the pair of former top-five picks sit first and second in power play points thus far.
Winner: Ovechkin and Backstrom (Co-recipients)