5 Washington Capitals Who Must Improve in 2013-14
With 45 games played, the Washington Capitals are well beyond the halfway point of their 2013-14 schedule.
But as of now, we still don't have a lot of clarity with regard to what this team is made of, or what kind of realistic chance it has at making a deep run this postseason.
That's because Adam Oates' boys have been arguably one of the league's most maddeningly inconsistent squads, as Washington's looked like a force to be reckoned with on some nights, but on others, it's looked like an average Eastern Conference team.
Part of it has been due to the rather lackluster play of many of the Caps' top players, and if Alex Ovechkin and company want to finally vanquish their playoff demons, that will have to change over the final 37 games of the season.
Heading into the stretch drive, here's a look at which Capitals need to improve going forward.
Yep, you read it right: Alex Ovechkin is on this list.
It's not because of his goal total, which is currently far and away tops among all NHL players, but instead, it's rooted in other areas of the Russian superstar's overall performance thus far this season.
First and foremost, Ovechkin's putrid minus-15 rating is simply unacceptable, because a guy as fast, skilled and generally talented as the captain should never be posting a team-worst plus/minus rating, even if he seems to compensate for it by filling the net so regularly.
The only reason Ovechkin belongs on this list is because we know what he's capable of at both ends of the rink, and given that he's on pace for easily the worst plus/minus figures of his career, it's not hard to see that there's a lot of room for improvement on the defensive side of things.
Obviously, this statistic does not take into account the three-time league MVP's 12 power-play goals, but for this team to live up to expectations, he just can't be on the ice for this many goals against.
One has to assume that one of the reasons that Oates opted to move his franchise player to a line with two of the team's more defensively sound forwards in Mikhail Grabovski and Eric Fehr was to help make up for Ovechkin's surprising shortcomings in Washington's zone, especially with regard to turning the puck over in dangerous areas.
As one of the Caps' highest-paid and most respected players, Brooks Laich is expected to be among the team's best forwards on a nightly basis.
However, Laich has struggled to regain the 20-goal, 50-point offensive pace that he regularly posted under Bruce Boudreau, and the first half of this season hasn't been a banner stretch for the former second-rounder.
Yes, having Laich in the lineup after missing almost all of last season is an emotional boost to this team, but with just seven points in 31 games on the season, he's not meeting expectations.
Furthermore, Laich's paltry minus-nine rating is worst among all Caps forwards, save for Ovechkin, so the assistant captain and longtime fan favorite needs to pick things up at both ends of the rink.
This guy might be the most obvious selection for this list, because Marty Erat just hasn't lived up to his potential during his first 10 months as a member of the Capitals.
A year ago, Erat was a first-liner on a perennial postseason team in Nashville, but after five 50-point campaigns with the Predators, he's managed a shockingly minuscule one goal in 52 total games in a Capitals uniform.
Sure, the former Czech Olympian's had to deal with adversity, as he was stunningly relegated to fourth-line duty out of training camp, but for a player with the speed, skill and experience that the 32-year-old Erat clearly possesses, his production isn't even close to fitting his paycheck.
And after issuing his second trade request in less than a year, it seems obvious that either Erat's time as a top-six NHL forward is coming to an end, or he's simply not a player that fits Oates' definition of an impact offensive threat.
Regardless, if Erat wants out, he's got to somehow find the net for the first time since last season, because right now, it's almost inconceivable that another team would be interested in taking on his $4.5 million cap hit, unless it's a move geared toward staying above the salary-cap floor.
He's a proven two-way contributor, but given his clear drop in confidence (in part due to Oates' apparent distaste in his game), it seems unlikely that Erat will be able to salvage things in Washington.
Not all that long ago, Braden Holtby was quickly becoming one of the game's most promising young goaltenders, but at least recently, the Caps' presumed No. 1 has found himself playing the role of understudy to an even younger netminder.
Yes, it's more than worth saying that Philipp Grubauer has been sparkling during his first real stint as a Capital, but Holtby's statistical regression has been troubling.
With vastly inferior statistics to Grubauer (as well as former starter Michal Neuvirth), Holtby's struggled to get starts over the last month, as Oates has chosen to ride the hot hand in the young German.
At this point in time, Holtby's certainly still the Caps' No. 1 stopper of the future, but if Grubauer maintains this level of excellence, it's tough to see how the 24-year-old will be able to earn the majority of the starts down the stretch this season.
This summer, Holtby garnered an invite to Canada's Olympic camp, which seemed to indicate that he'd arrived as a top-flight goaltender, but so far this season, he hasn't consistently given the Caps stability in net, which is why Grubauer's the guy in D.C. for the time being.
With nine goals and 19 points through 45 games this season, Troy Brouwer's far off the pace of offensive production he demonstrated during the lockout-shortened 48-game campaign, which is at least somewhat discouraging for the bruising winger who appeared to develop a more refined scoring touch in 2013.
That being said, Brouwer's very much still the physical, emotional presence that George McPhee wanted when he flipped a first-rounder to Chicago for the former Stanley Cup champion in 2011.
It's not that Brouwer necessarily needs to do anything different, but if he was able to regain the poise around the net that had him scoring at a 30-goal pace for the first time in his career, it'd really help balance out the Capitals' attack up front.
He's a valuable guy on the power play, and there's no questioning his importance to this team, but with just four even-strength goals on the year, Brouwer's clearly struggling to produce when he's not on the ice with Washington's elite offensive weapons on the power play.
Simply put, Joel Ward and Jason Chimera have been more consistent for the Caps to this point in 2013-14, and for this team to be as dangerous as it can be, Brouwer's got to be more productive during this critical portion of the schedule.