Stock Up, Stock Down for Washington Capitals' Top Stars
The Washington Capitals are in the midst of an absolute dogfight to make it seven consecutive postseason berths. But with 15 games remaining and ground to make up, it'll be more challenging than ever to make that happen.
A primary reason for the struggles of the Capitals has been the inconsistent play (or even presence at all) of Washington's biggest stars.
Yes, this team boasts the league's most dangerous scorer in Alex Ovechkin, an elite center in Nicklas Backstrom, and a host of other top-flight NHL talents. But as a whole, they just haven't been good enough on a nightly basis.
Heading into the most critical part of Washington's 2013-14 schedule, here's a look at the stock watch for each of Washington's finest.
This has been a trying season for Brooks Laich, as the longtime veteran forward has continued to battle the groin injuries that kept him out of all but nine games last year.
Despite his frequent absences from the lineup and drastic drop in production in comparison to his previous four full seasons, Laich has managed to turn things on when his team's needed him most in 2013-14.
NHL.com reported that Laich would miss yet another game Tuesday at Pittsburgh (the 17th he's missed in 2013-14), but the assistant captain has been clutch for the Caps as of late.
His eight goals and 15 points on the season are a disappointment for a former 25-goal, 50-point producer, especially at a $4.5-million cap hit. But Laich's late goal Saturday against Phoenix and assist Monday against the Penguins are encouraging signs for the two-way forward.
Stock: Slightly up
Laich has yet to play like the versatile threat that he was under Bruce Boudreau, but his two goals over his last pair of games happened because he went to the net and created space for himself. If he can continue to do that while staying healthy, Laich will have the opportunity to make up for his early lack of production.
This is Evgeny Kuznetsov's first appearance on this list, due simply to the fact that he only signed with the Caps on Saturday, as reported by Yahoo! Canada Sports' Jen Neale.
Despite his lack of NHL experience, the expectations for the 2010 first-rounder are sky-high, as Kuznetsov has long been considered one of the world's best players not skating in the NHL.
With the Caps in need of secondary scoring, Kuznetsov's arrival couldn't have come at a better time. Here's hoping he quickly adjusts to North American-style hockey.
Katie Carrera of The Washington Post has said that Adam Oates plans on giving the sublimely talented forward time to prove himself before moving him into a more prominent role, but the Caps need that to happen sooner rather than later.
Stock Watch: Pending
Kuznetsov's stock is very much up in the air following his decision to leave Russia. But even in limited ice time, the 21-year-old clearly has the talent and confidence to be a productive top-six forward not too long from now.
It's difficult to stay the stock of the game's most consistent sniper has done anything but gone up, given that he leads the league in goals by a whopping nine tallies.
But Ovechkin's 44 goals are only part of the story for the Russian superstar, because as we've seen in the past with Pavel Bure, Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash, it's far from impossible for a guy to win the Maurice Richard Trophy while missing the postseason.
Many will point to his poor plus-minus rating as a knock on his performance this season, but with Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer tied for second on the team with 18 goals, one has to wonder how bad this team would be without Ovechkin's ability to provide instant offense.
Ovechkin's got to keep finding the back of the net from now until the end of the season for the Caps to grab a playoff spot, because there just aren't any other pure goal scorers on the roster.
After his dreadful outing at the Olympics, Ovechkin returned to score four goals and seven points in his first four games back with the Caps, but has gone pointless in his last four. He'll keep scoring, and his crucial two-goal performance against Boston can't be discounted either.
As soon as it looks like Mike Green's primed to once again be regarded as an elite offensive rearguard, the 28-year-old suffers a setback. Some, such as Mike Wise of The Washington Post have suggested that general manager George McPhee would be best off dealing the two-time first-team All-Star.
We saw it happen again following the Olympic break, as Green managed a goal and five points in his first four games. But in his last four outings, he's gone pointless with a minus-4 rating.
He's clearly still capable of breaking a game open. But ultimately, his mental lapses (such as coughing up the puck to the right of his crease in Philadelphia last week), are too frequent for Green to be treated as a No. 1 defenseman.
Stock: Slightly down
The offense, skill and skating abilities are still there, but Green's still isn't consistently steady in his own end. Earlier in his career, it was easy to overlook his defensive shortcomings by focusing on his prolific offensive numbers. But now that he's a far cry from piling up the 30 goals and 70 points a year he once did, it's tougher to do so.
Out of all of Washington's brightest stars, Nicklas Backstrom undoubtedly has the biggest impact on whether this team finds success or not against quality opponents.
When he's on, Backstrom is the game's best passers, and can thread the needle with ease on the power play, which is easily Adam Oates' most dangerous weapon.
But, like Ovechkin and Green, the Swedish pivot tends to be relatively streaky in terms of offensive production, and that trend has continued since the 26-year-old returned from Sochi.
In his seven post-Olympic tilts, Backstrom has an impressive two goals and eight points, and given that he sits third in the league in assists (51), first in power-play points (36) and 13th in overall points (64), it's easy to see that he's the catalyst of the Capitals attack.
Stock: Slightly up
Backstrom has rebounded from a difficult Olympic experience to post assists in each of the Caps' three wins since, but he's got to be more consistent for this team to climb into the postseason picture. With Ovechkin often attracting double-coverage, Backstrom should opt to use his deceptively deadly shot more regularly.
Now established as Washington's undisputed No. 1 defenseman, the expectations have gotten higher in a hurry for John Carlson.
That began when he was selected for the stacked U.S. Olympic squad, though Carlson's rise to the top among the league's most promising young rearguards has been obvious.
An NHL all-rookie selection in 2010-11, Carlson's size, mobility and bomb from the point have made him an elite two-way threat, but as good as he's been in 2013-14, the Caps need more from their young blueliner.
He's already hit a career-high with 10 goals, and is on pace to just about match the 37 points he posted as a rookie in 2010-11, all while regularly playing against the opponents' top forwards.
Since the Olympic break, Carlson has five power-play helpers, and six in total. The former first-rounder has all the tools to be a legitimate No. 1 rearguard, but it's not fair to expect Carlson to be the team's most physical member of the top-four defensively.
Well, this much is clear: Braden Holtby hasn't been good enough as Washington's No. 1 this season. McPhee let the rest of the hockey world on that secret when he dealt Michal Neuvirth as part of a package for Jaroslav Halak.
The starting job is still Holtby's to lose down the road. But for the time being, Halak provides the young netminder with the first real competition he's faced in D.C. since grabbing the top spot on the depth chart in the 2012 postseason.
That said, Holtby has given up four or more goals three times since the Olympics (including four goals in just 32 minutes against the Flyers), and though one can't possibly blame him for the team's struggles, he hasn't helped either.
He's going to have to watch as Halak gets a chance to lead the team to the playoffs. But if the Slovakian Olympic stopper can't get the job done, Holtby will get a chance to be the guy in Washington soon enough. If that opportunity comes, he's got to demonstrate the steely reserve and focus he did during his first two postseason runs with the Caps.