The Caps last played meaningful hockey on April 13th. Here’s what I wrote in that game recap:
…this is the end of this. Whatever’s next, it won’t ever feel like this again. The roster, the coaches, the front office– the sword of Damocles looms above them all. A shining new era is tip-toeing nearer.
And then everything changed. New coach, new system, new GM, new defense, new forwards, and I think I saw a few new gray hairs on Ovi’s head. The tumult of the last six months has been discomforting for some, but I’m excited.
I bet I can get you excited too. Lemme try.
Between 2007 and 2012, Brooks Laich played 406 games. That’s 99-percent attendance. He was an iron man, the reliable guy who could play anywhere in the middle six.
Then the stupid lockout happened and Brooks took a bad bump while selling his sword to the Kloten Flyers. Laich led the Flyers in scoring (ridiculous helmet warning on this link), but suffered an injury in November of 2012. He hasn’t been the same since. What we first thought was a 10-day injury ended up costing Laich his vitality for the next two seasons. Finally, in March of 2014, Laich shut himself down for the season to get reparative surgery on his groin.
It worked. “I feel like I’m 5 years old again,” Laich told the Washington Post last month.
If Laich’s surgery was truly successful, and this isn’t another false start, he may again become the player who first earned a reputation for reliability. He might not play 82 games a season, but the worst is over, and Brooks is back.
This one isn’t super sunny.
Since the start of 2010, John Carlson and Karl Alzner have played every single game. They’ve clocked a few seconds shy of 3000 seconds together at 5v5 and have never missed a game to injury or personal reasons. But at the ages of 24 and 26, they may not be not invincible anymore.
It couldn’t last forever. Since 2005, of the 224 defenders with more than 48 games played between the ages of 25 and 26, just 17 percent played the full 82-game season. Alzner and Carlson aren’t old fogeys yet, but we may need to temper our expectations, while also being grateful for their excellent resilience so far.
And hey, that brings me to my next point…
Steve Oleksy has been waived by the big club twice– first in January and again on Monday. This is devastating news for whatever we’re supposed to call Oleksy fans (Olekstatics? Steveoholics?), but I think Oleksy’s chances of playing for the Caps again are still pretty good.
Here’s a rough sketch of the Caps defensive depth.
|Made the Team||On the Bubble|
As of right now, Oleksy has lost the spot. No big.
Hillen has not distinguished himself in the few games he was healthy enough to play in the last two seasons, and Erskine is winding down a storied but injury-filled career. To me, Nate Schmidt seems like the lead candidate to get a sweater on opening night (which makes me very happy), though I don’t expect him to spend the whole year in DC; Dmitry Orlov should be back sometime in November. After that, any hole in the D-corps could start a pitched battle among the players on the bubble– a battle Oleksy could win.
Oleksy did just fine, comparatively, on the Capitals’ mess of a blue line last season. He deserves another shot at the bigs. With two players prone to injury (Orpik, Green), two likely to end their perfect streak (Carlson, Alzner), and two more on the margins (Erskine, Hillen), it doesn’t seem at all unlikely for Oleksy to get another shot with the Caps.
What he does with that opportunity is up to him.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Braden Holtby is an above-average goaltender. He just is.
Of the 32 goalies who have faced more than 3000 shots in the last decade, Holtby ranks 7th in save percentage. Last season’s below-average numbers were distorted by the Capitals’ historically atrocious penalty kill; Holtby had a solid 92.9-percent save percentage during 5v5. And he did it despite a bunch of disadvantages.
Oates defense system was a wreck, allowing the 7th highest number of opponent shots attempts in the league. The defensive roster that McPhee assembled, while perhaps not as bad as many think, was a big part of that deficiency.
And then there was Oates’ meddling with Holtby’s style. Documented with a flamethrower by outgoing beat writer Katie Carrera, Oates’ demanded Holtby play further back in the net, a decision that may have led to Holtby’s depressed numbers in late 2013 and certainly led to the exit of goaltending coach Dave Prior.
But it was all worth it. Oates is long gone, and goaltending coach legend Mitch Korn has stepped in to guide the 25-year-old Holtby to further glory. Korn is a goalie institution (literally; he has an goalie institution) and the guy behind the guy for Hasek, Rinne, and other consensus-awesome goaltenders.
Reversing the incompetence of last year’s defensive system alone should do (modestly appreciable) wonders for Holtby’s numbers. Undoing Oates’ ill-advised tweaks and adding Korn to the diet should help as well. And icing in front of Holtby the best defensive roster this team has seen in at least 15 years, well, this may very well be a Vezina season for Braden.
Like I said above, the Capitals penalty kill last season was so so bad when it came to limiting shot attempts. No team in the last decade even came close. They will, without a doubt, be better this season. And it won’t be because of Brooks Orpik, though he’ll probably get credit for it anyway.
Over the last two seasons, out of 143 defenders who played at least 108 shorthanded minutes, Orpik ranks just 98th at limiting shot attempts. That’s still miles better than Alzner, Carlson, and Erskine, who ranked 141, 142, and DFL, respectively. That’s not saying much though.
Orpik will definitely make the PK better. He’s a better choice than Erskine or Carlson by a damned sight (I heard that phrase on Breaking Bad and wanted to use it). But the the kill will improve mostly due to systemic (read: tactical) changes from the Trotz administration. New assistant coach and PK maestro Lane Lambert told Adam Vingan that he will run “an aggressive, positional penalty kill.” That sounds nice enough, but it comes with a bit more gravitas after one peruses slides from Lambert’s lecture on PKing (big ups to Vingan for reporting that by the way).
The improvements we’ll see when the Caps are a man down will be big, but they’ll be primarily systemic– i.e. evident even when Orpik is on the bench. Yet I suspect we’ll hear credit for the performance given to the well-paid veteran. You and I can just exchange knowing eye-rolls when it happens.
Whoa, careful on that ledge, me.
I’m not sure I mean the Caps do better in the standings, or have a better goal differential, or even better puck possession compared to 2011. That might happen, but it’s not my prediction.
I just mean the Capitals will be a better team. For the first time since way back when, the Capitals have an experienced coach. For the first time since the late 80s, they’ve got a stacked defense. For the first time since forever, man, they’ve got a scary top line. For the first time since the first Obama administration, they’ve got a clear number-one goalie. They should be confident as hell right now.
Niskanen, Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr, Holtby. Healthy Laich, healthy(ish) Green, health-food by Orpik. No Oates, no Oates, no Oates. Trotz. That’s all good.
So the Caps should be better at puck possession during 5v5. They will be definitely better at the penalty kill. They shouldn’t regress too much on the power play.
They’re good enough to be a playoff team.
I don’t know if that means they’ll actually make the postseason or if they’ll advance past the second round and capture some heretofore unknown glory, but the team is possessed by an optimism that has been either absent or foolishly placed since the Boudreau era.
The Caps have put their house in order. They’re ready to play.
Crash the net.
Your turn: What are your predictions for the upcoming season? What did I get wrong? What did I get super duper right?
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