Defense should top Capitals’ trade deadline shopping list

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With losses in nine of their past 10 games the Washington Capitals have hit a wall. That is probably to be expected at some point during an 82-game season, and especially one that followed up a deep Stanley Cup run. But it is still somewhat jarring to see a consistently great team playing like … this. 

As long as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby are on the roster and even somewhat reasonably close to their prime you know the Capitals are going to be all in on winning and maximizing what is left of their productive years. They have to, and this, of course, is still one of those years.

And as the Capitals try to gear up for their title defense and play their way out of this slump you know general manager Brian MacLellan is going to be shopping for help.

It’s just a matter of what help he is looking for. The biggest area of need should be pretty obvious — goal prevention.

When it comes to what the Capitals need to accomplish that the easy answer is, quite simply, better goaltending from the duo of Holtby and Pheonix Copley.

Neither way has been great this season, and it should be a bit of a concern that for the second regular season in a row Holtby’s save percentage has dipped below the .910 mark. That is well below what the Capitals have come to expect from their franchise goalie and a potential red flag for a goalie that is nearing his 30th birthday.

He was able to get it together at the right time a year ago and return to form in the playoffs, and that would certainly fix a lot of what currently ails the Capitals. But there is no guarantee that happens again, and even if does, they still have some issues they need to work out. Especially when it comes to their defense.

[Related: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

Objectively speaking, the numbers are not good.

The only team in the league that gives up more shot attempts during 5-on-5 play is an Ottawa Senators team that has been stripped down to its bare bones. The team just ahead of them is an Anaheim Ducks team that is just … well … the less we say about the Ducks right now, the better it will be for everyone because they might be the worst team in the league at the moment.

So that is not an ideal position to be in defensively.

At the top of the defense John Carlson has been outstanding individually and his pairing, which usually involves Michal Kempny, has been pretty good. Not great, but certainly not hurting them and definitely good enough to win with at the top of your roster.

After that, things start to take a dive. A big dive.

The biggest problem pairing, just due to its importance and the minutes it gets, might be the Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov duo whose play has just fallen apart after last year’s Stanley Cup run.

The table below takes a quick look at the year-to-year tumble that duo has experienced in shot attempt percentage (CF%), goal differential, scoring chances against per 60 minutes and scoring chance differential, as well high-danger scoring chances against and high-danger scoring chance percentage.

 

All of that is bad. Very bad. Very, very, very bad.

The Capitals are creating fewer shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances with this duo on the ice and giving up way more than they were a year ago. And it is burning them. They have really struggled over the past 10 games where they have been outscored by a 9-2 margin and their high-danger scoring chance percentage drops all the way down to a ghastly 30.5 percent (11 high danger chances for, 25 against).

It is really difficult to win when your second defense pairing is getting dominated to that degree.

They have to find a fix because there really isn’t anybody else on the roster that can help fix this.

Brooks Orpik isn’t a player at this stage of his career that you want to rely on for top-four minutes, and the rest of the blue line after Carlson and Kempny is probably best suited for third-pairing duty on a championship team.

The obvious trade chip at this point is forward Andre Burakovsky, whose name has been in trade rumors for much of the season. But given how much his play has regressed this season and the fact he has seemingly taken up permanent residence in coach Todd Reirden’s doghouse his value is probably at its lowest possible point. That is always a risky sell, and it probably will not bring a significant return. At least not enough of a return that can fix the second-pairing on defense. There is always the option of flipping him for picks and then using those picks, in addition to the picks the Capitals already own, and trying to fill the need that way, but again, that carries some risk.

They are still a playoff team and with the talent they have at the top of the roster are always going to be capable of putting it all together at any moment. ut the more this season goes on the more it is becoming clear their defense is not playing up to the level it did a season ago.

The lack of assets to deal from and the fact they are already pushed against the salary cap doesn’t give MacLellan a lot of options at the moment.

If he can’t find a fix, the Capitals’ only hope for a repeat party on the National Mall is that Holtby goes on another one of his postseason superman runs.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

More trade deadline: From Anisimov to Seabrook, examining Blackhawks’ options

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.