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The Washington Capitals are up to their old tricks again

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The Washington Capitals are doing that thing again.

It seems every year they find a way to work themselves into the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve finished first in their division seven times out of the past 10 seasons and second twice. Only once — a fifth-place showing — have they been outside the top two during the past decade.

It’s become as predictable as it is remarkable.

And this year, at first glance, it’s sort of surprising.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin is still scoring, Nicklas Backstrom is still assisting and Braden Holtby is still stopping a lot of pucks.

But the Caps also took, what at least appeared to be at the time, a big hit on the backend over the summer.

Offensively, not much has changed (although they did lose Marcus Johannson’s 24 goals) but losing Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft left a sizeable hole to be filled on the blueline.

[Alex Ovechkin has never had a goal-scoring run like this]

Statistically speaking, they’ve also regressed from the numbers they put up last season when they amassed 55 wins.

They had the fourth best Corsi rating in the NHL last season, a statistic that made sense giving their winning prowess. Yet this year, with 21 wins, they sit 23rd in the category they dominated last season.

The same story plays out in expected goals, where they sat ninth last season yet are in 26th place now.

Analytically, a lot of their success this season doesn’t seem to add up, and yet they’ve won eight of their last 10 games and are currently on a three-game heater.

So why are they tied for first place in the Metro? There are a few answers to be had.

In the scoring department, several players have stepped up. Jakub Vrana has 10 goals in 33 games after three in 21 games last year and Tom Wilson is just three points shy of the 19 points he put up in 82 games last season. Brett Connolly and Alex Chaisson are also scoring at better rates and Washington sits eighth in five-on-five scoring.

What is also helping is their high shooting percentage.

At 9.22 percent, the Caps sit in fifth in the league, and their PDO, when you combine their shooting percentage and team save percentage, sits at 101.98, good for the third spot in the NHL.

And the Caps have proven they can keep that number high. Only two teams finished with over nine percent last season, and the Caps were one of them.

On defence, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov have picked up the slack. The rookie third pairing of Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey is averaging 14 minutes a game and have been a solid addition.

And Holtby, is well, Holtby, which has been especially helpful given Philipp Grubauer‘s struggles to return to last year’s form so far.

So the Caps, for the most part, are in a good spot.

The biggest question that will surround the Caps, assuming they hold serve, is if they can replicate it in the playoffs.

Despite winning a slew of regular season games, the Capitals just can’t figure out how to do the same in April and May.

In nine of the past ten seasons they’ve made the playoffs, they’ve failed to even sniff the Eastern Conference Final, never mind a Stanley Cup final berth.

But that’s another story for another day, as it were.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Is the defense good enough?

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For a team not really known for its defense, the Penguins sure have seen defensemen fly off the shelves.

Last summer, teams spent $76.45 million to lure away Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik (Washington).

This summer, more of the same with the Sharks signing Paul Martin and the Kings inking Christian Ehrhoff.

The issue here is obvious — if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t that great to begin with and then lost all these guys, how good will it be heading into 2015-16?

“I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said earlier this summer, per USA Today. “But it is certainly the area we will watch the closest.”

Rutherford isn’t the only one that’ll be watching.

Eyes across the league will be glued to Pittsburgh following Rutherford’s bold renovation project. Nearly all of his moves this summer were designed to improve his forward group — adding the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and KHLer Sergei Plotnikov — essentially banking on the idea that, ready or not, his collection of young defensemen will carry the load.

And it really is a young group.

Only Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have appeared in over 200 NHL games; even a “veteran” presence like 26-year-old Ian Cole is a bit of a wildcard, given he was buried on a deep Blues blueline before being acquired last season (prior to ’14-15, Cole’s career high in games played was 46).

As such, kids are going to take on some pretty hefty roles.

Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, both 21, figure to get a lion’s share of the now-available minutes, while the likes of Adam Clendening (22), Brian Dumoulin (23) and Tim Erixon (24) will be fighting for depth spots — which, in Pittsburgh, are pretty important spots.

This is a defensive unit, remember, that was ravaged by injury a year ago (recall when the Pens only dressed five d-men against San Jose?) Things got so bad that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Taylor Chorney was in the lineup.

Though the club has since hired two new staffers in an effort to “minimize injuries,” losing blueliners to injury always remains a concern.

But there is a wrinkle.

Rutherford, who took heat last year for rolling the dice on a thin blueline while stockpiling offense, says that his abundance of forwards may actually help out should he to add a defenseman.

“Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job,” he explained. “If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces.”

Translation: Rutherford knows the group might need help.

“I’m fully aware,” he said, “that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”

Poll: Will the Caps miss Mike Green?

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Mike Green only averaged 19:06 of ice time last season, down more than three minutes from his previous season.

But that reduction wasn’t really a reflection of his play. It was the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in free agency. There are only so many minutes to go around, and the Caps also had to give John Carlson and Karl Alzner their time.

Despite Green playing less, he actually saw his production increase, from 38 points in 70 games in 2013-14 to 45 points in 72 games last season. Only 15 NHL defensemen had more points than Green did. Shea Weber and Duncan Keith also had 45 points, and they played more games and received far more ice time.

But the Caps had to make a tough decision. If Green wasn’t a top-four d-man on their team, they couldn’t pay him like one. So he signed with Detroit for three years and $18 million.

Green’s departure leaves the Caps with a top four of Orpik, Carlson, Alzner and Niskanen, with a potential bottom pairing of 24-year-olds Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. (KHL veteran Ilya Nikulin could reportedly be on his way to D.C., too.)

OK, time to vote:

Related: John Carlson is under pressure

After winning 2C audition, Kuznetsov aiming to ‘play better’

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Less than a year ago, the Washington Capitals had no idea who would be their second-line center.

They know now.

It’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, the talented 23-year-old Russian who just signed a two-year extension with the club.

“I played good hockey but I have to play better,” Kuznetsov said, per CSN Washington. “I’ll try to focus on my game and what the coach tells me. If everybody does the right job probably something good will happen.”

Next season, the Caps could have a first line comprised of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, and a second line featuring Kuznetsov between Andre Burakovsky and Justin Williams.

“[Kuznetsov] filled a hole at second-line center that we’ve been trying to fill for a number of years,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said in May.

With a defense headlined by John Carlson and Matt Niskanen, and with Braden Holtby in goal, you’ll excuse Caps fans for finding it difficult to contain their excitement.

Related: Caps landing ‘affordable’ Williams a sign of the new free agency

Green signs with Red Wings — 3 years, $18 million

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Mike Green, long rumored to be joining the Detroit Red Wings, has finally, actually joined the Detroit Red Wings.

Green has agreed to a three-year, $18 million dollar deal. The 29-year-old will give the Wings the kind of right-shooting, power-play quarterback that former coach Mike Babcock had been “all over” GM Ken Holland to get.

Green is coming off a productive season with the Caps, one in which he finished with 10 goals and 35 assists. Also notable was his ice time. He averaged just 19:06, considerably less than the 22:44 he logged in 2013-14, before Washington signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.

The additions of Niskanen and Orpik ultimately meant Green would move on from the club that drafted him all the way back in 2004.

“We want to thank Mike for 10 great seasons with the Washington Capitals,” the Caps said in a statement. “Mike was an ultimate professional in his long tenure with our organization and had a huge impact on our community. We wish Mike all the best with the Detroit Red Wings organization.”

Related: Green calls this year’s Caps ‘the best team we’ve had overall’