Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Persistent Problem

Even in today's watered down game, playing a home-and-home with a division rival usually leads to bad blood.  This is especially true when one team has something to play for besides points in the standings.  

The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders matched up on Thursday and Friday, in what promised to be a physical pair of games.  The Islanders delivered; the Capitals, not so much.

In 2015, the two played an incredibly physical series by today's standards, capped off with Tom Wilson ending Lubomir Visnovsky's career in one of the most brutal hits we have seen post-lockout.  The severely outmatched Islanders were only able to respond by letting Anders Lee get pounded by pre-suspension Wilson, who was still playing with reckless abandon.

This new Capitals squad, however, has no identity.  No longer do the Capitals have a stifling defense, three scoring lines, and a Vezina candidate in goal.  Beyond TomLineTommy, the Capitals physical response is limited to an 80 year Brooks Orpik, and a cadre of non-fighters who watch their teammates get steamrolled like back in the good ol' Bruce Boudreau days.

Cal Clutterbuck is a rat, incredibly effective at getting under the opponent's skin.  The Thursday match-up saw him get under Wilson's skin; the Friday match-up saw him take a run at hot streak TJ Oshie, who has been dealing with concussion issues.  Thomas Hickey is scrappy too, always playing on the edge; on Friday he rammed Jakub Vrana into the boards well after the whistle, and injured Evgeny Kuznetsov with a well placed and timed slash.  

And the Capitals responded with the powerplay.  It is good to win on the scoresheet, but it is betterto protect your teammates- with talent on the shelf, it is impossible to win.  

At Contrarian Sports, we sadly recognize that the age of the true enforcer is gone.  However, that does not mean the Capitals have to be so damn easy to play against.  What is truly puzzling is that Barry Trotz, a coach well known for not developing youth talent, would consistently prefer to play guys like Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Chandler Stephenson 12 minutes per game, while encouraging Wilson to clean up his game, instead of deploying even one guy to provide some semblance of physicality beyond the top trio of forwards.

Again, this does not mean the Capitals should bring in a guy like Joel Rechlicz, as much as we would love that.  But, with guys like Antoine Roussel, Zack Kassian, and Nick Ritchie playing significant roles and bringing grit, actual grit, not repeatedly-get-hammered-and-get-up-just-to-get-clobbered-again "grit" the Capitals seem to love so much, the proof is out there that scrappy forwards still very much belong in the game (there is no sense bringing up Matt Tkachuk, Ryan Hartman, Austin Watson, etc., because they were highly rated prospects whom the Capitals obviously had no real opportunity to target).  

It is embarrassing that the Capitals now have to enter another tough stretch of games, kicked off with a road game in Philly, without the team's second top scorer, who may be out for a significant amount of time.  Injuries happen- but injuries caused at the hands of an opponent without fear of retribution only cause more injuries to occur.

This team has enough hurdles already; no need to add more by getting pushed around and hurt.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A good problem to have

Braden Holtby has put together a truly remarkable career to date, stringing together three straight 40-win seasons and grabbing some major hardware along the way.  This season, however, without a strong defensive core and puck hogs in the forward ranks, his performance has crashed back down to Earth, ranking 25th amongst starters in save percentage and 27th in goals against average.  He has been far from elite at stopping high danger shots, and he has gotten pulled 7 times in 48 starts (14.6%) so far this season after averaging fewer than 5 per season since becoming the full-time starter (6.9%).

While part of the problem comes from having a substandard defense in front of him, the majority of the problem is self-defeating: Holtby's price tag precludes the Capitals from fixing the underlying issues in front of him.  Braden is due $17MM over the next three seasons, with a cap hit of $6.1MM.  His cap hit is 6th among goaltenders.  Fifteen goaltenders have a cap hit of $5MM or more; of them, just four are Cup winners, with Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford, and Marc-Andre Fleury winning as starters within two years of signing their large contracts (Fleury and Tuukka Rask have won as backups as well).

In comparison, other Cup winning starting goaltenders in the salary cap era Antti Niemi, Matt Murray, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Cam Ward, and Dominik Hasek came at bargain prices.  (Tim Thomas had a cap hit of $5MM).

It may not be prudent to give up on a Vezina winner with Holtby's pedigree, but the Capitals have consistently developed goaltenders, and have a well stocked pipeline.

What may be best is to shop Holtby and use him to acquire defensive help and salary cap breathing room.

As it stands, Philipp Grubauer has the best save percentage in the league since 2018 began.  He is unproven as a starter, but has been hailed as "the next thing", much like Martin Jones and Antti Raanta were a few years ago.  With Ilya Samsonov expected to make the journey across the ocean next year, and Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek, and Adam Carlson in the minors, training camp will be crowded enough.

Considering the potential trade market in the summer, including defensemen Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, it could be a big year for the Capitals, if they clear the cap space to make waves.  In typical DC fashion, it may come as too little, too late. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

That's all she wrote

Another trade deadline has passed, and the Capitals were surprisingly quiet.  Despite Alex Ovechkin's resurgence, the smart money says his best years are behind him, which means there is time for two, maybe three more runs before a serious roster shakedown has to occur.

However, with MacLellan on an expiring contract, one would imagine a major shakeup, an institutional move, like the Erik Karlsson rumors that were swirling over the past several days.

But with no apparent Hail Mary to save his job, the Capitals quietly slipped through the deadline with two moves for depth defensemen.

Not that we are mad about this.  There is no sense in mortgaging the future failures to fail again this season.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

More to come...?

According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, the Capitals are not done tinkering.  That is not to promise a deal is in the works, but with a roster that is far from polished, a move or two may better position the team to fall short to Pittsburgh yet again.

We cannot envision a scenario in which the Caps make a major move on defense.  With tight cap space, there are only two avenues to cutting a deal: trading Brooks Orpik or Braden Holtby.  While I have advocated for a Holtby trade in the past, and will continue to do so, first place teams do not trade their starting goaltenders at the trade deadline. He would be better moved in the offseason (which will likely increase the value of whatever draft picks are needed in order to bring in an Ekman-Larsson or Karlsson caliber defenseman).

Note: This is not a condemnation of Holtby's talent.  He is still a first rate perennial all-star, and we expect him to continue to be for the foreseeable future.  But his salary hit limits the team's options moving forward, and with a seriously stacked goaltending pipeline, everything has to be considered - especially the haul a record setting goalkeeper should bring.

Which leaves Orpik.  The odd man out on defense, Orpik has had a famously bad season.  While never a driver of play, Orpik's main assets have always been his physicality, shot-blocking, and leadership.  His corsi numbers are among the league's worst (along with defensive stalwarts Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney).  His foot speed has degraded to laughable.   He is still a fantastic hitter, ranks 5th overall in blocked shots, and he has served as both an on-ice leader and mentor for the two defensive rookies.

All things considered, Orpik's shortcomings cannot be overcome by possession gurus Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson - since they are no longer in DC.

With a stripped away squad, the team's weaknesses are that much more prominent.  The Capitals have been dead last in shots for most of the season.  Brooks Orpik is a major reason for this.  If the Caps can work out a deal, even involving giving up a prospect or mid-round draft pick, to dump Orpik's salary, it will go a long way towards a proper retool.

(We would also like to see either Alex Chiasson or Devante Smith-Pelly traded, and/or Chandler Stephenson sent to the minors.  This team is just too easy to play against, and adding a rat who can chip in offensively would be a minor but effective upgrade to the bottom six.  Stephenson is being underutilized on the 4th line, but is not good enough to usurp one of the current top nine.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

More defensive shuffling in DC

Earlier today, the Capitals lost Taylor Chorney to Columbus on the waiver wire.

The team swiftly responded in blockbuster fashion, acquiring Jakub Jerabek (who?) from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a 2019 5th round pick.

With a very small sample size- 25 games- it is near impossible to judge this deal on its merits, but Jerabek has been a positive possession player on a really bad team.  He also strung together a modest three game point streak, compiling his career to date offensive totals, capped by an assist on the go-ahead goal in January 19th's win over the Caps.

We are not sure what to expect from a third pair defenseman who was unable to stick on a team with a -37 goal differential, but he is probably an upgrade over Chorney.

We grade this trade: C