Knee-jerks: First quarter of the season

With a bit more than a quarter of the season under their belts, we take a moment to review what the first 23 games have shown about this year’s model of the Washington Capitals. Conventional wisdom at the beginning of the season suggested that the Caps’ two biggest holes would be at second-line center, and the lack of one more top-4 defender, and it seems that conventional wisdom has been borne out.
The Caps’ revolving audition of Kris Beech, Jakub Klepis, and Brooks Laich hasn’t produced a solid performer yet; Beech has produced the most, statistically, but has also been a healthy scratch on occasion. Klepis has shown flashes of good offensive play, but misses his defensive assignments and commits some terrible turnovers (see the Atlanta game). Laich seems to have fallen off the success he enjoyed in the second half of last season, and has also spent some time in the press box.
The uncertainty at the second-line pivot has hamstrung the line’s offensive output, which has been a glaring deficiency the past few games. According to Mike Vogel, Esq., Alexander Semin will return to action tonight, lining up with Kris Beech and Matt Pettinger. On the surface, this seems to be the best second-line configuration possible, though a few observers claim that Semin and Pettinger don’t mesh well on the ice. (I’m undecided on that, as yet.)
A factor to consider in the Caps’ second-line center discussion is Nicklas Backstrom, aged 19, the Caps’ 2006 draftee who is currently leading the Swedish Elite League in points with 30 ( 9 + 21) in 24 games. The Caps thought Backstrom was ready to play in the NHL this year, made overtures to sign him, and may have been surprised when he decided to stay in his native Sweden for another season. It may follow that Backstrom was the Caps’ plan A at second-line center, with Beech, Klepis, and Laich all in the mix for plan B.
Defensively, it’s apparent the Caps’ brass realized their back-line troubles, switching Ben Clymer to defense in training camp. When this move was deemed unsuccessful and the struggling Clymer was moved back to forward, it fixed one issue, but revealed the earlier issue — the Caps’ defensive depth, or lack of.
Mike Green has earned and received top-4 minutes, much to the delight of the team and its fans. Shaone Morrisonn, known for his steady play, has battled strange periods of inconsistency, especially recently. Thus far Brian Pothier has been worth his contract and his assigned playing time, and being paired with John Erskine has settled Steve Eminger down. Erskine has shown that with controlled ice-time he can be a moderately effective defensive presence, though speedy forwards going to the outside can cause problems.
The Caps’ other two options at defense, Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir, have had up-and-down seasons to this point. Both will be UFAs at the end of the season — whether or not they will be in the Caps’ plans past this season is a pertinent question.
Of more immediate concern is the sixth defensive spot, however. With a top pairing of Morrisonn and Pothier, and a third pairing of Eminger and Erskine, a solid, mobile defensive presence to pair with Green would go a long way to addressing the defense.
That said, the problem is that those kinda guys don’t grow on trees, and they cost assets (money, prospects, picks, players) to acquire. GMGM said that in every trade he made during the fire sale, he tried to get a defenseman back, and in the end could only pry Shaone Morrisonn away from Boston — a move the B’s probably wish they could undo. There may just not be a viable alternative out there that the Caps deem affordable in terms of what it would take to acquire him.
The Caps are where many predicted right now: gamely battling for the eighth spot in the East, and improved overall. The level of improvement hasn’t been dramatic, but it has been noticeable, though the team still lives and dies by its goaltending. A step in the right direction, to be sure, but there is still a ways to go.

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2 Responses to Knee-jerks: First quarter of the season

  1. Tyler says:

    I’d like to see Green paired with a stay-at-home forever. He’s a gifted puck-carrier and passer — plus he’ll only get better in the offensive-zone.
    And if the Caps had a second-line C they’d be in the top eight in the East right now.

  2. pepper says:

    Give Jamie Hunt a shot at 6th Dman.

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