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Seven reasons the Capitals are struggling

Wednesday, 02.06.2013 / 6:36 PM / NHL Insider

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Seven reasons the Capitals are struggling
Alex Ovechkin isn't scoring, the goalies are struggling and the roster looks short -- all that adds up to the Washington Capitals sitting in last place in the NHL standings after 10 games.

The 2011-12 season was filled with tumult for the Washington Capitals, but it ended with an admirable postseason run that fell one win shy of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Coach Dale Hunter decided not to continue his reshaping of a club once known for offensive fireworks into a defense-first team, and he returned to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. The Capitals turned to another former star for the franchise, Adam Oates, and hoped he would be the coach who could help the team transform into one that took the best attributes from the Bruce Boudreau and Hunter eras.

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Ten games into Oates' tenure, little is going according to plan. The Capitals are 2-7-1 and in last place in the NHL standings. If that's not bad enough, Washington's two wins are against the Buffalo Sabres without Thomas Vanek and the Philadelphia Flyers without Scott Hartnell.

The Capitals were tied for 24th in the League in goals scored per game before Wednesday night, and 27th in goals allowed. They are the only team in the NHL without a road victory.

Washington's next chance to get one comes Thursday night, when the Capitals play at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who defeated them 6-3 at Verizon Center on Sunday.

So what are the biggest issues for the Capitals, a franchise that has reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for five straight seasons but now faces a battle to get back into contention?

1. Goaltending

Braden Holtby was a breakout star in the 2012 playoffs. Michal Neuvirth was solid in the 2011 postseason. Each is young and inexpensive, so letting other options leave in recent years (Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and Tomas Vokoun) made a lot of sense, and adding top prospect Filip Forsberg with a draft pick from the Varlamov trade looked like a coup for general manager George McPhee.

Well, Holtby has struggled and Neuvirth has been inconsistent. Among the 42 goaltenders qualified for the save-percentage leaders, Neuvirth is at No. 30 at .893 and Holtby is at No. 40 at .862.

Braden Holtby
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 1-3-0
GAA: 4.52 | SVP: 0.862
Neuvirth has had games when he was clearly the team's best player (a shootout loss at the New Jersey Devils, a loss at the Toronto Maple Leafs), but he yielded a pair of soft goals Tuesday night in a 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs. Holtby has allowed at least four goals in three of his four starts.

Back when Washington's offense was the toast of the League, pundits pointed to the goaltending as a potential fatal flaw. But when the Capitals failed in the postseason, it was rarely because of the goaltending.

If this edition of the Capitals is going to reach the playoffs, the goaltenders are going to have be much better.

2. Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin's struggle has generated far more exposure than the goaltenders', but that is part of the deal when a guy carries not only the burden of the captaincy but also has the highest salary-cap hit in the NHL.

The raw numbers tell part of the story: Ovechkin has two goals and three assists in 10 games. He has one point (an assist) at even strength. For someone who was once the dominant offensive force in the sport, and someone who is making $9 million, that is not enough production.

Alex Ovechkin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 5
SOG: 38 | +/-: -4
But it doesn't provide the full context of Ovechkin's struggles. As David Johnson (@hockeyanalysis) of HockeyAnalysis.com points out, Ovechkin is averaging more than eight minutes of ice time at even strength per shot on goal, which is 2:29 more ice time per shot than last season and more than double the rate of one of his MVP campaigns (2008-09).

Ovechkin has been trying to adjust to playing right wing. His linemates have changed often, and his most-frequent combinations have included Mike Ribeiro, Wojtek Wolski, Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle. Not listed there, of course, is the center who has spent the majority of his career feeding Ovechkin: Nicklas Backstrom.

Ovechkin has been OK on the power play, but the Capitals aren't going to be anything resembling an elite team without him and Backstrom -- who is shielded from some of the most intense criticism Ovechkin receives but is not performing as a $6.7 million center should -- leading the way.

3. Special teams

When Oates was an assistant with New Jersey last season, the Devils were the top-ranked penalty-killing club in the League, yielding 27 goals while shorthanded. Only twice in 82 games, the Devils allowed multiple power-play goals.

Nicklas Backstrom
Center - WSH
PPG: 0 | PPA: 3 | PPP: 3
That happened in Oates' first two games as Capitals coach, and has occurred in four of the team's seven losses. It has been a little better lately, but Washington is No. 23 on the penalty kill at 74.7 percent. Neuvirth, who is No. 12 among goalies with at least three appearances in save percentage while shorthanded, has been a big reason for the recent improvement.

Compounding the problem is the team's lack of discipline. The Capitals are tied for 28th in the League in times shorthanded (47); combine that with a weak PK and they have yielded the second-most extra-man goals (12; Detroit Red Wings 13).

The power play also scuffled at the start of the season. Oates was in charge of the PP for New Jersey, and visions of his 1-3-1 system combining with Washington's elite offensive talent danced in fans' heads.

When the puck moves quickly, Oates' desired formation looks like a thing of beauty, and adding a crafty playmaker like Ribeiro to the mix has helped. But when things don't click, the whole concept looks stagnant -- the Capitals sometimes have struggled to even get set up in the offensive zone.

4. Forward depth

There are two types of forward depth, top-six and bottom-six, and it appears the Capitals might be deficient in both. While Ovechkin isn't producing, other teams like the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto have still scored plenty without their team's big star filling the net.

Mike Ribeiro
Center - WSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 11
SOG: 14 | +/-: 3
Beyond Ovechkin and Backstrom, Ribeiro has played well and looks like the competent No. 2 center the franchise has searched for since Sergei Fedorov left for the Kontinental Hockey League after the 2008-09 season. Instead of Ribeiro joining forces with Alexander Semin on the second line, he proved to be Semin's replacement (at least in terms of salary) when the talented wing left for the Carolina Hurricanes on a one-year free-agent deal.

Wolski was signed as a cheap fill-in, but he and Troy Brouwer have scored goals at a rate more suited for third-line players on a title contender in recent seasons. One obvious addition for the Capitals will be versatile forward Brooks Laich, who could be the team's No. 3 center in a perfect world but will more likely have to provide some punch as a wing in the top six when he returns from injury.

Another candidate to help isn't likely to show up on the lineup sheet anytime soon. Evgeny Kuznetsov was considered a steal when the Capitals selected him with the No. 26 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft and cemented that by becoming one of the top prospects in the sport. The problem is, he hasn't been willing to leave his KHL team to join the Capitals, and he is under contract there through the end of next season.

If Capitals fans need a peak at the impact Kuznetsov might have provided, the other Russian uberprospect from the 2010 draft, Vladimir Tarasenko, has five goals and 10 points in nine games for the St. Louis Blues.

Joel Ward and Jason Chimera have played well (especially when Ribeiro was between them), but the rest of the supporting cast has supplied little offense. Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, who provided key secondary scoring a year ago, have combined for one goal and no assists. Crabb and Beagle played a few games with Ovechkin but have combined for one goal and two assists.

5. Defense depth

If the Capitals are short on impact players up front to this point, the same can be said about the defense corps. Mike Green has played well at times and looks more like the elite blueliner he was before two injury-riddled seasons. Karl Alzner is having another strong season and would probably be Ribeiro's competition for team MVP to this point.

John Carlson
Defense - WSH
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 3
SOG: 27 | +/-: -3
John Carlson has been on the ice for a ton of goals against, but not all have been his fault; he had a slow start last season before morphing into an elite player. His struggles have been an issue, but the team's defense is a problem on a more macro level.

An injury to Dmitry Orlov, who was playing with Hershey in the American Hockey League during the lockout, left the Capitals without a top-four or top-five defenseman. Roman Hamrlik's play at the start of the campaign quickly banished him to healthy-scratch status, so the depth chart behind the team's top three is a bit of a mess.

Tom Poti's surprising return was a boost, but he's also been a healthy scratch. Tomas Kundratek has been a pleasant surprise and might be the team's No. 4 at this point. John Erskine, a healthy scratch at various points in his Washington career, was seeing top-four minutes before a three-game suspension.

6. Mental breakdowns

One of the criticisms of the Capitals in years past was of them being a mentally fragile group, pointing to postseason breakdowns against the Montreal Canadiens in 2010 and Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. Playing for Hunter and implementing his style of play was supposed to cure that particular ailment, and Washington excelled during the 2012 playoffs despite the pressure of constantly playing in one-goal contests.

Whatever gumption the Capitals garnered from playing "Hunter hockey" has gone missing at times this season. The lack of offense -- Washington hasn't scored more than three goals in a game -- and poor goaltending has certainly provided a mental strain, just as certainly as checking the NHL standings would.

The Capitals have allowed goals in bunches. They have yielded three goals in the past two games within a minute of a failed power play. The first goal for Toronto on Tuesday was a blatant communication error between Neuvirth and Poti. Taking so many penalties can be construed as a mental issue.

Maybe these correct themselves with some more puck luck and a few victories, but it is clear more mental fortitude would be useful to help end this early-season slide.

7. The circumstances

If Ovechkin or the goaltenders are the most talked-about reasons the Capitals have struggled, then the logistics at the start of the 2012-13 season is a strong third. The narrative is simple: The Capitals were hurt more by the lockout than other teams because they have a new coach and a new system.

The truncated training camp did not allow Oates to perfect his line combinations and defense pairings, and the players weren't able to absorb his systems to the point they became second nature. Toss in the injuries to Laich and Orlov, and it was a perfect storm of problems that led to a slow start.

Sure, the short camp was a problem, but the Capitals are no longer one of the young, up-and-coming teams in the League. The maturity gained from past seasons should have made the transition to a new coach easier. For instance, Montreal had the same set of circumstances (complete with missing a key player, P.K. Subban) and new coach Michel Therrien's young club has thrived.

There is time for the Capitals to fix their problems, and a return to playoff and division-title contention is still possible. Given the shortened season, they do need to turn things around soon, or a disappointing start to 2012-13 could prove to be Washington's undoing.

Quote of the Day

We want to make sure that whoever makes our team really makes our team by earning it and not putting them in situations where they get preference because of their status as a first-round pick or whatever it might be. That's not going to happen. Everybody has to earn their way on our team.

— Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen on the team's prospects at development camp