Is the Capitals’ Defense a Cause for Concern?

With almost one-third of the season behind them, the Washington Capitals sit in first place with a five-point cushion over their nearest opponents. Their place in the standings isn’t so much of a surprise as is the way they are accomplishing it. Or is it?

In way of illustration, the team finished the 2018-19 season averaging 3.39 goals per game, finishing fifth in the league. On the opposite side of the rink, the team finished last season with a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.04 for a middling ranking of 17th out of the 31 teams in the league.

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin
Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker, File)

At first blush, the offense and defense seem to be moving in opposite directions this season. The Capitals currently rank first in the NHL in goals scored with 91 goals through 24 games for an average of 3.79 goals a game – almost a full half goal better than last season’s average. The defense, however, has fallen behind in comparison to the rest of the league sitting in 24th place with 73 goals against for a GAA of 3.04.

What this cursory review doesn’t examine, however, is the games played by each team. The Capitals have played five more games than the second-place New York Islanders and three more than any other team in their division. With that in mind, a better barometer for analysis is to use the average goals allowed per game rather than raw totals.

With this view, the Capitals are considerably outpacing their scoring from last season and the defense is holding steady at exactly the same GAA they had last season. So, while there is certainly room for improvement in their defensive end, those pointing to the regression of the defense this season would be better served looking at the team’s GAA, not the raw totals because of the games-played disparity.

Carlson Still on Cruise Control

While Capitals’ defenseman John Carlson has fallen a bit behind his record-setting points pace, he is still putting up historically good numbers. Carlson currently has 8 goals and 28 assists for a total of 36 points and a plus-15 rating, which puts him in third amongst all players in the NHL scoring race.

John Carlson Capitals
John Carlson is currently tied for the league lead in assists with 28. (Bridget Samuels/Flickr)

In October, Carlson finished the month as only the fourth defenseman in NHL history to accumulate 20 or more points in the season’s opening month – on pace for a 149-point season.

A little bit of a dip in production was inevitable, but Carlson is still producing at a 123-point pace through 82 games – as a defenseman. He currently only sits behind the Edmonton Oilers duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid who are also off to amazing starts in the overall points race and is tied for the league lead in assists.

Is it still too early to crown him with the Norris Trophy? Yes. Has a defenseman in recent memory gotten off to a start like Carlson has? Not in a long, long time.

A Quick Look Ahead…

The Capitals finish off the month of November playing three of their remaining four games at home. Coming off their recent 4-1 loss on the road to the New York Rangers, the Capitals begin a three-game homestand on Nov. 23 against the Vancouver Canucks.

Tom Wilson Anton Stralman
Washington Capitals right wing Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman (Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports)

The team then hosts the two Florida-based teams bookended around the Thanksgiving holiday facing the Florida Panthers on Nov. 27 and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 29. The Capitals finish November on the road against Detroit Red Wings the next day.

Overall, the team will have played nine home games in November and five on the road. A far cry from their travel-crazy October.