It’s difficult to forecast how the season will unfold for the Washington Capitals. They’ve thrilled and frustrated their supporters in equal measure through their first eight games, which is fitting for a team playing at the .500 mark.
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If the first three weeks of the campaign are any indication of the twists and turns ahead, the only outcome the Capitals can guarantee is excitement. As the league is one-tenth of the way into the season, here are five observations that explain the team’s 4-4-0 start and predict whatever drama might unfold next. As always, there’s plenty to unpack.
Alex Ovechkin’s Vanilla Start to 2022-23
Alex Ovechkin hasn’t set the world on fire; he has six points (three goals, three assists) in eight games to open the season. He ranks third on the Capitals in on-ice expected goals according to Money Puck, meaning the rink tilts in Washington’s favour when the Russian is deployed. However, he scored four of his points vs. a then-winless Vancouver Canucks squad and has a team-worst rating of minus-eight.
With that said, it’s still too early to be concerned about Ovechkin. Per Hockey Reference, his shooting percentage on the season has fallen to just 8.8 percent, significantly below his career average of 12.8 percent. It’s therefore fair to assume that the 37-year-old will rediscover his eye for goal.
For the Capitals, though, it’s a case of the sooner the better. They need Ovechkin to produce at an elite rate with Nicklas Backstrom (hip), Tom Wilson (knee), and Connor Brown (lower body) unavailable. It’s time for the captain to find his feet.
Capitals Risk Becoming Too Reliant on Darcy Kuemper
Darcy Kuemper has already played a lot of hockey, recording a .903 save percentage through six appearances. He has endured a topsy-turvy start to his Capitals career, with Charlie Lindgren yet to challenge him for starts.
If he continues to start at his current rate, the 32-year-old will finish the season with 68 appearances. While that outcome is unlikely (netminders rarely play that many games in the modern era), his workload is worth keeping an eye on as the season advances.
With that said, there are extenuating circumstances for Kuemper’s form. He’s faced too many rush chances, hasn’t received enough protection from his defence, and has found himself snowed in on the penalty kill.
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Also of note: the Capitals are still adjusting to his style of play. As he sits deeper in the crease than Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, he’s prone to allowing more rebounds. So far this season, his teammates have been too slow to respond to the loose pucks that his approach generates. They should develop more chemistry as the season rolls along.
Capitals’ Penalty Kill Must Improve
The Capitals have struggled on the penalty kill, with their success rate falling to 77.3 percent. Although head coach Peter Laviolette has made improvements over the last week, his team still sits in the bottom half of the leaguewide rankings.
However, the Capitals have two legitimate excuses for their slow start. Firstly, they are without two of their top penalty killers (Wilson and Carl Hagelin) from last term. Secondly, assistant coach Scott Allen is trying to implement a new approach and the team’s transition to it has been bumpy.
“I’d like to keep it in the upper part of the NHL, that’s for sure,” Allen said of the penalty kill. “I think the penalty kill can be a difference maker, night in and night out, in the NHL. In the past, I’ve been a big believer and a builder on trying to be fairly aggressive. It certainly plays into personnel. I think the Caps certainly have the personnel to play an aggressive style.”
Once the Capitals adjust to Allen’s style, their penalty kill numbers should rebound. Until then, it’s a situation to monitor.
Where is Connor McMichael?
Connor McMichael started the season as a fringe forward and remains on the outside looking in. He has made just one appearance, in which he amassed just 8:33 of time on ice. It’s a curious position for him to be in.
When asked if he would consider re-assigning McMichael to the Hersey Bears, Laviolette said: “He’s here. He’s part of our 23 right now. Things always change when guys go into the lineup or somebody gets injured or decisions on the roster that need to be made. There haven’t been any conversations about that. Right now, we’ve got a roster going that we’re happy with. I’m sure it’s tough sitting out. Every player wants to play and that’s a good thing. He’s just got to keep working hard and wait for his chance.”
McMichael made 68 appearances as a rookie last season. Unless the Canadian’s situation changes soon, general manager Brian MacLellan will be forced to decide whether it makes sense for one of his top prospects to remain a healthy scratch.
Marcus Johansson Stakes Claim as Capitals’ Unsung Hero
Marcus Johansson inked a one-year, $1.1 million extension on the first day of free agency. In hindsight, the agreement has turned out to be one of MacLellan’s best moves of the summer. The 32-year-old has five points (two goals, three assists) in eight appearances this season, placing him tied for fourth on the Capitals in scoring. His speed, experience, and familiarity with Laviolette’s systems have made him one of the team’s most effective players.
“Yeah, it’s felt good,” he said after scoring the game-winner vs. the LA Kings earlier this month. “But I don’t really think about the points that much. Sometimes they come in bunches, and sometimes you have to work really hard for them when it’s not going your way. It’s always fun to contribute, especially when you win. I mean, I’d trade all of the points for more points for the team.”
Looking Ahead for the Capitals
The Capitals have a busy week ahead of them, with road games vs. the Nashville Predators (Oct. 29) and Carolina Hurricanes (Oct. 31) up next. After that, they will return home for a clash with the Vegas Golden Knights (Nov. 1), before taking a short trip to face the Detroit Red Wings (Nov. 3).