Washington Capitals 2021-22 Mid-Season Awards

Despite ending the month with a 5-0 win over the Dallas Stars, the Washington Capitals endured a torrid stretch in January. Peter Laviolette’s team, after starting the season so strongly, have fallen to fourth in the Metropolitan Division, with their monthly record dipping to a distinctly mediocre 5-7-2.

Over the past month, The Hockey Writers have spent a lot of time analysing what’s going wrong for the team. Of course, the power play is an eyesore and the team needs a new goalie, but other factors have been in play, too.

However, I want to step back from the doom, gloom, and disappointment that Washington inflicted upon their fans in January. It was rough, but a bumpy spell was to be expected, especially when the team’s injury woes are accounted for.

Related: Capitals’ Trade Priorities Change as Offensive Dip Continues

So, for now, at least, let’s contemplate which Capitals players are worthy of mid-season praise. With 2021-22 now 45 games old, I present to you THW’s mid-season award winners from Washington.

Capitals’ Most Valuable Player:

Washington’s mid-season MVP, as it has been most seasons since 2005, is Alex Ovechkin, obviously. The 36-year-old has been electric this season, registering 29 goals and 29 assists in his first 45 appearances of the campaign. He was an obvious pick for the 2022 All-Star Game, is now the fourth-highest goal scorer in NHL history (and is only seven goals back of Jaromir Jagr for third), and is playing with the energy of a player in their prime.

If Ovechkin maintains his scoring clip until the end of the season, he’ll end 2021-22 with 106 points (split evenly between goals and assists) and, potentially, his 10th Rocket Richard Trophy. The Russian isn’t just Washington’s MVP — it isn’t out of the question that he could beat Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to the Hart Trophy as well.

Dmitry Kulikov New Jersey Devils Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin has closed in on Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record this season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Also of note, Ovechkin — and the Caps more broadly — has yet to make his mark at 5-on-4. Of his 58 points this season, only 13 (seven goals, six assists) have come on the power play. If Washington fixes its power play, their captain will put up a bucketload of points in the second half of the season.

Before we move on, I’d like to shout out John Carlson as the Capitals’ second-most valuable player. The American defenceman has played magnificently for Washington this term, leading the Caps’ blue line to a successful start to 2021-22. Carlson’s on-ice expected goals share (57.7 percent) is first amongst Washington defenders and fourth amongst skaters. He’s registered 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists) in 33 games. Both his quality and importance to the team is underrated.

Capitals’ Most Improved Player:

Readers, Martin Fehervary is the Capitals’ most improved player, and it’s not a particularly close call. In my THW debut, I wrote:

As Laviolette’s Capitals approach the end of their window to win, the time has come to hand over more influence to the organization’s next generation. A huge season awaits Fehervary — he must grasp the opportunity with both hands.

In the 138 days since, the Slovakian defenceman has significantly exceeded the organisation’s expectations of him, rising to Laviolette’s top pair and taking difficult assignments in his stride. His remarkable rise played a key role in Washington’s strong start to the season, condemning Brenden Dillon’s trade to the Winnipeg Jets to the footnotes of Capitals history.

Martin Fehervary Hershey Bears
After two seasons with the Hershey Bears, Martin Fehervary has developed into an impressive defenceman at the NHL level. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fehervary had six NHL appearances to his name before 2021-22 began, all of them from the 2019-20 season. He spent last season in the American Hockey League, unable to break into Laviolette’s roster during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign.

However, during the offseason, Washington’s defensive depth chart shifted, handing Fehervary the chance to break into the team — and he has. The 22-year-old, a former second-round pick, is composed on the ice, makes smart defensive plays with his stick, and has struck up an impressive relationship with Carlson. Fehervary’s breakthrough this season has been remarkable; long may it continue.

Capitals’ Best Netminder:

Briefly of the Seattle Kraken, Vitek Vanecek is agonisingly close to winning the battle for outright control of the Capitals’ crease. In just his second season in the NHL, the Czech shot-stopper has outperformed his main rival, Ilya Samsonov (more on him later), by upholding a .916 save percentage (SV%).

Vanecek has kept two shutouts this season, both coming in January, vs. the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars. After Washington’s 2-0 win over the Islanders, the former second-round pick said: “The guys were buzzing today, they were not making mistakes. They helped me a lot with the blocked shots.”

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan entered this season expecting, or at least hoping, Samsonov would emerge as the team’s starting goalie. Vanecek had other plans — he owns the blue paint in D.C. these days.

Capitals’ Most Impressive Debutant:

At 6-foot-6, 21-year-old centreman Aliaksei Protas is known for his size. He has, however, proven that he has the skill to make an impact in the NHL, too. The Belarussian forward, a third-round selection in 2019, wasn’t expected to make the jump to the big show this year, but has gained the trust of Laviolette since entering the lineup during Washington’s injury crisis.

“Watching a guy like Protas at his age play the game that he did last night was unbelievable,” Laviolette said after the Caps’ 4-3 overtime win versus the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 19. “You just look down the road and you say, ‘When he’s 23 or when he’s 24 and he’s 15 pounds heavier, and he’s not a first-year player in the league and he’s just more powerful and stronger and more experience under his belt, what type of a player is he gonna be?’ He’s certainly doing a great job now. It makes you excited for the future too, on what the possibilities are for this kid, because he can skate, he works hard, he competes.”

Protas, who has featured on all four offensive lines this season, has nine points (three goals, six assists) in 32 games, an impressive feat for a player so unfancied last offseason.

Capitals’ Biggest Feel-Good Story:

Capital One Arena has provided the backdrop for four major feel-good stories this year. Michal Kempny’s NHL return was a tearjerker, Joe Snively’s hometown debut hit everyone right in the feels, and who could forget Zach Fucale’s fairy-tale introduction to life in the NHL?

However, there can only be one winner — I’m handing the trophy to Hendrix Lapierre and his magical debut goal vs. the New York Rangers.

“I knew when I called [for] the puck [T.J. Oshie] was going to pass it to me and I got lucky,” Lapierre said after the game. “I just put the puck at the net.”

Oshie was less blasé about his rookie teammate’s achievement.

“I was just super excited for him,” Oshie said. “Coming into camp here, we’ve got a veteran team and he fought his way into the lineup and earned the respect of the coaches to go out there night one, earned the respect of his teammates, of his linemates, and just in general just an all-around good kid to be around. I was super excited for him, for his family.”

Lapierre made six appearances for Washington before he was returned to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He has since registered 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 11 appearances for Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

Capitals’ Player With the Most to Prove:

As I alluded to earlier, Samsonov is at a crossroads in his NHL career. The 24-year-old, in his third season with the Caps, is yet to repay the faith the organisation placed in him by selecting him 22nd overall in 2015.

With MacLellan likely to deal one of his goalies before the deadline, Samsonov must play lights out in February to salvage his place in Washington’s plans. If he doesn’t, he might find himself playing in a different market before the season’s out.

It’s sink or swim time for Samsonov — will he deliver?

Capitals Still Have Lots to Play For in 2021-22:

Although Ovechkin and Co. have struggled of late, the Caps remain in a strong position heading into the second half of the campaign. They face the Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Montreal Canadiens to open February — a set of games that will test the battle-readiness of Laviolette’s team.

We’ll soon find out if Washington’s January form was a bump in the road or the start of a sustained downturn.

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