Caps’ Roster Turnover Quick & Effective

In watching Capitals games recently, I’ve been surprised about one aspect of these games in particular.

It wasn’t about their recently-snapped nine-game winning streak. It wasn’t about young players on the team possibly maturing as players as the Capitals continue their shift to a more defensive style of game. It wasn’t anything about how, after so many ups and downs this season, the Capitals find themselves right near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

When I’m watching Capitals games recently, I’m realizing the amount of roster turnover that has occurred on the Capitals in the past 14 months or so. I’m also finding myself wondering why exactly this is – is it all because of natural turnover in personnel due in large part to the salary cap? Is it a pointed effort by George McPhee to put out a roster that is well-suited for the playoffs? Or is it both?

So I was tempted to find out what the roster composition was at some point mid-season last year. On the table below, I have the pre-trade deadline 2010 lineup to the right and the usual March 2011 lineup to the left. Both are approximately what the lineups would look like if everyone was or is healthy. These lines did and will often change. Again, this is just a 14 month difference or so.

2010 Forward Lines 2011 Forward Lines
Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble
Laich-Fleischmann-Semin Laich-Arnott-Semin
Chimera-Morrison-Fehr Chimera-Johansson-Sturm
Gordon-Steckel-Bradley Hendricks-Gordon-Fehr
Laing (extra) Bradley, King (extras)

The top line has gone through some shuffling this year, but Boudreau eventually made his way back to Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble on the top line, so it now remains the same as it was for much of last year. The line isn’t as effective as it was last year (it’d be hard to duplicate what this trio did last year), but the drop-off is still significant.

The three players combined for 102 goals last year. This year, they’ve combined for 65 goals. But this line has picked it up as of late, even though Backstrom has been in and out of the lineup with a hand injury. Knuble (who has a quiet 19 goals on the year) scored two goals against New Jersey on Friday night, and Ovechkin has scored nine goals in his last 18 games. It largely goes without saying that this trio will have to perform well in the playoffs if the Capitals are to get to where they want.

Next is the second line, which was missing a true center ever since Sergei Fedorov left the NHL. In the 2009-10 season, a bevy of centers made their way through the second line, including Tomas Fleischmann, Brendan Morrison and, after the trade deadline, Eric Belanger. None were quite good enough to maximize the ability of Alexander Semin during the playoffs and provide the kind of secondary scoring punch necessary in the playoffs when opposing defenses focus on taking away a team’s primary scoring threats. In the Capitals’ case, that was the Ovechkin-Backstrom duo.

At this year’s trade deadline, Capitals general manager George McPhee attacked this need by acquiring Jason Arnott from the Devils for David Steckel and a 2012 second round draft pick in hopes of producing more secondary scoring.

The move paid immediate dividends, as Arnott set up the game-tying goal in the dying moments of regulation in his first game in a Capitals sweater, against the Islanders on March 1. Two days later, Arnott scored the game-winner against St. Louis. Arnott is on the shelf with a nagging injury, presumably to get as healthy as possible for the playoffs. The early returns on Arnott are good, but his value to the Capitals will be based off how the second line performs in the playoffs, and more specifically, how well Semin performs with Arnott as his pivot.

The third line has gone from having a rotation of centers similar to the second line (Fleischmann, Morrison and later Belanger rotating in and out) to having a young center solidify the position throughout the year. Marcus Johansson, who signed an entry level deal with the Capitals this past summer, has vastly improved through the course of the season — he looked a bit over-matched in October, but now has 11 points in his last 20 games (four goals, seven assists) and is showing off his play-making ability on a consistent basis.

Another addition McPhee made at the deadline was to claim Marco Sturm off waivers — taking a flier on Sturm probably wasn’t a bad idea in that it adds another element of speed to the Capitals’ forwards, but I’m unsure about the kind of effect Sturm may have in the playoffs.

Just before training camp, McPhee brought in Matt Hendricks, a fourth-line grinder formerly of the Colorado Avalanche. The results have been much better than expected, and McPhee has rewarded Hendricks with a two-year extension.

Watching Hendricks play makes one wonder what he was doing floating around without a team the whole summer. Hendricks brings toughness, a willingness to drop the gloves and an occasional scoring touch to the fourth line — what’s there not to like? Also on the fourth line, instead of Steckel and Boyd Gordon sharing the duties, Gordon’s been handed the full-time gig. He’s not as good as Steckel is on faceoffs, but Gordon is a better all-around player and unquestionably brings more scoring potential to the bottom-six forwards than Steckel would have.

All of this movement has resulted in a forward grouping with less holes than it had last year, and thereby perhaps more effective in the playoffs. There aren’t the kind of gaping holes at center there were last year, at least to that degree. There has been a makeover at the center position over the past 14 months for the Capitals, and now they don’t have just one true play-making center on the roster.

The Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings — the past three Stanley Cup winners — were all stacked at center. While the Capitals aren’t nearly as good as those teams were up the middle, they’ve made a stride in the right direction, and that should continue that direction once top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, a center out of Russia, joins the Capitals in the coming years.

The Capitals are deeper at forward than they were a month ago or 14 months ago, but still probably aren’t as deep as the Flyers are at forward. Next, we can see how the defense has changed over the past 14 or so months. The pairings did and will often change, but here are some approximations:

2010 Defensive Pairings 2011 Defensive Pairings
Schultz-Green Alzner-Carlson
Morrisonn-Pothier Hannan-Wideman
Erskine-Poti Green-Schultz
Sloan, Alzner, Carlson (extras) Erskine, Poti, Sloan (extras)

The biggest difference here is that Karl Alzner and John Carlson are with the Capitals full-time, and both of them are better than the likes of Shaone Morrisonn and Brian Pothier. Alzner and Carlson could have played more with the Capitals last year and probably would have if talent was the lone factor, but the spots simply were not available with the defensemen the Capitals had under contract. Alzner and Carlson basically had to wait their turn, in essence. Alzner and Carlson now form a shutdown pair for the Capitals (to some degree), which the Capitals simply did not have at any time last year. One will often see this pairing out on the ice when the closing minutes of a tight game, and are often matched up against opponents’ top scoring threats.

McPhee traded Fleischmann for Hannan in the middle of the season, and Hannan has not disappointed after an initial adjustment period early in his time with the Capitals. In Hannan, the Capitals got the kind of player they had lacked last year save for Jeff Schultz — a stay at home defenseman who is actually good in the part of the ice in which he calls home. Hannan also isn’t afraid to block shots. With this trade, McPhee attacked a need on the roster and is now benefiting from it.

McPhee also attacked a need in acquiring Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers for a third round draft pick in 2011. The Capitals, even with Mike Green in the lineup, needed some serious help on the power play first and foremost, as well as a puck-moving defender while Green was hurting. Boudreau has moved Wideman and Arnott to the points when they’re both healthy, and the Capitals’ power play has shown greater burst, energy, and more than anything, mobility among those on the power play. The power play is 5-for-25 in 10 games since the new additions via trade (20.0 percent effectiveness).

The pre-Wideman and Arnott power play was stale, but now, players are moving without the puck and the passes are quicker with more of a sense of purpose, seemingly. Ovechkin is closer to the net with Wideman and Arnott on the points, which is probably a better place for Ovechkin than the point. It will be interesting to see how Boudreau works Green into the power play once he returns from injury.

This 2011 defensive group is way ahead of the 2010 group. Alzner, Carlson and Hannan are significant upgrades from Morrisonn, Pothier and Tom Poti, who is currently injured and doesn’t have an obvious spot waiting for him upon his return. Part of the reason Wideman was acquired was that the Capitals weren’t confident that Poti was going to return at all this year.

In the 10 games since the trade deadline this year, the Capitals have surrendered 1.50 goals per game. For the season, they’re surrendering a stingy 2.34 goals per game, down from last year’s 2.77 mark. Part of it is a conscious effort to focus more defensively, but more of it might have to do with the upgrade in personnel on defense. The penalty kill has been good all year, coming in at 85.7 percent effectiveness. It’s a much more aggressive penalty kill than last year.

The upgrades, especially with the trades for Hannan and Wideman, were to acquire specific types of players to fill a team need, largely for the playoffs. We’ll see how much the additions help for the playoffs, but these defensive pairings leave much less to be desired than last year. Even though the defense isn’t what lost the Capitals the series against the Montreal Canadiens last year — the offense, and specifically, the power play was — it still probably needed to be significantly upgraded for a deep playoff run. And it has been. The defensive personnel isn’t as good as that of the Bruins’, but it’s still pretty good.

Of course, part of that stinginess on defense has to do with improved goaltending. Jose Theodore served his purpose — to bridge the gap to the organization’s young goaltenders and provide quality netminding in the meantime — but those cost-controlled, young goaltenders are providing better goaltending than Theodore did. Granted, Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby are seeing better defense in front of them than Theodore did. But the quality of the goaltending has still gone up, and each goaltender provides something a little different.

Neuvirth is the steadiest one of the trio and will probably get the nod in the first game of the playoffs, and he deserves the nod, too. He’s probably the Capitals’ team MVP. He guided the Capitals through the early part of the season in which the rest of the team wasn’t playing especially well. In 43 games played, Neuvirth has a 2.42 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. Varlamov has a 2.27 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 24 games played.

Varlamov might have the highest ceiling of any of the three goaltenders, but Neuvirth is the steadier netminder right now and stays healthy. Holtby, long-term, might have the best combination of upside and polish of the three goaltenders, but is probably too inexperienced to be considered a playoff goalie at this point. But in 13 games played with the Capitals this year, he’s been impressive, posting a 1.95 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

I look up and down this lineup, and while there’s less offensive punch this year than last, I see a more balanced lineup with less holes. I see less glaring problem areas with the personnel, especially with the defense. I have less questions about the goaltending. The Capitals might not be as good on offense as Tampa Bay, as good in net as the Bruins or as deep overall as the Flyers.

But the Capitals sure are better suited for the playoffs than they were last year.

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