With All-Star weekend now in the rearview mirror, it's back to work for the Capitals. Washington has played 47 games and has 35 left to go in the regular season. As we look forward to the second half of the regular season, two major issues have emerged from the first 47 games that the team must address.
The Caps once again came into the 2021-22 season with the young Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek tandem and, once again, neither goalie has been able to take hold of the No. 1 job.
Samsonov has the highest ceiling of any of the team's netminders, but he has been wildly inconsistent. He has a .902 save percentage with a 2.88 GAA. His past two games have been a good encapsulation of the way his season has gone. On Feb. 1, he stopped 43 out of 45 shots from the Pittsburgh Penguins in an overtime win. The very next night, he let in three goals on four shots and was pulled against the Edmonton Oilers.
Vanecek has been more consistent and, frankly, better this season with a .915 save percentage and 2.39 GAA. He is playing much closer to his ceiling, but the problem is that I do not see that ceiling being high enough to be a No. 1 starting goalie in the NHL. After all, there's a reason why the Caps continue to be linked to Marc-Andre Fleury.
Some people want to quibble with this and point to the fact that Vanecek has been largely lights out in recent weeks and that's fair. Since Jan. 1, Vanecek has had a .925 save percentage, 2.11 GAA and a 4-2-0 record. That's really good, but here's the problem. We pretty much know who the eight playoff teams in the east are going to be -- there is already a sizable gap in the standings between the top eight and bottom eight -- and of those eight teams, every single team can claim a goaltending advantage over Washington.
Tampa Bay (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and New York (Igor Shesterkin) have two of the best goalies in the world. Any questions about Florida (Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight), Toronto (Jack Campbell) and Carolina's (Frederik Andersen) goaltending have been silenced by brilliant regular seasons. Tuukka Rask has struggled for Boston since returning to play, but the Bruins still have Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman behind him.
The only team you could argue with is Pittsburgh after Tristan Jarry's postseason implosion last year, but he has rebounded well with a .923 save percentage and 2.21 GAA season which netted him an invite to the All-Star Game.
If you had to win a playoff, would you take the Capitals' tandem over any of these others? Are the Caps realistic Cup contenders if every team they could play in the playoffs can claim an advantage at the most important position?
The trade deadline is on March 21, giving Samsonov and Vanecek six weeks to show the team they can be the No. 1. Since neither has done it in a year and a half, however, I'm skeptical another six weeks will make much difference. This seems like a problem only outside help can fix at this point.
Considering the scoring talent on this team, it seems unfathomable that the power play could be this bad, ranking 28th in the NHL at 15.3%. Break-ins have been a growing issue for a few years with the team primarily utilizing the drop-pass, but doing so at a rate so slow that it is rendered ineffective. But once the puck is in the zone, typically the set-up was fine after that. That has not been the case this season. The puck movement is far too slow and indecisive and the only real strategy seems to be forcing passes to Alex Ovechkin whether the passing lane is open or not.
There is an argument to be made that this is not actually a big deal. Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha have all missed a majority of the season to this point and any power play would suffer from three major pieces missing. There is also the argument that the referees put away the whistles in the playoffs and teams do not get as many power play opportunities. This certainly can be true. Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid notably did not draw a single power play in the playoffs last season despite being the best player in the world and one of the fastest.
But it doesn't always work out this way.
In each of the past four postseasons, the Caps have actually had more power play opportunities per game in the playoffs than they had in the regular season:
2021: 2.73 power plays per game in the regular season, 4.20 power plays per game in the playoffs
2019-20: 3.13 in the regular season, 3.50 in the playoffs
2018-19: 2.88 in the regular season, 3.43 in the playoffs
2017-18: 2.98 in the regular season, 3.13 in the playoffs
More concerning is the fact that the Caps have very clearly lost games specifically because of the power play. Two examples come to mind. On Dec. 19, Washington jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Los Angeles Kings, but lost 3-2 with the power play failing to score a single goal on six opportunities. On Feb. 2, the last game before the All-Star break, the Caps battled back from a 3-0 deficit against the Edmonton Oilers, but went 0-for-3 on the power play, including two opportunities in the third period after tying the game, and gave up a game-winning shorthanded goal on the last opportunity.
It's one thing for the power play to be bad. When it is actively costing you games, that's a concern.
A retooling of the power play is desperately needed. Do I see the team starting from scratch midway through the season? No, but it is also bad enough that you can't just keep things the same and hope it will get better. I would consider goaltending a bigger trade priority than an offensive forward so I am not sure outside help is coming. Considering that adding another player would require adjustments on the power play anyway, I think an internal fix is the best option for now. Whether that means shifting personnel and/or shifting strategy remains to be seen.