It’s been just 20 games into the 2019-20 NHL season, but the Capitals are already shaping up to be a serious Stanley Cup contender after starting their season with a league-best 14–2–4 record.
The team has been on a serious hot streak as of late, securing at least a point in their last 13 contests; their last loss in regulation came against the Avalanche on Oct. 14.
The Caps have shown to be one of the most balanced teams in the league thus far, and with Michal Kempny back from his season-ending injury from last season, the team is playing at full strength.
There’s a lot to discuss about Washington’s start to the season, and it only felt write to jumble it all up into one glorious, arguably overlong, piece. Here are some notably important storylines the Caps have had to start the season.
The special teams has been a surprising plus
How the special teams units have performed this season is noticeably different from how they played last year. I mean sure, the power play formula really hasn’t changed much, and how could it with a player like Alexander Ovechkin constantly lining up one-timers towards the net, but they’ve just been converting on their chances more frequently compared to last season.
The Capitals have received the third most power plays so far this season with 70 opportunities, and are currently fourth in the league in power-play goals with 16. Comparing this to last season, the team was ranked 10th in the league in power play goals with 49 which is of course respectable, but how the team is scoring now has been what’s made this improvement so noticeable.
While Ovechkin of course leads the team with five goals in that department, the spread of wealth looks significantly more promising. Seven other players have chipped in power-play goals, with T.J. Oshie adding the second most on the team with four.
The other side of the special teams unit has looked better as well. Penalty killing was a major issue for this team last season, they had the eighth worst penalty killing percentage in the league, but it appears to so far be a non-issue for the team. The Caps now have the eighth best penalty killing percentage to start the season, and have also chipped in two short-handed goals this season. For a part of the game that the Caps really didn’t perform well in last year, it’s refreshing to see improvements made across the board.
John Carlson is in the makings of a career year
If you’re an avid Twitter user like myself, you’ve most likely seen the #Johnny4Norris hashtag trending among the Capitals fanbase. It might be a bit early to start declaring John Carlson the Norris Trophy winner, but if the award for the league’s top defender was given out after 20 games, it would absolutely have to go to Carlson.
Carlson has always been one of the best players on the Caps since he came into the league in the 2009-10 season, but he has been one of the best, if not the best, players in the league to start the year.
To get an idea of the rate at which Carlson is scoring this season, consider what he did last year. In 80 regular season games, he picked up a career-best 57 assists to go along with 13 goals; his 70 points were the most in his career. In just 20 games this season, Carlson already has 8 goals and 22 assists which, according to ESPN’s projections, means he’s on pace for 33 goals and 90 assists.
Now that seems like a rather unreasonable expectation for Carlson, the last defenseman to score more than 30 goals was Mike Green with the Capitals in the 2008-09 season, but that shows just how good he’s been this year.
There are a lot of reasons why the Caps have been the highest scoring and most explosive offense in the NHL this year, but Carlson’s scorching hot start to the season might be at the top of the list.
The second line has been the most exciting
To really hammer home just how good a scoring team the Caps have been this year, we can’t not talk about what the second line has done so far. The combination of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has been outstanding, with the trio scoring a combined 25 goals this season.
The three have been especially good in the month of November. In the team’s six games this month, Vrana has scored 5 goals and 3 assists, Kuznetsov has scored 3 goals and 6 assists and Wilson has added 4 goals and 5 assists.
While Vrana and Kuznetsov are expected to be getting point totals that high, it’s Wilson’s performance on the offensive attack that’s really been eye-opening. Sure, Wilson proved he was a capable scorer the last two seasons, with last year being his first 20-goal season, but if you would have told me five years ago that Tom Wilson, perennial goon and arguably the most hated player outside of the D.C. area, would be on pace to score 30+ goals in a season, I would have called you crazy, but here we are. Wilson has been just as good as his two fellow second liners and the team is flourishing as a result.
Young defense is improving, but it’s still a weak spot
I mentioned in a previous article some time ago that the defense’s lack of experience could be a bit of an issue for this team, and for a few games early in the year, it was, but those concerns have since settled down just a little. Getting back Kempny was a huge reason why as his on-ice chemistry with Carlson is phenomenal.
While the second pairing of Radko Gudas and Dmitri Orlov has been fairly strong thanks to a strong balance between Gudas’ physicality and Orlov’s offensive capabilities, the line I was most curious about was the third pairing of Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler.
Jensen has yet to live up to the four-year, $10 million contract he received after being dealt from the Red Wings, but he has shown improvement since he went from a pairing with Orlov to Siegenthaler. I could see the team sticking with this pairing for the remainder of the season.
Siegenthaler, who has just 46 career NHL games to his name, has looked good as of recent, but he’s still certainly a developmental player to keep an eye on. His first career goal on Nov. 9 against the Knights was an impressive wrister and was a good sample of what he could eventually be, but for now we’ll have to mark him down as “wait-and-see” sort of player.
The Holtby/Samsonov combo has proven to be as good as advertised
To reference yet another piece I had written earlier in the season (I’m awful I know), the contract situation with Braden Holtby would be something to keep an eye on considering Ilya Samsonov would be waiting in the wings as a potential replacement. So far, it’s been a good kind of dilemma.
After a rough start to the season, Holtby really turned it around and has gone 8–0–1 since he got benched on Oct. 14 in a loss to the Avalanche. We’ve witnessed vintage Holtby recently and it’s hard to imagine the Vezina Trophy-winning goalie faltering anytime soon.
What’s made this all so interesting though is how well Samsonov has played as well in his rookie year. The Russian netminder has gone 5–1–1 in his first seven appearances, and he’s already looked as good as expected when he was drafted No. 22 overall in the 2015 NHL Draft.
It’s impossible to know what head coach Todd Reirden is truly thinking about the whole situation, but I can imagine he’s at the very least quite pleased with the performances of his two goalies early in the season.