Nicklas Backstrom-- finally got on the score sheet Thursday against the Islanders with a goal and an assist. Should equal or better his totals from last year. As durable as they come; he played all 82 games last year and shows no signs of wear. Looks to have put behind whatever had him in the slump earlier in the week.
Mike Knuble--scored in the first game and has been a presence in front of the opposing net ever since. He's probably not going to light it up every night, but he'll show up for every game. At 38 he isn't getting any younger, but as long as he can stay healthy will be a fixture on the first line.
Alex Ovechkin--what do you say about somebody that has a bad game and ends up scoring the game winner anyway? Shows signs of rounding out his game, but still needs to show that, like a Peter Forsberg or even Mario Lemieux, he can carry a team on his back if he needs to. All the great players all the way back to Newsy Lalonde have shown this quality on the way to winning the Stanley Cup. This is Ovechkin's time.
Tomas Fleischmann--still not exactly the most popular Capital on the roster but nonetheless the team's hope as its much-discussed second line center solution. One goal, two assists and three points and a plus 2 in 4 games. Not too shabby numbers-wise. Defensive play still needs work however. I recently had a discussion with Red Army Line at the Red Line Station blog about Fleischmann's play. He made the point that he doesn't seem to be in a position to be at his best. Agreed, but one has to wonder if that entails demotion to the third line and whether or not that's best for all involved. One thing's clear--if he's expected to continue to play center and not his natural position of left wing, he MUST improve his abysmal face-off performance.
Brooks Laich--the Caps designated bump-and-grind guy. Doesn't have to put up the numbers to show his effectiveness but has still managed to pot two goals in four games. Must be because his shot selection is better. Caps' most versatile forward thus far
Marcus Johansson--the rookie from Sweden has had his moments, both good and bad, in his short time with the big club. Has shown his worth just by his willingness to take any assignment handed to him. Will continue to learn and grow as a player as the season rolls on. But first he has to heal from an injury.
Alexander Semin--the ever-enigmatic Russian has a point in all four games. The cloud still hangs over him though--will he be traded or will he stay? Can't argue with his offensive upside, but you have to wonder if this "fancy boy" will be the solution or part of the problem. Serving as the foil to Brooks Laich's grinding game for now. Is also a constant on the currently struggling power play, not that it will change. His being a constant, that is.
Jason Chimera--the speed demon of the team. Seems to be able to do everything right...except finish...his shots into goals that is. His checks he always finishes. Great character player as well.
Eric Fehr--Another player with two goals after four games. Is showing more of a terrific touch around the net but still needs to figure out how to create chances for himself using his huge 6-4 frame. Defensive play still needs work as well as he is a minus one.
Matt Hendricks--something of a surprise earning a walk-on roster spot. Won't see much more than fourth-line duty due to his average skill level but is another sparkplug providing that element of grit that was conspicuously absent last year.
Matt Bradley--no longer the only Matt who uses his fists, which should allow him to concentrate on his usual dependable game on the third and fourth lines as well as some penalty-killing duty. If the coaches decide to give him the chance he might be good for 15 goals or more, not that it's necessary for him. All he needs to do is continue with his irritating style of play to be productive.
David Steckel--faceoff master and defensive specialist. Is a minus one in two games so he'll need to step up his play or else his time will be given to others.
Boyd Gordon---classic utility player. Gordon does his best work on the penalty kill as well as taking key defensive zone faceoffs. Unfortunately he will never blow anybody away with his offense, but his leadership and overall skill on the other side of the puck are invaluable. His best game so far was the tightly contested match against the Islanders. A solid plus 2 through three games.
D.J. King--was brought to the team for pretty much one reason and wasted no time in proving it in his first game. Haven't really had a chance to see much else out of him, though I can't imagine he'd be easy pickings along the boards or in the corners.
Mike Green--We all know by now what Green is best at and he's still one of the best past the opposite blueline with the puck. The other side, however....yeah, still questions. But he's been seen diving for loose pucks in a redoubled effort to improve his defensive side. Conditioning still a question as he tends to wear down by season's end. In fact, he's hurt already and isn't on the road trip as he is currently nursing an upper body injury. Is a surprising plus four defensively so far.
Jeff Schultz--something I never thought I would be saying as recently as last year, but Schultz has become Sergeant Steady on the Caps' backline. The most reliable defender in all three zones, he won't wow anybody with a ton of ability or physical play, preferring instead to tie up opposing forwards. Is a key element to the team's revamped penalty kill. Last year's NHL plus-minus statistical leader so it's no surprise that he's already a plus 3.
John Carlson--twenty-year old rookie sensation. Has the skills and the training to become one of the elite defensemen in the league. Is also prone to the typical rookie mistakes, however. Has a phenomenal wrist point shot that finds the target. Decent first move out of the zone as well. His main challenge is to get through this first full year plus playoffs without letting the expectations that have been heaped upon him to affect him in any way. His stats pretty much reflect this challenge as he has a goal and five points in four games but is only Even defensively.
Tom Poti--recovered nicely after a scary eye injury at the end of last year's playoffs. Minute-munching defenseman called upon to take care of crucial situations last year. His role this year is as the mentor to rookies Carlson and Karl Alzner. Still makes mind-boggling decisions with the puck, but will still be called upon for key assignments as he is the most versatile backliner the Caps' have. Also the best point shot. Currently on the injured list.
Karl Alzner--the other rookie defenseman. A bit less heralded than Carlson, yet much is still expected of him. His strengths are more on the defensive side of play. Seems a bit uncomfortable at times, but should settle into his role as time goes by. Think Tom Poti last year only with a bit more upside.
John Erskine--the closest thing the Caps have to a true classic stay-at-home defenseman. Has been doing anything he can to stick in the lineup and make life miserable for opposing forwards. Unfortunately for him, he is a minus three already defensively. This has to improve or he may find himself out of a job by season's end.
Tyler Sloan--literally a two-way player as he can double as a winger. Hasn't been penciled in for full-time duty, but is hungry to prove himself. With the recent injuries to Mike Green and Tom Poti, he's got the chance he's been waiting for but will he make the most of it? Hasn't done anything to lose a spot but nothing really to earn one yet either.
Brian Fahey--looking to get his first regular season duty tonight against Nashville. Was one of the last cuts in preseason.
Michal Neuvirth--Has started all four games this year and looks to get the nod tonight even with Semyon Varlamov returning. Makes relatively few mistakes positionally and looks very comfortable with being the go-to guy. Wonderful agility. Has literally been the difference between wins and losses in just about every game this year. Reminiscent of Olie Kolzig in the way he covers the angles and in using his body to minimize the overall target area. If there's one thing he tends to do too much it's that he tends to go down too early, leaving more skilled shooters a chance to go top shelf. If he puts in the time to develop a book on some of the top shooters in the league, he can correct this.
Semyon Varlamov--unfortunately has become the butt of jokes among Caps fans for his frequent visits to the injury list. This overlooks his contribution to the team in the playoffs, however. Has recently returned to the active list. Right now is still in contention for the No. 1 job but must earn it.
Dany Sabourin--Journeyman backup, probably won't see much time with the big club unless there's an injury.
The Bruce, Dean Evason, Bob Woods, video analyst Blaine Forsyth and goalie coach Arturs Irbe collectively have a target on them as they work with one of the most talented collection of players in the league. But the expectations are nothing short of winning the Cup, or at the very least a Final appearance. Anything less and the whispers calling for a new coaching staff, or at least a new head coach, will become screams.
Basically the task for the coaches is threefold:
1. Keep the team focused on the big prize at the end. This will involve keeping the team mentally prepared as well as physically. Too many times the Caps looked like they just weren't into what they were doing.
2. Acclimate the rookies into the grind of a full NHL regular season as well as the playoffs
3. Once the playoffs begin, show that the mistakes from the past have been learned from by ratcheting everything up a level or five. Why else would every series played take seven games?
So far, the Bruce has deflected a potential goalie controversy, improved the penalty kill and had to deal with a surprisingly snakebit power play.
George McPhee has many assets he's keeping as his aces in the hole. Or is he? So far he isn't telling what he might do, but that's always been his style. The feeling is that there are one or two missing pieces needed to complete this team. What bothers me is that he won't even admit that he's taking a risk in basically going with the status quo, banking on the inherent chemistry to provide the difference. Puck Daddy scored Caps' management a B in his preview of the team for this reason. I'm inclined to agree. I discussed this with a friend of mine at work and he put it using a baseball analogy: I'd rather they swing for the fences and miss rather than just stand there gawking. Come the trade deadline we will see.
It's a nice start so far. But there are a lot of kinks in the system to be worked out. If this team can keep the results at the same rate, they'll be in great shape.