The Washington Capitals' 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday marked the midway point of the 2013-14 season, so what better time to assess (almost) every player on the roster by assigning them arbitrary letter grades?
As a whole, the 20-15-6 Capitals are decidedly average, but below, you can find my "thorough" appraisal of each individual player -- sorted by position -- through 41 games.
- Alex Ovechkin: A+
This goes without saying. Ovechkin has been nothing short of impressive, incredible, inspired or any other complimentary word that begins with "I" that you can come up with. Through 39 games (he missed two in early November due to injury), Ovechkin comfortably leads the NHL with 31 goals, a 65-goal pace that would match his career high set in 2007-08.
There is always room for improvement (he does only have one even-strength assist all season), but Ovechkin's career renaissance that began late last season has continued through this season. As a result, he has regained his mantle as one of the game's most dynamic superstars.
- Nicklas Backstrom: A+
Backstrom is content not to command the spotlight, but he may be building the quietest, yet most convincing case for Hart Trophy consideration in recent memory. Ovechkin is the face of the franchise, but ask most players in the locker room who the driving force behind the team is and they will point to Backstrom.
Only four players have more points than Backstrom's 45, and only two forwards -- Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Sharks center Joe Thornton -- have more assists than Backstrom's 35 (though he leads the NHL with five three-assist games and two four-assist games). Backstrom has made his living on Washington's second-ranked power play, where he has collected a league-high 21 assists and 24 points.
The 26-year-old's point totals have increased every month, from 12 in October to 13 in November and 19 in December (tied for second-most league-wide), a steady increase that could mean good things for Backstrom in the second half.
- Mikhail Grabovski: A
For a player that was bought out of the four remaining years on his five-year contract in early July (the day before his wedding, no less) and signed a reasonably-priced one-year deal in late August, Grabovski has not done half bad, which is to say that he has done exceptionally well. In an offensive role more suited to his talents, Grabovski has already shattered his point total from all of last season (16 points in 48 games) with 11 goals and 30 points in 39 games this season.
What is most impressive about Grabovski, illustrated by the fact that he has been on the ice for 56.5% of Washington's even-strength goals this season (leading all team forwards), is that he has meshed well with everybody that has flanked him. When he anchored the third line with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera, they were the team's most productive line. When he recently joined Eric Fehr and Troy Brouwer on the second line, he brought the best out in both of his wingers (particularly Brouwer, who saw a surge in his even-strength production and possession while skating alongside Grabovski).
It is safe to say that Grabovski has met -- and perhaps even exceeded -- the expectations placed on him upon his arrival.
- Joel Ward: A-
Quick poll, everybody. Raise your hand if you believed before the season began that Ward would be the Capitals' second-leading goal scorer at the midway point. If you raised your hand, you are a liar and should be ashamed of yourself.
With 12 goals, Ward would be the leading goal scorer or tied for the lead on six other teams in the NHL as of Friday (Buffalo, Calgary, Florida, Nashville, New York Rangers and Phoenix). He slowed down in December with just three goals in 13 games after having six in 15 November games, but he has been one of the Capitals' most consistent forwards all season as he and Chimera have yet to leave each other's sides.
Where he needs to improve is on those annoying quick response goals against. He and Chimera have been on the ice for nine each, second-most on the team (though they are relied upon more than any other line on ensuing shifts following goals).
- Marcus Johansson: B
We have not heard much from Johansson lately, what with six points in December and all, but he continued to hold his own on the first line with Backstrom and Ovechkin and seemingly became more assertive with the puck. He trails only Backstrom with 22 assists this season, but is tied for the team lead in primary assists overall (15) and at even-strength (10).
- Jason Chimera: B
After following up a career-high 20-goal season in 2011-12 with a three-goal dud in 2012-13, Chimera was determined to contribute this season, doing so early on. He surpassed his goal total from all of last season in just 12 games and earned NHL "Third Star" honors for the week ending Nov. 3 when he tied for the league lead with six points in three games. As always, his speed has been his greatest asset, followed by his last name, which has fed my insatiable desire for puns ("Chimeracle on 33rd Street" is some of my finest work).
Other than that, you can more or less recycle what I said about Ward above to evaluate Chimera's performance so far.
- Eric Fehr: B
As coach Adam Oates said following the Capitals' 3-2 victory against the New York Rangers on Dec. 27, moving Fehr to his natural yet crowded right side is "not going to happen." Yet Oates also said that "[needs] to get him on the ice" regardless, and for good reason.
Upon his return to the organization last season, Fehr has been Oates' proverbial guinea pig as his versatility has lent itself well to an increased role, and since returning from his inexplicable stretch as a healthy scratch through most of November, Fehr has been one of Washington's better forwards with five goals and 11 points in 18 games. He is not afraid to shoot the puck either; only Ovechkin and Backstrom average more than Fehr's 2.2 shots per game among forwards.
- Troy Brouwer: B-
Brouwer is fully aware that his level of production through the first half of the season is unacceptable, especially considering the amount of responsibility bestowed upon him by the coaching staff after a strong offensive season last year. He will be the first to tell you that his nine goals and 19 points -- only four and eight of which have come at even strength, respectively -- are not enough, but he has gotten better as of late; he has eight points in his past eight games, including five at even strength (two goals, three assists).
- Tom Wilson: C
The Capitals took a calculated risk by keeping Wilson, more or less jettisoning Mathieu Perreault -- who would have looked awfully nice at third-line center, if you ask me -- to hold onto the 19-year-old. Whether that move will pay dividends remains to be seen.
Wilson has been relegated to fourth-line duty all season, and while he may be just one of nine rookies to have appeared in all of his teams' games, his 7:07 of ice time per game ranks 133rd among 144 rookies that have suited up this season (only two other rookies who have played at least 20 games fall below him).
He has shown a willingness to drop the gloves this season (his eight fights are fourth-most in the NHL) and narrowly avoided suspension last month, but he was drafted with the hope that he could one day develop into a dual threat. Wilson has not been afforded an opportunity to do that, and who knows if and when he ever will.
- Michael Latta: C
Latta is currently shelved with a lower-body injury, but in 17 games so far this season, his feistiness and creativity has served him well. Also, this.
- Martin Erat: C-
Where to begin with Erat? Well, he has yet to score this season, the longest goalless drought of his 770-game career, and he publicly requested a trade (for the second time in less than a calendar year, I might add), which more or less tanked his already nonexistent value. That seems like a good place to start. Oh, that is it? Alright then.
- Aaron Volpatti: C-
No player in the NHL with at least 32 games played has worse possession numbers than Volpatti. The only thing saving him from a lower grade is the fact that he broke a dude's face with one punch.
- Jay Beagle: C-
Beagle is a simple man. What you see is what you get (plus he still owns a flip phone). He is Washington's best faceoff man (57.7%) and one of the more industrious players on the roster, but other than that, he is just sort of there. Unfortunately for Beagle, I feel as if though he is being slowly phased out in favor of Latta, who is younger, scrappier and more of a playmaker (relatively speaking).
- Brooks Laich: D+
Brooks is here. He is here because he cannot stay healthy.
After missing all but nine games last season with a nagging groin injury that ultimately required abdominal surgery (which, by the way, is a sentence I have written at least 75 times and have saved for easy copying and pasting), Laich made it about 10 minutes into the first day of training camp before leaving with a strained left hip flexor. That was a harbinger of things to come.
He has missed 14 of Washington's past 16 games, and in the games that he has appeared in, his contributions have been scant (six points in 27 games), both of which are harder to swallow because he still has three years left on a six-year contract that takes up $4.5 million of salary cap space each season.
Laich is a natural leader, but he has a lot to do to prove that he is worth keeping.
- John Carlson: A-
I believe being selected to represent the United States in the 2014 Sochi Games is enough of an explanation, but if you require more, Carlson has become Oates' most relied-upon defenseman.
Carlson leads the Capitals in ice time per game by over a minute (24:38), plus he plays an integral role on both special teams units (a team-high and NHL-high 4:02 of shorthanded ice time per game and 2:39 of power-play ice time per game). Did I mention that he also faces some of the toughest competition among all defensemen? The guy does everything.
- Karl Alzner: B
Alzner is the type of player that the less you hear about him, the better he is playing. Once again, Alzner has been silently solid all season. There is nothing in particular that sticks out that Alzner is doing or not doing, which, all things considered, is probably a good thing.
- Dmitry Orlov: B
Once Orlov finally made his season debut in late November after shuttling back and forth between Washington and Hershey for whatever reason, he brought some much-needed stability to the Capitals' top four. We all know about Orlov's offensive skill set, but as Oates has continually stressed, he must round out his game by working on the defensive side.
Take a look at the sequence that led to the Carolina Hurricanes' game-winning goal on Thursday. Orlov's ill-advised read (among a multitude of other mistakes) allowed the Hurricanes to break out on a 3-on-1 rush, but the coaching staff seems confident that Improvement in that area will come in time.
- Nate Schmidt: B-
- Steve Oleksy: C+
Perhaps the best word to describe Oleksy's first half is lucky. The team's save percentage with him on the ice is 94%, which ranks 13th among all NHL defensemen with at least 32 games played, and his PDO of 104.0 ranks fifth. Those numbers will eventually regress, so we shall see how Oleksy handles it when they do.
- Mike Green: C
Much like the Capitals as a whole, Green has been mediocre this season. On offense, it took him longer to score his first goal of the season -- 25 games -- than it ever has in his career. On defense, he has made several costly mistakes and some of his decisions have been suspect at best. The poise and assertiveness that helped Green earn two Norris Trophy nominations earlier in his career have been fleeting this season. Something just seems off.
- John Erskine: C-
Erskine's season did not end well last year, on the ice for eight goals against in seven games against the Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Oates made it clear that the rugged defenseman's top-four spot would remain intact to start this season. Erskine made it through most of October before being shut down until mid-December as he took his time to fully recover from offseason knee surgery.
Oates acknowledged that Erskine was not completely healthy when the season began, so what does that say about the Capitals' confidence in their defensive depth if they were content with giving a less-than-100-percent Erskine top-four minutes?
Also, Erskine has been on the ice for 1.252 goals against/20 minutes this season, the fourth-highest total among NHL defensemen.
- Alexander Urbom: Incomplete
- Philipp Grubauer: B+
Grubauer has seized the crease in Washington since being recalled on Nov. 30, starting five straight games and nine of the past 12. At 5-2-3/2.20 GAA/.932 SV%, the Capitals are content riding the rookie's hot hand.
It is a small sample size to be sure, and just like everybody else, Grubauer can shore some things up (particularly rebound control), but Washington developed instant confidence playing in front of him.
Just read what Brouwer had to say on Saturday: "Right now, with how many starts Grubi's getting, you've got to consider him as our No. 1 at the moment." That says it all.
- Braden Holtby: C+
While Grubauer has earned the bulk of the starts recently, Holtby has not played in exactly two weeks, a extended break that was unforeseen. He has been saying all of the right things, practicing hard and remaining patient, but it is surely eating at Holtby, a fiery competitor, that he has not had a chance to put his unspectacular December (1-2-1/4.92 GAA/.863 SV%) behind him.
Holtby has struggled this season with the adjustments that goaltending coach Olie Kolzig has implemented, wanting his goaltenders to be less aggressive and let plays come to them. All it comes down to is Oates feeling that Grubauer, despite losing three straight games, currently gives the Capitals the best chance to win. If and when Holtby gets his next opportunity, he certainly can steal back his No. 1 spot with a stretch of strong play.
- Michal Neuvirth: Incomplete
Neuvirth has been the victim of the Capitals' crowded crease. Bad luck and inconsistent play have rendered him expendable, and his agent wants him out of Washington. Neuvirth has not dressed since Nov. 29, when he missed his last scheduled start after stepping on a puck during pregame warmups and injuring his Achilles. The show has gone on without him, and it is only a matter of time before he is shipped out of town.
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