Thanks to my buddy Rob over at Japers' Rink for stopping by and answering a few questions about the Washington Capitals in advance of tonight's game. The Caps have been quite the juggernaut 60 games into this season, so let's get a deep dive of how things are going.
#1 - After years of declining play and getting waived over the weekend the writing was on the wall for the end of Brooks Laich's time in Washington, but do you think it was a good idea to move the longest-tenured player, alternate captain, beloved locker-room type in the middle of a season going so well to this point for the Caps? Not that I think they'll be too distraught to go on, or trying to over-state the chemistry factor, it just raised my eyebrows to make a tough decision on a popular guy in-season. Cause for a lot of concern to you?
I don't have the slightest concern with respect to moving Laich out. I have mild concern that the Caps had to package a decent-to-good prospect in Connor Carrick, but the reality is this blueline is locked up for several years (Dmitry Orlov if RFA this summer but there won't be any issue getting a deal done - now that $4.5M has been erased from the cap). The Caps also have Madison Bowey and Jonas Siegenthaler, and a slew of potential undersized puck moving defenders in the pipeline so there weren't many spots on the horizon to begin with.
But back to Laich. I'm sure it was tough for these guys to see him go, or at least some of them. There has been a ton of roster turnover since the days when Laich was a key contributor to the lineup, so how many guys really have that connection? Further, if Laich's leadership or chemistry impact, whatever you call it, really was all that it was cracked up to be, why has Brian MacLellan been pursuing "leadership" and "character" guys since virtually day 1 of his tenure? If the leadership / culture of the team was an issue before, and Laich was here for that, then what does that say about Laich's leadership?
Ultimately, this team is in it to win and everyone knows that. They also know the business side of things. I can't imagine anyone in the locker room is too shocked, and they've gotta know their window to win was just improved by moving a guy that was vastly overpaid relative to on-ice performance.
#2 - The Caps have probably their deepest, most balanced team ever, who are a couple of guys who have stepped up and played above your preseason expectations so far?
Well, you have to start this answer with Evgeny Kuznetsov. He finished last season hot, played well in the playoffs, but nobody could have seen this. His breakout has been incredible and it's been the most important ingredient to giving the Caps a dangerous 1-2 punch up front. I also think Oshie has been a great fit with the top line, and he's able to do some things on the right wing that the Caps haven't had since Mike Knuble left, with the added benefit of mobility and defense. Justin Williams has absolutely lived up to his reputation, but that's not a surprise either. One other area where I'd say I'm surprised is how good Marcus Johansson has looked as the third line center. When he lost out the battle for second line center last training camp (to Kuznetsov and barely-legal rookie Andre Burakovsky) I thought the days of him playing center were done. But he's been strong and added a scoring component to that line that didn't exist when Jay Beagle was the pivot.
Finally, Nate Schmidt deserves a nod here. He ended last season on the shelf after an injury, and then looked like he had carved out a spot on the third pair to open this season. With Orpik's injury, Schmidt moved to the top pair for roughly 40 games, and didn't look out of place doing it (and let's just say John Carlson's play wasn't exactly carrying the pair or hiding Schmidt, due to injury). Great showing from an undrafted college guy.
#3 - Laich aside, your thoughts on the Caps deadline moves to basically hold steady, other than the Mike Weber trade? They didn't need much and not much was available anyways, so not the worst thing. Any annoyance for trading a 2nd and a 3rd, or did you find that pretty much acceptable considering the returns?
The deadline moves were great. The team has been stomping the opposition in the regular season, has a top six that is deep and clicking, and managed to overcome injuries to both top pair defenders.There was no reason to make drastic moves - the rest of the east is trying to catch the Caps, not vice versa. The depth moves give them some insurance in case of injuries (which are inevitable if they play for as long as they hope to). They added some veteran players that can play Trotz's heavy game, so it looks like they found guys that fit well.
The second and third are just how things go these days. As I explained with respect to the defense, the Caps don't have a ton of roster spots opening up in the near term, so I'd rather they hold on to their blue chips and upgrade the current squad for a playoff run. Jakub Vrana and Riley Barber are tearing it up in Hershey, and the Caps didn't move either. Madison Bowey looks promising, and he didn't move. No first round picks went out the door, so presumably they can add another strong prospect this year. They are going to be extending Johansson, Burakovsky, and Kuznetsov in the next two summers, so it's a young forward corps that doesn't need immediate help. More picks is obviously better, but this is a win-now situation.
#4- For a Caps team who seemingly is on cruise control for the regular season, if you look at it from the opposite perspective, what's the best way to attack and beat this team in a playoff series? And how, if anything, is the outlook/expectations of the 2016 team similar or different from the 2010 Washington team that also won the Presidents Cup?
The Caps still have a lot of youth in the top six, although they all played in the playoffs last year. Maybe one of the younger guys gets overwhelmed or pushed around. Maybe the injuries continue (Orpik, Carlson, Johansson, Beagle have all missed time with injury). I think there's an opportunity to beat their third line head to head, but that takes depth and a strong matchup game from the opposition coaching. Braden Holtby hasn't been himself since the All Star break, and if that keeps up then obviously all bets are off. These are still the Washington Capitals, so you could never predict all the ways they could find to lose a playoff series.
As for the comparison to 2010, up front it makes sense but this team is so much better on defense and in net. Holtby is going to be a Vezina finalist, if not favorite. The 2010 squad featured Shaonne Morrison and Jeff Schultz in the top four, with Milan Jurcina getting major minutes and Tom Poti playing the tough minutes. When things got tough, they called up rookies John Carlson and Karl Alzner (who only played game 7 of that series). Yikes. Today they have Orpik / Carlson and Alzner / Niskanen. Both pairs are capable of playing tough opposition, and Schmidt / Orlov has absolutely murdered third pair minutes when they've been together.
Taylor Chorney has been surprisingly good this season, and now Mike Weber gives them a bit more depth should Orpik or Alzner get banged up. The defense is in a much better spot than it was back then. But they still need to play the games...