Washington Capitals still really bad: Where do they go from here?

USA TODAY Sports

The Capitals are the NHL's worst team through 10 games of a 48-game schedule. Where do they go from here?

Three years ago Tuesday, the Capitals put the cap on their club-record 14-game win streak, notching a dramatic comeback against the Penguins in front of a national television audience. At the time, Washington was making headlines around the league, posing a high-powered threat to opponents and were a club that seemed they could do nothing wrong.

However, the scene has completely changed in the Nation's Capital as while Washington is making headlines, it's for the wrong reasons. Right now the Caps can't seem to do a whole lot right and have stumbled badly out of the gate.

Through 10 games, the Caps are just 2-7-1, beating two teams who so far have combined for just seven wins this season, winning both games by just a single goal. They are next-to-last in goals-against in the East, just 12th in the conference in goals for, combining for a league worst goal-differential of -13.

So what exactly has gone wrong for the Capitals, who were one win away from the Eastern Conference finals last May?

The answer isn't easy, nor is going to be simple to fix.

Last year, while Washington struggled during the campaign, it mostly coincided with missing their top center in Nicklas Backstrom and top defenseman in Mike Green for long periods of time.

But the Caps are mostly healthy this year, with the only injury right now on the roster is forward Brooks Laich -- injured playing for the Kloten Flyers during the lockout. Laich, who certainly leaves a void in the locker room, shouldn't cause the dramatic drop off in production that it has.

Offensively, the Capitals were supposed to be more offensive than the tight defensive one employed under Dale Hunter last season, but so far, it hasn't been. Hunter's Caps scored 2.5 goals per game, but new coach Adam Oates' squad has averaged just 2.3 goals so far this year, and last year's team seemed to generate some better chances than so far Oates' system is producing.

Under Hunter, the Caps never went through a 10-game stretch without scoring more than 3 goals at least once. Oates' club hasn't hit the 4-goal mark yet.

The obvious answer to the offensive power outage seems to be the sagging play of Alex Ovechkin, who doesn't have a 5-on-5 goal so far this season. Ovechkin has been largely invisible at times, and his trademark breakaway speed and desire hasn't shown itself so far this season. But the Capitals' problem goes deeper than that.

Backstrom, who at his best is a dynamic playmaker, also has been invisible at times, as while his statistics have been decent -- 1 goal, 7 assists -- the Caps also need him to be more of a productive center and score goals to go with his assists. The Swedish center would be on pace for just 8 goals -- in a full 82-game season -- and the Caps need more of a multi-dimensional threat from their top center.

Another aspect to the Capitals' woes is an imbalanced attack, shifting a lingering lack of center depth to wing.
The Capitals finally solved their second-line center problem by getting Mike Ribeiro from Dallas in a draft-day deal. The creative center -- who has been one of the few bright spots for the Caps as the team's leading scorer -- has filled that hole, but now the Capitals have a very thin wing corps.

While Alexander Semin was allowed to leave via free agency, the Capitals never really replaced his scoring threat in the lineup. Joey Crabb, Eric Fehr and Wojtek Wolski, players the Capitals added to try and help replace Semin's 21 goals from last year, combined have less points than Semin has so far in Carolina in just 8 games.

As a result, there has been line shuffling as Oates has tried to change combinations get his stars going, but it's evident that without some real threats on the wing to pair with Ovechkin and Backstrom means teams can shade Washington's stars closer without having to worry about leaving a real scoring threat unguarded.

Defensively, the Capitals have taken a major turn south to start this season, allowing 3.6 goals a game so far, up a full goal from their play under Hunter. While Green has been decent so far this year, the rest of the defensive corps have had some major up and downs so far.

The biggest disappointment for Washington has to be the play of John Carlson. Carlson seemed to right the ship after a slow start to last season in the playoffs and signed a six-year, $23.8 million contract just before the lockout, but has been nothing short of a liability so far this year. Carlson has had difficulty keeping up with opposing forwards at times, turned the puck over and been out of position at times during the campaign.

At one point, teams were feasting on the Caps' top pairing of Carlson and Karl Alzner to the point where Oates broke up the tandem, and while the change has helped somewhat stem the tide, Carlson still has been on the ice for over half of the goals scored against Washington this season.

Beyond those three top defensemen, the depth players haven't performed well, as Tom Poti certainly has been adequate, but still showing rust from a two-year layoff. Jeff Schultz has been caught a few times screening his own netminder, and Roman Hamrlik has found himself a healthy scratch for 7 of 10 games.

John Erskine has performed decently, but was suspended for three games for his elbow on Wayne Simmonds. Tomas Kundratek has been decent since his recall from AHL Hershey, but still has shown some inexperience at times.

With the defense not performing well, the burden shifts to the goaltending, and both of Washington's young netminders have crumbled under the load. Both goaltenders have a save percentage below .900 and a goals-against at 2.99 or higher, Braden Holtby's a staggering 4.52.

It's not that Holtby or Michal Neuvirth have been truly terrible, because they haven't, but they aren't making the key saves the team needs to stay in games.

Sometimes in hockey, it's not the quantity but quality of goals you allow, as a team struggling to light the lamp sees a goaltender allow a soft goal just adds to the frustration and overpassing that has become prevalent in Washington's start.

Sunday against Pittsburgh, Holtby left a pair of soft goals 37 seconds apart -- which several Caps players afterwards said they felt was a deflating sequence for the club. Tuesday against Toronto, Neuvirth and Poti had a miscue behind the Washington net leading to a James Van Riemsdyk tally, which Oates said took the wind out of the team's sails.

And while all this is going on, Oates is trying to implement a new system like New Jersey's, featuring an opportunistic offense and puck-moving defense, but at times, it seems that some of the players are taking an extra split-second to remember where they need to be, causing them to miss an assignment or ending up in the wrong spot.

Oates' system isn't an easy one to learn -- it took the Devils a while to adopt it last season under Pete DeBoer -- and with a short schedule, it's difficult to implement without frustration setting in. Players have admitted trying to remember where they need to be at times, and in the fast-paced action of a National Hockey League, that extra hesitation can be deadly.

The big question becomes where the Capitals will fare in the final 38 games. While the team has been fortunate to not fall too far out of the playoff chase -- Washington is still just 4 points behind the 8th place New York Islanders despite the spot in the Eastern basement -- time is running short for the team to start to gain ground. Even Oates when asked Tuesday night admitted they don't have a whole lot more time for their spiral to continue.

With Vancouver Mike Gillis in the house Sunday, trade rumors began, but Washington's George McPhee tends to be patient and not make a panic move. With Oates new on the job, he figures to be safe for now. All this means the fix has to come from within, either through new combinations or looking to tweak the roster.

Right now, the Capitals are the polar opposite of their red-hot streak three years ago, and if they don't begin to turn around the aspects of their game soon, the short season will be over before it began.

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