Injuries expose Capitals' weakness
When last summer's free agent frenzy wrapped up, many hockey writers declared the Washington Capitals winners for signing several free agents that suddenly made them playoff favorites. Several key injuries have made people think again.
In the face of adversity, are the Capitals really as strong as we thought?
Defenseman Mike Green first went down with a groin injury on Nov. 11, and didn't return to the lineup until Jan. 3 against Calgary. In the next game, on Jan. 7, Green left after skating just over seven minutes. After that contest, coach Dale Hunter told reporters that Green was experiencing some tightness in his groin and was removed as a precaution.
However, his apparent re-injury exposed a deeper problem: a tear in his stomach lining that required surgery. Suddenly, the Capitals were without Green for another 4-6 weeks. And being without Green meant another month of missing a key component of the power play. In Green's 10 games this season, along with his three even-strength points, he has three power-play points — all goals, including an overtime game-winner.
At the time of Green's initial injury, the Capitals had been one of the top-ranked power plays in the league. Without his presence on the point, the team has dropped to 13th at 18 percent effectiveness.
Hunter has called Green one of the most important players on the team, and his long absence is certainly felt on the ice. "He's a great player and he's going to add offense to our team," Hunter told reporters before Green's initial return against Calgary. "He can play a lot of minutes. Definitely any coach would be pretty excited to get him back."
The Capitals will have to wait a little longer. For the past week, Green has been practicing with the team after successful surgery, but he has to get back into game shape. The team would like him to be 100 percent before attempting another comeback.
But Green says that he feels good, and is on schedule with his recovery. "At least I have an end date where I should be better, and that's comforting. Four to six weeks, and I'm hoping to be back before that," Green told reporters on Feb. 2, his third day back on the ice following his surgery.
Though the team hopes all their injured players will be back soon, the absences have exposed weaknesses. Dennis Wideman leads the Capitals' defensemen in points and has been filling in for Green on the point with the first power play unit, but he doesn't have quite the same effectiveness in that position.
Green plays that role because he can score from there. His most prolific season was 2008-09 when he had 18 power-play goals.
By comparison, Wideman has performed the same role as Green and has just four power play goals in 53 games. Defenseman Roman Hamrlik was signed during the offseason, expecting to play the power play quarterback position that he did with other teams. For whatever reason, Hamrlik's minutes have been limited on the power play, averaging 35 seconds per game.
Similarly, Nicklas Backstrom's injury and the close call with Brooks Laich's health showed that, in the short term, the Capitals are a little thin down the middle. Backstrom has missed the Capitals' last 16 games with a concussion and the team went 7-6-3. Until Thursday's game, Backstrom still topped the Capitals' roster in scoring with 42 points, even with 38 games played.
It's obvious the Capitals miss their first-line center and the short-lived prospect of losing Laich as well had everyone worried.
"We miss Backstrom, (Green) and now Brooks (Laich)," Alex Ovechkin said to media after the game against Boston in which Laich was injured. "It's tough. Right now we have to be ready to play much harder for those guys and without those guys."
Laich returned for the next game, but the idea of losing another top-six center unsettled the fan base, as other centers in the pipeline may not be ready to fill that kind of void.
The team's most highly-touted prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov, is a skilled top-six center, but he is tied up in the KHL until at least the end of this season. Center Mathieu Perreault is a rookie who still struggles with his consistency – though he did score his first NHL hat trick in Backstrom's absence – and other centers available down the pipeline like Cody Eakin are in their first year in the AHL. The Capitals have an abundance of wingers, but come trade deadline time, they could once again be in contention to pick up a veteran center.
Though the Capitals' injuries have exposed holes in the roster, they have also provided a spotlight for rising stars. Dmitry Orlov, the Capitals' 2009 second-round draft pick, was called up from the Hershey Bears in November after Green got hurt. In 36 games, the 20-year-old Russian has performed above and beyond expectations in Washington, and it's hard to think that Orlov is going back to Hershey anytime soon.
"He's getting experience. He is reading the play better and better," Hunter told the Washington Times of Orlov. "And he steps up, and he can jump up in the rush when he's allowed and when it's the right opportunity. He's figuring it all out now."