One month into the new NHL season, the Washington Capitals are exactly what pundits and fans both envisioned: very good.  With nine wins in their first 14 games, along with an unexpected boost from some of the younger talent, the team looks prepared to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

Washington Capitals left wing Marcus Johansson, right, controls the puck against Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane during the overtime period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. The Capitals won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Washington Capitals left wing Marcus Johansson, right, controls the puck against Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane during the overtime period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. The Capitals won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

So far, the biggest surprise has been the rise of sixth-year left winger Marcus Johansson. A major question during the offseason was whether Johansson would be a centerpiece for the future, or if he may have reached his potential with the Capitals and would eventually become trade bait. There is no way he’s getting traded now; he leads the team in scoring with 12 points (7 goals and 5 assists), and scored the overtime winner over the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 11.  Johansson has finally showed the promise expected from him when he was previously paired on the same line with stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Now manning the second line with young gunners Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, he has embraced his role as a veteran presence. Coach Barry Trotz was second-guessed by some for the line change, but it has paid off handsomely thus far.

The Capitals’ roster is deep and talented, as always, led by future Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin, who is second on the team in points with 11, along with Backstrom, who leads the team in assists with eight. Along with TJ Oshie, Matt Niskanen and Andre Burakovsky, the roster looks primed to continue this solid play throughout the regular season.

One of the storylines for this season will be the use of goalie Braden Holtby and his backup, Philipp Grubauer. Holtby needs both playing time and rest to be at his peak once the playoffs come around, and so far Grubauer has been outstanding in his three starts, leading the team with a 2.01 goals against average—although Holtby isn’t far behind with 2.16 GAA.

Trotz has had a tremendous coaching career, but he will have to continue to ruffle a few feathers to break up the monotony of the long season.  Be prepared for some weird line combinations to address various struggles during the season. Finding the right combinations that will continue to be effective in April and—hopefully—May should be his focus.   

Perhaps the central issue plaguing the Capitals early in the season is their power-play production. The Caps have scored just one power play in their last 15 opportunities, and rank 24th in the league with a 13.2 power play percentage. While Washington’s top power play unit was unchanged from last season, the second unit experienced some personnel tweaks. Jason Chimera, spent most of last year as a net-front presence before leaving as a free agent this past offseason, and Burakovsky replaced him in that spot this season. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov is at the point this year, with Niskanen firing one-timers from the left faceoff circle, once Ovechkin’s role on the top unit. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t expect the failures to continue—but if they do, there will be a shakeup in the lineups.

Don’t expect the Caps to match their Presidents Trophy-winning performance of last season. But with last year’s playoff disappointments firmly in mind, the team will look to build on their regular season success with a deep playoff run.

Dion Johnson

Special to the AFRO