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Bye week grades: Special teams

Bye week grades: Special teams

There's no hockey this week for Washington as the Caps are on their bye week. That gives us time to take a look at the team and evaluate how they look at this point in the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent J.J. Regan offer their bye week grades for each aspect of the team. Today, they take a look at the special teams.

El-Bashir: The Caps’ power play is fourth in the NHL through 56 games, connecting at an impressive 22.1-percent. The penalty kill, meantime, sits third at 84.5-percent. 

Let’s start with the power play. 

It got off to a disappointing start after finishing fifth last season (21.9). How bad did it get? From opening night through Dec. 1—a span of 22 games—Alex Ovechkin-led unit slipped as far as 25th, having converted just 14.3-percent of its man advantages.

Those days, however, seem like so long ago. The unit suffered some fits and starts throughout the rest of December but in the end, the Caps’ skill (plus some minor scheme tweaks on both units) won out. Now? The unit has reclaimed its position as a persistent threat after dominating since the calendar flipped to 2017. In fact, from Jan. 1 through Wednesday’s games, a span of 21 games, Ovechkin and Co. have the best percentage (32.7) in the league.

The Caps have fewer power play goals through the same number of games last year. But they’ve more players with at least one goal—12 players vs. 9—and they’re getting a bit more out of the second unit.  

The penalty kill, on the other hand, has been a bit steadier. With the exception of a rough patch from Jan. 16 – Feb. 1, a forgettable span that saw the unit yield a power play goal against seven times in eight games, the Jay Beagle-led unit has been among the most reliable aspects of the Caps’ game.

Since that hiccup, the penalty kill has corrected its issues (in short, Trotz said the unit had become too passive) and has snuffed out 13 of 14 shorthanded situations over the past five games. 

Why is the PK especially important for the Caps? They still take too many penalties. In fact, since Jan 1., they’ve taken more minors (82) than any other club.  

Overall, the penalty kill deserves an ‘A+.’ The power play, however, gets downgraded a bit because of its (really) rough start. 

Grade:  A-

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Regan: The overall numbers are good as the Caps boast the fourth-best power play at 22.1-percent and the third-best penalty kill at 84.5-percent. But those numbers hide inconsistencies from both units.

The power play really struggled at the start of the season, falling to 25th in the NHL at the start of December. The unit has suffered goalless streaks of five and six games this season. In three different games, the Caps have had six power play opportunities. Of those 18 opportunities, the power play has scored only once.

The Caps’ recent hot streak has also masked some of the team’s struggles with the penalty kill. The PK unit gave up at least one goal in six straight games from mid-January to the start of February.

But really, the biggest problem for Washington happens before the penalty kill begins. This team is taking too many penalties. Only five teams in the NHL have been shorthanded more times this season than the Caps. Surprisingly, that number is worse at home where the Caps have been shorthanded the third most times in the entire league.

When you look at the stats and see Washington near the top of the league in both power play and penalty kill, it’s easy to assume there are no problems there and for the most part, there’s not. Despite the early struggles, I’m not concerned with an Alex Ovechkin led power play and Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik have proven to be one of the most formidable penalty kill pairs in the NHL. The problem for both the power play and the penalty kill is a weak second unit.

Take it from me. As someone who has seen how much this team focuses on the power play and penalty kill in practice, seen how many times they change the personnel of the second units and heard how much Barry Trotz talks about penalties after games and practices, special teams is an area in which the Caps are still looking to improve.

Grade: B+

MORE CAPITALS: Bye week grades: goaltending

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Caps' Tyler Graovac is the silver lining in an ugly loss to the Blues

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Caps' Tyler Graovac is the silver lining in an ugly loss to the Blues

Barry Trotz didn’t like a whole lot about Friday’s 4-0 preseason loss to the Blues.

One thing he didn’t mind so much, however, was the play of 6 foot 5 center Tyler Graovac.

The fourth liner had a handful of scoring chances and finished the game tied for the team lead in shots on goal with four. The 24-year-old also recorded a couple of hits, won nine of 11 draws and saw a prominent role penalty kill.  

“He’s had two pretty good games,” Trotz said of Graovac, who made his debut against the Devils earlier this week. “We’re getting to know him as a player and a person.”

RELATED: CAPS DEFENSE OVERMATECHED IN LOSS TO BLUES

Graovac was acquired via trade from Minnesota in June so that Washington could protect Lars Eller in the expansion draft. Given that the Caps already had four NHL centers, it was believed that Graovac would eventually end up in AHL Hershey, despite a one-way contract that will pay him $650,000 this season.

That thinking, however, might need to change after his eye-opening performance against St. Louis.

“He’s competing,” Trotz said. “He’s a big man, he’s skating well, he’s creating some things. There’s a lot of good things that he’s done. His faceoffs have been good. We said there are opportunities and he’s trying to grab one.”

Although Graovac is a center by trade, the Brampton, Ontario native said he’d be comfortable skating on the wing if that’s what it takes to win a job.

“Last year in Minnesota, I played right wing, left wing. I really see myself as a forward,” he said. “I’m just trying to show all aspects of my game really. [Penalty kill]. My defensive side. Tonight, I tried to show a little more offense. Speed. I’m going to show them everything I’ve got to the best that I can.”

Graovac said he was playing softball when he found out that the Wild, which had selected him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, had dealt him to the Caps for a fifth round pick. Once the shock wore off, he came to the realization that a change of scenery might turn out to be good for him. He had split the 2016-17 season between the Wild and the minors.

“It was bittersweet,” he said. “I was with Minnesota since I was 18, but I was thrilled that Washington wanted me. To go from a top-place team in the West to a top-place team in the East that’s closer to home…it was a great change for me.”

Graovac heard the reports that the Caps made the move with an eye on the expansion draft. It’s also likely he’s noticed that his name is often absent from media reports about the youngsters who are vying for jobs in Washington.

But he hasn’t allowed any of that to deter him.

“That’s the vision,” he said of claiming a spot on the 23-man opening night roster. “I try to tell myself that every morning. You put a picture on your wall and you go for it. I try not to look into too many things. Washington wanted me for a reason and I’m really trying to show, ‘Wow, we got this kid and he can do a couple of things here for us and actually make us better.’”

MORE CAPITALS: OVECHKIN'S SURPRISE PUTS A SMILE ON KIDS' FACES

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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Capitals defense overmatched by young Blues squad

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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Capitals defense overmatched by young Blues squad

The Caps dressed a young defense for their preseason home opener and the St. Louis Blues took advantage. The Blues scored twice in a 39-second stretch in the first period and rode that to a 4-0 win over Washington on Friday.

Here is who stood out:

Thumbs up

Mathias Bau: Bau was a player to watch coming into this game because of his size (6-foot-7). He was not supposed to play in the preseason, but his play in camp caught Barry Trotz's notice which led to him dressing on Friday. He quickly showed he was more than just a gigantic human. Bau set linemate Tyler Graovac up twice with great feed passes that could easily have turned into goals. He is a better skater and stick-handler than you would expect for someone of his size. He certainly will not make the Caps roster, but he has shown he is someone the team should keep an eye on in Hershey.

Tyler Graovac: Centering the fourth line, Graovac was the Caps’ best offensive player on the night. He showed good speed and drove the net very well, generating the team's best scoring opportunities. He finished the game with a team-high four shots on goal.

Lars Eller: Eller was one of the few veterans who took advantage of playing against youngsters. He had a strong night offensively and on the penalty kill with three shots on goal and five total shot attempts.

RELATED: CAPITALS MAKE FIRST ROUND OF CUTS

Thumbs down

The defense: It was a very rough night collectively for the Capitals’ blue line. With a defensive lineup that featured only two players from last year’s NHL squad, John Carlson and Taylor Chorney, Washington looked completely overmatched by a youthful St. Louis squad in the defensive zone. Apart from a few good hits from Tyler Lewington, none of the defensive prospects fighting for a roster spot did anything to help their stock at all.

Anthony Peluso: Given the level of competition, Peluso should have been able to contribute more than two shot attempts and two penalties. The days of the enforcer are over. Players need to be able to do more than just drop the gloves. Peluso looks to be Washington’s response to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ acquisition of Ryan Reaves, but he needs to show he can provide the Caps with something other than just fists. The fact that he could not do that against a non-NHL roster is a bad sign.

MORE CAPS: OVECHKIN MAKES KID'S DAY ON STREETS OF DC