Through the first quarter of the season, the Washington Capitals are the most injured team in the NHL — and it’s showing.
The Capitals are off to one of the worst starts to a campaign in recent memory with a 7-10-3 record. Alex Ovechkin & Co. are losers of four straight, five of the last six and nine of the last 11.
Once a perennial division winner, the Capitals now find themselves in second-to-last place in the Metropolitan, with the third-worst goal differential in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s very frustrating,” alternate captain and defenseman John Carlson told reporters Monday. “It weighs on a lot of guys, and that’s kind of the vicious cycle when you are going through these things. It’s not in February or something when you were doing real good and you need to kind of reset and get back. This whole beginning of the season has been rocky.”
While not everything can be blamed on poor health, the growing number of ailments have hampered the Capitals in a sport in which health and depth are vital. Nine Capitals have missed time this season due to injury, as Washington leads the NHL in player salary on injured reserve.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Washington has $32.3 million of its salary cap dedicated to players on IR. That figure was as high as $35 million earlier this month.
On a per-game basis, Washington still leads at just over $6 million in lost time on IR. The only other team close is Philadelphia at just under $6 million. No other squad is over $3.5 million, according to NHL Injury Viz.
The constant stream of injuries has been without reprieve all season. It started with Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, two of the team’s top six forwards who entered the campaign recovering from major surgeries in the offseason. Wilson, who tore his ACL in the playoffs, and Backstrom, who underwent invasive surgery on his nagging hip, have yet to play this fall and still require more recovery time before they’ll appear in a game again.
Forward Carl Hagelin also started the year on IR after undergoing hip surgery in October.
But six other players have dealt with ailments, some of which are massive blows to the franchise’s hope of making the playoffs for the ninth straight season.
Forward Connor Brown, one of the team’s biggest offseason additions, tore his ACL in mid-October and is likely out for the year. Forward T.J. Oshie (lower body) has missed the last 11 contests, while blueliner Dmitry Orlov (lower body) has been out for seven games. Carlson (lower body) missed six games before returning on Nov. 11.
Even coach Peter Laviolette missed two games due to being placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.
“There’s obviously a lot of guys out and all that,” Carlson said. “… Mentally, expectations and reality are different right now. We’re just focused on trying to change that reality. No matter who’s in or who’s out, we’ve got enough players in here that can win a lot of hockey games.”
Being stretched thin has caused multiple glaring issues plaguing the team. The Capitals rank 31st in the NHL with only nine first-period goals. During the four-game skid — which has come during arguably the most challenging part of the team’s schedule — Washington has been outscored 9-0 in the opening period.
“It’s frustrating when you go down early,” Laviolette told reporters Sunday. “… It’s not a place where you want to be where you’re chasing games down two goals or down three goals.”
Another issue that’s been exacerbated by the injuries is the team’s struggle with the man advantage. The Capitals rank 23rd in power-play percentage at 18.9% and are 1 for 26 over their past six games.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. Backstrom is back on the ice and reportedly completed shooting work on Monday. Laviolette said that Wilson is “moving along really well” in his rehab. Oshie and Orlov have also returned to practice.
But it may take some time for the Capitals’ to turn the season around, if they can at all. Washington has the fourth-worst road record in the NHL at 2-6-2. After games at Capital One Arena against Philadelphia and Calgary on Wednesday and Friday, respectively, Washington then embarks on a seven-game road trip. Between Nov. 26 and Dec. 14, the Capitals will play only one game in the District.
“We knew this part of the schedule was going to be a tough grind,” Laviolette told reporters Monday. “Typically, we’ve been a pretty good road team. We haven’t done damage on the road [this year] like we normally have, so look at it as an opportunity to get the road record back on track as well.