The Big Three. It’s a vastly overused term in the sports lexicon, meant to describe a triad of athletes who combine their skill sets to create an in-game product that masks the deficiencies of the rest of the team.
Jordan, Pippen, Rodman.
James, Wade, Bosh.
Aikman, Smith, Irvin.
The Washington Capitals used to have the most exciting Big Three in hockey: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Semin combined for 123 goals and 294 points in 2009, a juggernaut that was all for naught following the most disappointing playoff exit in D.C. sports history. That trio was unmatched in its skill and brilliance, but it lacked one major quality: versatility.
Fast forward to 2015. Ovechkin and Backstrom are still playing at elite levels (Semin has been cast away to the KHL), but things have changed. There’s a new Big Three in Washington, and it involves neither of these phenomenally talented athletes.
Meet Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Meet John Carlson.
Meet Braden Holtby.
While Ovechkin and Backstrom are the entrenched stars, and T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams garnered the offseason headlines, it is these in-house success stories that are currently driving the Caps up the NHL ladder, and will position them for massive success well into the future.
Many of you will chide me for leaving Backstrom out of this Big Three, which is understandable. Backstrom is arguably having just as good a year as Kuznetsov and is still only 28 years old (holy crap). But for the sake of sounding hip, let’s talk about my man Evgeny.
First of all, that’s YE-vgeny, not EH-vgeny, as many have mistakenly pronounced. Just like how it was Sem-YON Var-LA-mov and not SEM-eeyon VAR-luhmov. Get your Russian straight, people!
Kuznetsov broke onto the scene last year with a respectable 37 points in 80 games after a rookie year where he only took 22 shots in 17 games. Kuzy showed enough to earn a larger role and he has run with it. He leads the Caps in points and assists and ESPN projects him to finish with 77 points. For context, Jamie Benn led the NHL in scoring last year with 87 points. Kuzy is 23 years old.
More than that, he’s added a new weapon to a Caps team already loaded with them. This may be the most balanced offense in hockey due in part to Kuznetsov’s emergence, which only goes to prove that the best free agent a team can afford is an in-house solution that gets better with age.
You think he’s good now? This is a potential 90 to 100-point player at his peak, with speed and dexterity matched only by a select few. I haven’t seen a dangler with this much ability since Semin was fooling around at the Phone Booth. The difference is, this guy can play within a system and Semin was only looking for the next goal. I don’t know if Kuzy has MVP potential but I do think he’ll be in the conversation once he fills out and gains a bit more experience.
I go to Canada every year. I have family there. I’m a Canadian citizen. And every year, I get to watch the World Juniors.
If you’re not a hockey fan, you don’t know about the World Juniors because ESPN doesn’t even deign to put it on the ticker scrolling beneath World Series of Poker reruns. But in Canada, the Juniors are a big deal and guess what – the U.S. has a pretty good squad. Back in 2010, this was my introduction to John Carlson:
And my, my, my has he become a hockey player. Carlson came into his own last season with a career high 55 points and a plus-11. This year, he’s firmly entrenched himself as one of the best all-around defensemen in hockey and is in the discussion for the Norris Trophy. Through 30 games he has 24 points (Sidney Crosby has 19 hahahaha) and is the Caps’ leader in ice time, logging 24:27 per game. He anchors the defense and provides punch inside the offensive zone, a slightly less-skilled Mike Green who is so, so much better than Mike Green. Carlson, by the way, is on pace for 66 points.
He’s not exactly an unknown among Caps fans – in fact, he’s something of a fan favorite. But in D.C. as a whole, as it often goes with hockey, he is far too much of a stranger. Carlson is only 25 and will be here for a long time as one of the pivotal members of a team that looks as if it will make the playoffs for the next decade. Here, we have a legitimate defenseman with charisma who can literally do it all on the ice.
There is only one D.C. athlete better than Braden Holtby right now, and that’s Bryce Harper. Other than that, this is Holtby’s town, and the gap between him and third place is widening each and every day.
I’ll write more about him in the future because he’s as deserving of the spotlight as anyone. For a quick rundown, here’s the skinny: Holtby is no longer that overachieving star of last year who broke onto the scene after showing promise. No, no longer. He is now not only the best player on the team and the best goaltender in hockey, he may be the most valuable player in the NHL. Holtby is a god among men right now, and the Caps are all too happy to play in his shadow.
The numbers are ludicrous: first in wins (20, and in only 26 games), first in goals against average (1.83) and second in save percentage (.935, and that’s only because stupid Michal Neuvirth is at .937 in only 16 games. Shut up, Neuvy).
In six December games, he’s given up nine goals while posting a sparkling .955 save percentage.
I still remember the Jose Theodor experiment. I still remember fans pining for Varlamov after his miracle save against Crosby. I still remember Neuvirth putting in work and trying to cement his spot as the goalie of the future in D.C. And don’t forget the fans calling back to the “glory days” of Olie Kolzig. All of that is gone. What we have now is something Washington hasn’t had, maybe ever: the clear-cut best goaltender in all of hockey. Even if Carey Price was healthy, I’m still quite sure Holtby would be outperforming him.
This man is only 26 and playing like a vacuum. And he’s the single biggest reason why I believe the Caps will make it to the Stanley Cup in 2016. Through all the scheme iterations of the last decade, the great offenses of the late 2000s and the great defenses of the early 2010s, the only thing that has never been consistent is the goaltending. Now, the Caps have a Lundqvist-esque advantage between the pipes, a guy who can literally steal three games in a seven-game series.
This is the most well-rounded team the Caps have probably ever had, and Holtby is the icing on top that makes them the best team in hockey.