Washington Capitals: 10 Day Countdown to the Regular Season
The Washington Capitals open the 2013-2014 NHL Regular Season on October 1st against the Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks. The Blackhawks rebuilding process has gone much better than the Caps so far and Washington fans have already started to panic about the window shutting (or already closing). Last season, there was talk of tanking just so we could try to pick up one of the four elite prospects in the draft.
However, under Adam Oates, the Capitals finished the lockout-shortened regular season as one of the hottest teams and were poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Unfortunately, we ran into the juggernaut (sarcasm intended) New York Rangers and were embarrassed on home ice in another crushing Game 7 loss. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Boston Bruins were embarking their epic comeback while the Caps were wilting in the breeze (I was watching the games with my Bruins’ loving friends and the contrast was very indicative of the perceptions of both teams.)
A new season brings new hope, though, and everyone can dream of the Cup in October. Realistically, this team is a few moves away but anything can happen in today’s NHL (see Los Angeles Kings—2012).
With that in mind, here are my ten thoughts on the new season:
10. New Metropolitan division
The question on everyone’s mind is how will the Capitals fare now that they can’t beat up on the Southeast cellar-dwellers anymore? The Caps benefited greatly from their Southeast feast: their power-play was much more effective, Ovechkin scored more goals, and they posted a much better record against the Southeast division than the rest of the Eastern Conference. See this article for a more in-depth breakdown.
Now, while this doesn’t take into account that the Capitals got hot just as they started playing the SE teams, did the chicken come before the egg or the egg before the chicken? Either way, it will be very interesting to see if the Capitals can hold their own against their new competition (spoiler alert: I think they can).
9. Will the real Caps team please stand up?
A popular exercise last season for the stat-heads (myself included) was to exclude the first 12 games of the season and recalculate stats from the remaining 36 games. The rationale, of course, was that the first 12 games were a mulligan of sorts (Caps went 2-9-1) and the next stretch was a more realistic indicator of the Capitals season (Caps went 25-9-2).
Are the Caps the red-hot team of the 36 games or the putrid team of the first 12 games? Or are they something in between? This is a fascinating storyline for this year.
8. Adam Oates with a full season under his belt
This is the first time in a while that the Capitals will be starting a season with the same head coach as the year before and that head coach will have job security. More importantly, Oates will have had the full training camp and pre-season to evaluate the players.
We saw first-hand how Oates rejuvenated the power-play. What other wonders can he work on this team? Oates has some very interesting ideas about personnel—right sticks on the left side, left sticks on the right side as well as his 1-3-1 setup for the power play. I’m curious to see what else he can bring to the table both on offense and on defense.
7. The elusive 4th defender
Speaking of defense, while I love John Erskine’s grit and toughness, the facts are the facts. He can’t play against top competition and will hamper his partner, John Carlson.
The biggest problem with Erskine though is his $2 million cap hit—just when we got rid of Schultz too. With the salary cap shrinking this year, it would have been much preferable to let Erskine go and just slot any one of our depth defenseman in. Oleksy, Hillen, Orlov, Kundratek, Schilling all can do the same job (if not better than Erskine and for a much cheaper price).
Having that extra salary cap space would be absolutely fantastic around the trade deadline and could have been used to shore up the defensive core if necessary then.
6. Give GMGM credit where credit is due
For all the frustrations that we have had in the years with contracts (Nylander, Schultz, Ward,, Neuvirth, Erskine, et al.), George McPhee had a solid negotiating off-season this year—if anyone knows how to get great deals on bridge contracts, it’s George.
He signed Alzner, Carlson (last year), and Johansson for peanuts and was able to get Mikhail Graboviski for a $3 million cap hit. Now if only he could use these wins as springboards for making the team better.
5. GMGM has more to do
This team is not complete by any means. As aforementioned, we need better defenseman and I’m not convinced of our scoring ability on the second and third lines. There are a lot of ifs on both accounts.
GMGM has shown a reluctance to make the big splash via a trade ala Ray Shero, Dean Lombardi, or Stan Bowman.
For example, I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept as Bobby Ryan went to the Ottawa Senators. Imagine if we had traded something like a Filip Forsberg, Dmitri Orlov, and a first for him. We would have added a top 6 forward for now Martin Erat, Orlov (who likely won’t start this season in the NHL), and Andre Burakovski (or another prospect likely to take two years to develop).
Sometimes you need to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal. The Capitals need a third star both on defense and on offense to complete this team. Since (as GMGM points out—free agents are often overpriced), the best way to complement this team will be by trade—extensive trade speculation will be present on this blog in the future FYI.
4. Young Guns (Latest in the Pipeline)
It’s no secret that the Capitals are short of talent in the pipeline. However, the talent at the top-end looks to be quality. The prospects most likely to shine this season are Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Michael Latta and Orlov.
Kutzentsov is the wildcard—a potential top six forward who can step in and contribute. Wilson and Latta will be third liners at best but will provide a spark in terms of hitting and toughness. Orlov could be relied on to shore up the defense and possibly step into a pairing with John Carlson, assuming he has recovered from his concussion.
3. Trade Bait
For these young guns to play though, someone will need to be moved. I think that the players most likely to be moved are Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, and anyone of our depth defenseman.
I believe that while Brooks Laich and John Erskine should be moved, it will be difficult for them to be moved for fair value due to their contracts.
I think that the young guns will likely have to wait their turn not based on merit but instead based on pay grade. This is not how a team should be run; the best players should be able to play.
Right now, it would be great for Latta or Wilson to add some grit to the checking lines but it doesn’t look as if they will be given the opportunity to start the season barring a few salary moves.
2. How good will Kuznetsov be?
It seems as if we have been waiting for Kuznetsov for the last five years. Two years ago, everyone was excited at the prospect of our best prospect coming over but he opted to stay in Russia.
The excuse that time was that he wanted to be in form for the Olympics in Sochi. After the Olympics, there is rampant speculation that Kuzy will join the Capitals—in time for a playoff run.
What kind of impact could he have? Kuznetsov is rated as the top European prospect. He is known for his offensive flair and (for better or worse) is considered a typical Russian player.
Kuzy would certainly add some offensive talent to the top six forwards and would help slot the forwards better for a post-season run. I would feel better about our shut-down line with either Erat or Brouwer on it.
1. Can the Capitals make a deep playoff run?
As optimistic as I am about the upcoming season, I don’t think we have the personnel to make a deep run. Frankly, we will be hard pressed to compete for a playoff spot, though I do think we will make it (likely in the 6-8 seed range).
The Capitals need a better defensive core to compete against the elite teams in the league. Look at the Rangers or Bruins who roll six solid defenders and ask yourself if their 5th or 6th defender is better than our 4?
To put this in context, for the Bruins this is Torrey Krug or Adam McQuaid and for the Rangers, it is John Moore or Anton Stralman. Keep in mind that Marc Staal and Dougie Hamilton are their fourth defenseman; both would likely be the second or third on the Capitals.
The defense looked far too shaky last year in the playoffs and until that problem is remedied, the Washington Capitals will be unable to have the foundation for a deep playoff run.
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