Washington Capitals Season Preview
Record Last Year: 42-32-8
Goal Differential: -8
Team 5v5 Fenwick: 49.71% (16th in NHL)
5v5 Sh%: 8.6%
5v5 Sv%: .920
PP SF/60: 47.5 (18th in NHL)
PK SA/60: 49.4 (14th in NHL)
The Washington Capitals fall from grace last season was fascinating to watch. Many projected this team to win the Southeast Division for the fifth year in a row and be a favorite for the Stanley Cup. They ended up barely making the playoffs and rode a hot goaltender to the conference semi-finals where they lost in seven games to the New York Rangers. A team with as much talent as them was expected to have a much easier path to the playoffs and rely on more than just ridiculous goaltending to make a strong run but sometime last season, the once dominant Capitals team saw their ability to control possession plummet and their scoring dry up along with it. Some blamed the coaching change while others pointed to injuries as the main cause. Others put the blame on the star players simply not getting the job done but whatever the case was, the Caps didn't look like their usual selves last season and still managed to turn in a good season all things considered.
The Caps now find themselves with yet another head coach, a slightly different roster and expectations that were lower than they were in years past. Luckily for them, the Southeast Division is wide open and Washington could regain their title if they stay healthy and rebound from their second-half slump last season.
Who's In? Wojtek Wolski (RW), Mike Ribeiro (C), Joey Crabb (LW), Eric Fehr (RW), Jack Hillen (D)
Who's Out? Alexander Semin (RW), Keith Aucoin (F), Sean Collins (D), Cody Eakin (F), Jeff Halpern (C), DJ King (LW), Tomas Kundratek (D), Joel Rechlicz (RW), Tomas Vokoun (G)
The Capitals only lost one big piece this off-season in Alexander Semin, but he is a sizable hole to fill in the Capitals top-six. He is coming off a pretty down season for his standards but Semin is still a dangerous goal-scorer and those do not grow on trees so replacing him isn't going to be easy. They will get some help on offense thanks to acquiring Mike Ribeiro in a Draft Day trade with the Dallas Stars that sent Cody Eakin & a draft pick the other way. Ribeiro fills a need for the Caps as a second line center and is a useful offensive player (defensively not so much), so this deal makes the Caps slightly better for this season.
The rest of the moves Washington made were all relatively low-key. They got Wojetk Wolski on a bargain one-year contract, which could work out very well for them if he is useful in the top-six and they also brought in Eric Fehr right before training camp. This will be Fehr's second tenure with the Capitals and he should be able to provide some depth scoring in soft-minutes like he did before. His on-ice shooting percentage was less than 3% last year and that is bound to pick up soon. I'm not sure if either Wolski or Fehr will take over Semin's spot in the lineup but the Caps have a lot of guys on their roster who can play both center and wing (Laich, Johansson, Ribeiro) and I'd expect them to get looks on the top line along with Troy Brouwer throughout the year.
Saying whether or not the Caps are a better or worse team this year depends on what Ribeiro does. He had some major problems driving the play forward in soft minutes with the Stars and that's bad news in regards to future success. He could make up for it on the powerplay and may have a bounce-back year for all we know, though. They also had two key players in Nicklas Backstrom & Mike Green spend over half of the season on injured reserve and having them in the lineup automatically makes this team stronger. The Caps also have a few younger players in Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson who are all under 25 and should continue to improve. So, while they didn't do much in the off-season, this Caps team might be in better shape than most think.
Reasons to be Optimistic
Different Coach and New Outlook
The Capitals ability to control play took an absolute nose-dive last season and the skid began around the time when Dale Hunter took over as head coach. He installed an overly defensive system that put a lot of focus on collapsing into a defensive shell, especially when the team had a lead. This system may have worked in London, but the Capitals players were not built for it and had trouble adjusting on the fly. They were outshot almost every night, produced very little offense and the ice time of their key players was being reduced significantly. Hunter's track record in the OHL shows that he is a successful coach but he wasn't the right coach for this team at all. Whenever fourth liners like are getting top-six minutes then you're doing it wrong.
Adam Oates doesn't have any experience as a head coach but I think he is smart enough to adapt a system that these players are fit for. That should make the Caps a little more fun to watch than they were for most of last season. His inexperience as a coach is a bit troubling, but it sounds like the players get along with him a lot more than they did with Hunter, who caused a lot of strain in the Caps locker room.
Still The Great 8
Much of the concern about the Capitals surrounds their star player, Alexander Ovechkin. Yes, his production has decreased a lot from where it used to be and he probably won't score at the absurd rates he did earlier in his career, but he is still one of the best, and most dangerous, forwards in the NHL. That being said, he had a down year in just about every facet last season including his ability to drive possession at even strength. This was the case for just about every forward on the team and it wouldn't surprise me if Hunter's conservative system was the root of the problem. If last year was an anomaly and he returns to his "old self" then watch out. Backstrom's return to the lineup will also help this department, as these two are a very dangerous combination. If last year was a sign of Ovechkin's decline (he's 27 so I think he still has a few years remaining) then the Caps have bigger problems on their hands.
Still Room to Grow
There has been a lot of talk about the window closing on this era of the Capitals, but there is a newer wave of younger players beginning to come in. Alzner, Carlson, Orlov, Holtby, Neuvirth and Johnsson are all under 25 years of age and are going to get better in time. Their star players are also still relatively young as Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom are all under 28 and still have a few more prime years remaining. It's true that Ovechkin's best years are behind him but he can still produce enough to lead this team to a few more successful years. Same goes for Backstrom, if he is able to stay healthy. Their future is also looking good with Filip Forsberg, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Stanislav Galiev waiting in the wings.
Causes for Concern
Injuries are a problem for every team and unfortunately for the Caps, two of their best players have serious injury concerns. Mike Green has missed significant time the past two seasons with head, groin and abdominal issues while Backstrom missed a chunk of last season with a concussion and is currently battling a neck injury. Backstrom's injury was another factor in the Caps struggles last season, as he plays a key role as the top-line center. Washington is 8 times more dangerous with him in the lineup, but this neck injury sounds like it could turn ugly if he isn't careful.
Green has not been the same player he was from 2007-10 but he is still a very solid, mobile defenseman when healthy. He hasn't been at 100% in over two years now, though and one has to wonder if his play has diminished due to all the injuries. It will be interesting to see how he plays under a more liberal system and Alzner/Carlson handling most of the tough minutes. If he is partially at his old form, then that's a major boost for Washington.
Filling Out the Top-Six
The Caps scoring depth teeters off after their top-line, especially on the wings. They have plenty of guys who can play center in Ribeiro, Johansson, Laich and Perreault but their best options on the wings outside of the top-line are Wojtek wolski and maybe Jason Chimera. I've heard rumblings of Johansson making the move over to wing this year, which would help as he has done it before and is fairly solid offensively. His territorial play at even-strength needs a lot of work, though since he hasn't been able to acquit himself even against relatively easy competition. Laich can also play wing, but he will likely stay centering the third line with Chimera and Ward for now. Perreault is an intriguing option because he has been able to drive possession against soft competition as a fourth-line center. If he plays on Ribiero's line, then this is all he needs to do and he could end up being a not-terrible option for the Caps. Same goes for Eric Fehr, who is due for a few bounces to go his way.
Washington has plenty of guys they can use to fill their hole in the top-six but none of them are exactly ideal. That will cause a lot of problems if Backstrom gets hurt again or their top line goes through a dry spell.
Will Holtby Hold Up?
Everyone fell in love with Braden Holtby during last year's playoffs. He was only the starting goaltender because both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth were injured, but did he ever make the most of it. He was 80% of the reason why the Caps made it past the first round last year and gave the Rangers a real scare in the second round. It sounds like he is going to be the starter for Washington this year, which isn't a surprise but it's doubtful that he will continue to post a .932 save percentage over a whole season. Unless Holtby is the next coming of Dominik Hasek, that is. That being said, he has a save percentage of .938 in 25 games played with the Hershey Bears this season, so he is a very good goaltender but we'll have to see him play more games before we know what his "true talent level" is. He's been good but the major concern with him (and Neuvirth to an extent) is that they are unproven in the NHL.
It seems weird to consider the Caps a "sleeper" pick but they haven't been receiving much hype this year and most are expecting them to be about the same as they were a year ago. Having a new coach and a healthy roster can make a world of a difference, though and it wouldn't be a shocker to see the Caps regain the Southeast Division title. That being said, there is a chance that the team doesn't respond well to Oates' system, Holtby regresses and injuries pile up, which will make thing go south for the Caps in a hurry. It seems like things could go either way for them and we'll just have to wait and see what happens.