(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates had about 20 minutes before last season to teach the team his system, assess his talent get his sea legs under him as a first-year head coach (thanks, lockout). But the Capitals ended up winning the Southeast Division (for the final time), coming to life thanks to an MVP performance by Alex Ovechkin down the stretch.
Alas, it was another postseason of disappointment for the Caps, who lost in seven games to the New York Rangers.
With Oates getting a full camp, the addition of a second-line center and other tweaks, are the Capitals finally ready to get over the hump to the Cup?
Mikhail Grabovski arrived late in the summer after being bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs, signing a 1-year, $3-million contract to ostensibly replace Mike Ribeiro, who signed a long-term deal with the Coyotes after the Caps refused to give him one.
Fan favorite Matt Hendricks left for the Nashville Predators. Joey Crabb was signed by Florida. Jeff Schultz was bought out, signed with LA and was placed on waivers. Wojtek Wolski was among the other players unsigned.
Oates wanted the roster to have as little turnover as possible.
Forward: Ovechkin recaptured his MVP form for the Capitals in the second half of the season, helping them to an 11-1-1 record in April. He led the league in goals and power-play goals, and was third in points in winning his third Hart Trophy. Not coincidentally, Ovechkin got rolling when his center Nicklas Backstrom did, as the pivot tallied 17 points in April. Fellow Swede Marcus Johansson had 22 points in 34 games last season, and has a bridge contract to motivate him.
Grabovski is a different player than Ribeiro, bring speed and physicality to the team’s second line center spot. His primary goal-scoring partner? Troy Brouwer, according to coach Oates.
Brooks Laich is one of the best two-way forwards on the team, but the veteran leader needs to stay healthier. Martin Erat brings speed and scoring to the wing; Jason Chimera brings speed, and brought scoring two years ago. But he’ll punch you in the face.
Mathieu Perreault is an explosive offensive player, but marred by inconsistency. (UPDATE: And Traded to the Ducks, moments after this went live.) Eric Fehr and Joel Ward bring secondary scoring, while Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti bring the truculence.
The X-Factor is 19-year-old Tom Wilson, a power forward of the future who earned his chance on the roster in the preseason.
Defense: The hype has moved to other puck-moving defensemen, but ice-time leader Mike Green had his best offensive year in three seasons with 26 points in 35 games – 14 of them on the power play. John Carlson was right behind him with 22 points and a plus-11.
Karl Alzner played 20:57 per game and remains the team’s best defensive defenseman. Much maligned John Erskine had a strong season under Oates after clashing with former coach Dale Hunter. Steve Oleksy impressed in his first NHL action, bringing an edge to his game. Jack Hillen and Dmitry Orlov round out a unit that could use another veteran body. Connor Carrick and Tyson Strachan are in the wings.
Goalies: Braden Holtby’s first year as starter was a success given the enormous amount of shots he faced, bailing the Capitals out more than they did him. But while his star was born in the 2012 postseason, he struggled against the Rangers in the 2013 playoffs. Rather than giving him a veteran backup, the Caps re-signed Michal Neuvirth to a richer contract than that of Holtby. Go figure.
Oates hit the ground running without a training camp and it showed, as the Capitals struggled. But once the team embraced his system, and the power play juiced their scoring, Oates seemed like a good match with the roster. His bold choice to flip Ovechkin to right wing not only paid dividends but managed not to alienate his star.
GM George McPhee has been with the Capitals since 1997, and continues to move the puzzle pieces in the hopes that some combination unlocks a championship. The chemistry seems right with this group, but is the depth good enough to win?
Ovechkin. Hopefully last season is the Ovi the Capitals get, going forward, even with the early season struggles. What kind of motivation, or distraction, will Sochi become?
The Power Play. Oates knows that the team isn’t going to click at 26.8 percent again, and can’t live and die on the man advantage. But there’s no reason the Caps can’t ber again near the top of the League on the power play.
The Penalty Kill. As good as the power play was, the PK was fourth worst in the League at 77.9 percent.
Despite being out of the Southeast Division, the Capitals will still be a playoff team. Where they advance in the playoffs will depend on their reliance on the power play, the offense from their depth and whether they can defeat the Rangers in the first round (c’mon, you know it’s going to happen).