Former Caps defenseman John Erskine didn't get the best goodbye in team...
Caps Outsider’s Washington Capitals 2013-14 Season Preview
Does team captain Alex Ovechkin have another Rocket Richard in him? (Caps Outsider)
Last year, the Washington Capitals once again fell short in the playoffs, losing to the New York Rangers in seven games. The team had struggled in the beginning of the season, mainly due to having a shortened training camp under first-year head coach Adam Oates. As the season continued, the Caps finally found their stride and ended up winning their 5th Southeast Division Championship in the last six years.
Due to the league’s realignment, the Capitals now find themselves in the more difficult Metropolitan Division, or more affectionately the Patrick Plus Division. While the road to the playoffs will be a lot harder going forward, it will be a nice change of pace to renew the rivalries of old and watch divisional games with a lot more grit and physicality to them.
The goaltending tandem of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth will make for a formidable 1-2 combination this season. The biggest question here is whether Holtby can live up to the expectations placed on him over the course of an 82-game season. He still hasn’t played a full schedule at the NHL level and even though he has a career.923 save percentage coupled with a 2.39 goals-against average, he needs to sustain that through April and into the playoffs.
Neuvirth only started 13 games last year and looked lost at times. While he may try to challenge Holtby to be the number one goaltender, it’s clear that Holtby will get the majority of the starts. The kink in the Capitals’ plans here is Philipp Grubauer, the up-and-coming goaltender who currently starts for Hershey. He has a much higher upside than Neuvirth and with both contracts expiring after next season, this may be Neuvirth’s final full season in The District as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent while Grubauer will be a restricted free agent and will command less money than Neuvirth.
Washington’s defense remains unchanged from last season. The key here will be Mike Green’s health. While he missed 13 games due to a groin injury last year, Green was firing on all cylinders towards the end of the season. If he can remain healthy for a full season, look for him to contribute over 20 goals and 50 points.
Much to the surprise of fans and pundits, Oates separated longtime defensive partners Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Alzner saw most of his ice time paired up with Green while Carlson was paired with John Erskine. The risk paid off after a slow start and seemed to become more well-rounded defensemen before everyone’s eyes. Rounding out the defensive corps this season will be Jack Hillen and Steven Oleksy. The player to be on the lookout for is Connor Carrick, the 2012 5th-round draft pick who played last season at Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League. He has impressed the entire coaching staff and general manager George McPhee during training camp. So much so, in fact, that the organization offered and signed him to a three-year Entry Level Contract. While many people thought at first he would have an outside chance to make the team, he has the inside track to be the club’s 7th defenseman.
During the offseason, the Capitals decided to not re-sign center Mike Ribeiro. In turn, he signed a four-year, $22 million contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. This left a big hole in the second line and many Caps fans were left worried that the team would go into the season without a legitimate second-line pivot. McPhee would come to the rescue, signing Toronto buyout victim Mikhail Grabovski to a one-year, $3 million contract. Grabovski has proved to be worth every penny of his contract so far in the preseason, and if that is an indicator of what’s to come then the Capitals may have gotten the steal of the offseason.
There are two major questions heading into this season as far as the forwards are concerned. The first one deals with Alex Ovechkin and his resurgence last year. While he had a slow start to the season, Ovechkin found his old self and ended the season with 32 goals and 56 points. He was rewarded for his efforts with some more hardware for his trophy case — the Rocket Richard trophy for having the most goals at the end of the regular season and the Hart Memorial Trophy for being the league’s MVP. While The Captain may be hard pressed to have another 50-goal season, can he still be that offensive weapon he was last year? Ovechkin does have a few preseason goals, which is always a good sign, but can he do it over an 82-game season plus playoffs?
The other question is the health of Brooks Laich. He has done some skating since he strained a hip flexor in the beginning of September, but the real question is if his groin holds up after missing most of last season with an injury. While Laich has gone on record and said that he’s 100 percent, his presence not only on the ice but in the locker room is important for the Capitals to get off to a good start. To miss a guy who can play both wing and center, play both sides of the special teams, and someone the other guys look up to may be hard to overcome at times. While the Capitals were able to do it last year in the Southeast Division, it will be a lot harder to do so in a stacked Metropolitan Division.
Another guy who has left Oates with some difficult choices to make is Tom Wilson, one of two first-round draft picks Washington had in the 2012 NHL Draft. He did play in a few playoff games last year in the series against the Rangers, but the Plymouth Whaler has wowed fans and the coaching staff with his physical play and his scoring ability. If he does get sent back down to Plymouth, he will be back in Washington next season ready to make a name for himself in the National Hockey League.
There’s no reason why the Capitals can’t make the playoffs this year; in fact, they should. However, it’s hard to see them making any noise in the playoffs. I predict they do not make it out of the second round, leaving Ted Leonsis with some extremely difficult decisions to make next summer.