Former Caps defenseman John Erskine didn't get the best goodbye in team...
A New Team This Fall?
Have many of these Caps given their final salute to the fans? (Photo by Capitals Outsider)
After arguably the worst season for the Washington Capitals since the fire sale of 2004, many changes were expected, in both the front office and on the ice. The first of those changes have already happened with General Manager and Team Vice President George McPhee not returning and Head Coach Adam Oates being relived of his duties, being replaced by Assistant General Manager Brian MacLellan and former Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz. With those important positions locked up, what is to become of the team on the ice?
Currently the team has a few holes in their lineup. While a team that greatly underperformed and missed the playoffs would expect big changes on the ice, this Capitals team may not see major changes on the roster when it comes to the forwards. While the team lacked offense, especially during 5 on 5, they are expected to improve significantly under a new head coach. There are questions as to how the team will line up though.
One of the biggest questions regarding the first line will be where will captain and star player Alex Ovechkin lineup. His move to the right wing not only improved his stats but saw an improvement in his overall offensive game. However, the new head coach may look to move Ovechkin back to his regular spot on the left. Either way, their is likely an opening to play with both Ovechkin and star center Nicklas Backstrom. Could this go in house to prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, or possibly a move physical player in Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson, or the often injured Brooks Laich. Trade deadline acquisition Dustin Penner would be a candidate, but would have to be re-signed first. With no talk regarding his return, its believed to be unlikely the comedic winger will be back.
The second line never really settled last season, and the team suffered because of it. The teams inability to roll three lines, let alone all four, was a major problem. One player who was not was center Mikhail Grabovski. Unfortunately for the Capitals on July 1st he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Shortly after the season ended, Grabovski stated that he wanted to see who the general manager and head coach will be before he decides if he is going to return. With those two positions filled, it is now up to Grabovski if he wishes to continue playing at Verizon Center. An additional caveat to re-signing Grabovski is that he wishes to play with his friend, and former teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs, in Nikolai Kulemin. Both players have the same agent, Gary Greenstin, which will make it easier for them to be teammates again. While Grabovski would be welcomed back to DC with open arms, the same cannot be said for Kulemin, if only because they may not have a spot for him.
Kulemin has had solid offensive stats before, scoring 57 points during the 2010-11 season, the question, outside of the financial commitment he would require, would be where to play him. Previously mentioned Kuznetsov has to be penciled in on the second line if he is not on the first, leaving only one wing spot available. If that went to Kulemin, where does Brouwer play? With the third line being the only real solid line for the Capitals last season, one would assume they will be left alone, and someone making the money and having the skill set Brouwer has would make little to no sense on the fourth line.
With the third line believed to be set, that leaves the fourth line as a question mark. Depending on which players return, one would believe that Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle have two of the three spots. That leaves a final spot available for one of Aaron Volpatti, Chris Brown, or Michael Latta. That would be, however, ignoring the fact that MacLellan has stated that he wants to see Wilson get more ice time. That means that either Wilson moves up a line or the fourth line gets more minutes. Either way the bottom two lines may be the least of the teams worries at the moment.
The biggest concern for the roster may be the defensive corp. Last season this was arguably their biggest flaw, and it will take more than just one move to fix the problem. Some help may come in a different philosophy regarding how to exit the zone. Last season, the players were required to make a quick pass when looking up the ice. Aside from this being a major change for players who were drafted or acquired for their puck handling skills, it also led to a lot of turnovers, followed by odd man rushes, quickly followed by the opposing team scoring. It is believe that Trotz will look to use the players skill set in bringing the puck up the ice, something that could help to see the revitalization of former Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green, provided he can stay healthy.
Another thing that could help Green would be to pair him up with a veteran defensive defenseman. Green’s game has never been about his defensive skill set and always about him jumping into the rush and scoring goals. The man, formerly known as Game Over Greenie, has never had a set partner since playing with Jeff Schultz. MacLellan would do himself a lot of good in making a move to bring in a partner for Green, if he chooses to hang onto Green.
There are no questions when it comes to Alzner and Carlson, as the good friends and defensive partners are likely to return as the teams to defensive unit. The third pairing on the other hand, is a problem. The need to find a solid pairing, not a carousel of American Hockey League players, would benefit the team greatly. More specifically, MacLellan needs to find a defensive partner for Dmitry Orlov. MacLellan stated that he wished rookie Connor Carrick had spent more time with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, and we may see him get his wish. If that is the case, the team has two options. They can trade or sign for someone, or go with a younger pairing in Orlov and Patrick Wey. While Wey played significantly less games than Carrick last season, he looked more comfortable towards the end of the season, and with a solid training camp he could find his way onto the roster. The same could be said for Nate Schmidt or Cameron Schilling, although both are likely going to start their seasons in Hershey.
Two last in house options are John Erskine or Steven Oleksy. While Erskine is the senior of the entire defensive corp, he had arguably the worst season. Some of that could be due to injury though he often looked slow and behind the play. For the salary he is making, just under two million, he is expected to contribute more. If the new GM and coach do not think he can, expect them to find a way to move him out. Oleksy may get a good look in September, and being in the last year of his contract, he may look to show his skills if he wants to stay with the organization, or be able to hook up with another.
The goal tending department does not appear to have any major problems. Braden Holtby looks to be the teams number one going into the season, but who will back him up is another matter. They could go younger with Philip Grubauer, who surprised everyone by getting 17 games last season. If they feel as though sitting on the bench most nights is not what is best for Grubauer’s development, they could dip into the free agent market and try to sign a veteran back up. Names like Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, and Jonas Hiller are unlikely. The team could look to bring in Devan Dubnyk, Scott Clemmensen, or Joey MacDonald to name a few. They could also go with someone in the twilight of their career in Evgeni Nabokov, Nikolai Khabibulin, or Tomas Vokoun. While not all of those players may be interested in being a backup, someone of that caliber could not only provide as a solid back up, but could also mentor Holtby and even Grubauer.
While the offseason does not start until after the final game of the Stanley Cup Final, and free agents cannot sign until July 1st, the team still has plenty of work to do before then. There are likely to be some players moving in and out, especially around the NHL Draft on June 27-28. With a first year general manager now leading the way expect him to make his mark on this team. Expect him, and the head coach, to make this team in the image that they want. A new team for a new season.