2014-2015 Washington Capitals Season Preview

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Posted October 8, 2014

The Capitals are poised to use Braden Holtby as their starter this season. (Caps Outsider)

For the first time since 2006-2007, the Washington Capitals failed to qualify for the playoffs. Major changes swept through the organization with general manager George McPhee being fired, along with head coach Adam Oates. With all of the doom-and-gloom Caps fans faced after not seeing any hockey being played in late April, new hope came in the form of Brian MacLellan, long-time McPhee assistant who was promoted to GM, and Barry Trotz, the only coach in the history of the Nashville Predators who was relieved of his duties.

With some big-name free agent signings like Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to help a Capitals blueline, the team is poised to make another run into the playoffs and battle to lift Lord Stanley’s Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

Goaltending

At the end of the trading deadline last season, the Caps traded Michal Neuvirth and Capitals legend Rusty Klesla  to the Buffalo Sabres for Jaroslav Halak and Buffalo’s third-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. While Halak held his own after his acquisition, the money he commanded proved too much for the Capitals to retain him. Halak ended up signing with the Islanders during the summer’s free agency period, while Washington signed long-time Carolina backup Justin Peters to a two-year contract on July 1st. The trade of Neuvirth symbolized two things: 1) that Braden Holtby is the number one goaltender in the organization; and 2) that Phillip Grubauer is seen as the up-and-comer and, with Holtby, will make a formidable duo for years to come.

The Capitals also went out and hired goaltending guru (or whisperer, take your pick here) and good ol’ New York boy Mitch Korn, who is known for using odd props in order to develop goaltenders. This was a major hire for Washington. Korn is the man who helped develop Pikka Rinne into the goaltender he is today and will no doubt make all of the goaltenders within the organization better.

Braden Holtby, you’re the starter this season. Period. (Caps Outsider)

Between the hire of Korn and the bolstering of the blueline, the Capitals goaltending will be a lot better in comparison to last year. The person to be on the lookout for this year is Grubauer. If he can continue to develop in Hershey, Peters will become trade bait at the deadline next season. While Holtby will be due a raise at the end of this year, Grubauer is entering in his final year of his entry level contract and can help the Capitals cut costs in order to bolster the team in other years.

Projected goaltenders:

Braden Holtby
Justin Peters

Defense

Can we skip this section? Reliving what happened last year is going to make me all sorts of sad. No? Well, it was worth a shot…

I’m pretty sure I could’ve rounded up a bunch of defenseman in a squirts league and they would’ve outperformed whatever semblance of a defensive corps the Capitals played with night in and night out last year. That being said, Washington did go out and spend a lot of money bringing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik into the fold this season. They were also aided by the Capitals going out and hiring Todd Reirden, who coached both players in Pittsburgh under former coach Dan Bylsma. Niskanen is an offensive-minded player who set career marks in goals, assists, points, penalty minutes, and shots last season. He is expected to pair up with Karl Alzner on the second defensive pairing and will see some time on the power play as well.

Orpik, however, is a headscratcher. The 34-year old signed a lucrative 5-year, $27.5 million contract in the offseason, which will keep him in Washington until he’s 39 years old. While he was selected to represent Team USA in the most recent Olympics in Sochi, Russia the fear is how far into his contract will his production and skills will diminish. Also, his possession numbers have been in the negative over the last few seasons and as he gets older they will get worse. The one positive to take from this is that Orpik’s contract isn’t an “over-35” contract, meaning that if he were to retire before the contract runs out, all monies are not guaranteed to him and do not count against the Caps’ salary cap. He will be paired off with Olympic teammate John Carlson on the top defensive pairing and will see minutes on the penalty kill.

The biggest question mark with this defensive unit (outside of Orpik, of course) is Mike Green. He enters this season on the final year of his contract and has not been able to stay healthy for long stretches of time. When he’s healthy and plays up to expectations, Green is one of the best power-play quarterbacks in the league and is well worth every penny spent on him. If he cannot stay healthy or does not play up to capacity, MacLellan will be forced to decide if he should part ways with Green at the trade deadline. Green will start this season on the third defensive pairing, teamed up with Jack Hillen on an interim basis until Dmitry Orlov can recover from a broken wrist.

All in all, what you’ll see this year from the defensive corps will be completely different than what you saw last year. They will be a lot better at shutting down the opponent, so expect the goals allowed total to go down significantly and expect them to keep the Caps in more games than they did last year.

Projected defensive pairings*:

John Carlson-Brooks Orpik

Matt Niskanen-Karl Alzner

Mike Green-Jack Hillen

John Erskine

*when Orlov comes off of injured reserve, put Orlov in Hillen’s spot and slide Hillen down to Erskine’s spot as the seventh defenseman.

Forwards

Last season, Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin netted 51 goals and secured the fourth Rocket Richard Trophy of his career. While Ovechkin will be relied upon once again to find the back of the net, Barry Trotz wants his forwards to play both ways and forecheck when in their defensive zone. The big question here is how much defense will Ovechkin be required to contribute. As seen under the Dale Hunter regime, if he is asked to contribute a lot then Ovechkin’s production is going to take a nose dive. Trotz and newly hired assistant Lane Lambert must be careful here – while Ovechkin should be playing more defense how much is too much? If Trotz and Lambert sees Ovechkin’s totals not up to par with where they should be, how much of his system will he change midseason to accommodate Ovechkin?

In fairness to Ovechkin, while he will have his share of goals the responsibility of scoring goals will not fall squarely on him. Evgeny Kuznetsov, the highly-touted Russian prospect, will be entering his first full season in the National Hockey League. In seventeen games played last year, Kuznetsov scored three goals to go along with six assists. He will be on the fourth line at the start of the season, but he will end up moving to the top-six at some point in the season as long as he shows he can produce at the NHL level (which, going off of what he did last year, there is no reason why he cannot).

To also help in the secondary scoring is rookie Andre Burakovsky, who was selected in the 1st round of the 2013 NHL Draft. He has made the team out of training camp but is still eligible to be sent down to Erie (OHL) after nine games without burning a year of his Entry Level Contract. He is slotted to pivot the second line between Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer. If Burakovsky does get sent back to Erie, expect Kuznetsov to be promoted to pivot the second line.

The biggest question mark within the forward corps is Brooks Laich, who is still under contract for the next three seasons (including this one) at an AAV of $4.5 million. Laich has missed significant time over the last two seasons due to reoccurring injuries; so much, in fact, that many fans and bloggers (including myself) called for Laich to be bought out at the end of last season. If he stays healthy, you can expect him to score 15 goals to go along with 25 points pivoting the third line. If not, the same overtures coming out of last season will resonate again come next summer.

One of the biggest stories in the entire league from training camp is Liam O’Brien, a 20-year old junior player who was offered an invitation to come to camp and has blown away everyone in the organization. On Monday, the Capitals rewarded O’Brien’s performance in the preseason and training camp by signing him to a three-year Entry Level Contract. O’Brien has made the decision with regards to where he will start the season a difficult one, and I expect O’Brien to be further rewarded by being given a sweater on Opening Night. He will have to fight Tom Wilson – who is currently on injured reserve – for his spot in the lineup. If O’Brien continues to shine, Trotz and McLellan will have a difficult decision to make about which one of the two will be sent to Hershey.

Projected forward lines: 

Alexander Ovechkin-Nick Backstrom-Eric Fehr

Marcus Johansson-Andre Burakovsky-Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera-Brooks Laich-Joel Ward

Liam O’Brien-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Michael Latta

Chris Brown

Where Will The Caps Finish?

On paper, the Capitals strengthened their weaknesses this offseason by adding depth to the blueline. While the average age of the roster is 27 years old, there are a few young guys on the team who will be looking to make an impact right away.

Unfortunately for the Capitals, the rest of the Metropolitan Division got better as well. The Capitals will contend for one of the wild-card spots into March and April but they will fall short of reaching the playoffs once again.