Hockey is back! After a lengthy (and some would argue unnecessary) lockout, the NHL and players finally came to an agreement. Seats will be filled and jerseys will be sold, but for some teams, such as the Washington Capitals, the damage may have already been done. Still, with a new coach, new faces, and intriguing positional battles, the now solely 2013 could still prove both exciting and educational for a young and talented group that was one goal short of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since new coach Adam Oates’ Capitals team did it back in 1998. Here are a few headlines to keep track of in this abbreviated NHL season for the Washington Capitals.
1. How will the team respond to another coaching and system change?
The 2012-13 season has fans excited for many reasons, but it would be irresponsible to ignore the biggest offseason headline; the hiring of Adam Oates. Many Caps fans will be excited to welcome Oates back to the organization, but many know him as the playmaking center, not the coach. So what will his influence be on this Capitals team? In his introductory press conference, Oates was quoted by ESPN.com as claiming “I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it.”. What Oates will implement is a style of play that is much of a hybrid between the high powered, run-and-gun offense that was installed by Bruce Boudreau, and the tight checking, defensive style established by Dale Hunter. He will attempt to send a strong forecheck with centers and wingers upon opposing teams in their own defensive zone, while instilling a strong commitment to team defense. Oates’ made a name for himself as the assistant coach of the New Jersey Devils by forcing mistakes from opposing teams’ defenseman with an aggressive forecheck. The idea behind this goes back to territory. In recent history, teams that have gone deep into the playoffs have established a presence in their offensive zone via this aggressive forechecking style. Perfect examples of this can be seen through last years Stanley Cup winners, the Los Angeles Kings, their counterparts and Oates’ old team, the New Jersey Devils, and the Boston Bruins . The pressure that these teams created from their forecheck resulted in ill-advised passes from defensemen and created turnovers in the offensive zone, leading to more offense and goals.
Offense and goals are something that Capitals fans would love to see more of from their beloved captain Alex Ovechkin. While 38 goals and 65 points is nothing to snuff at for any player, it was by far Ovechkin’s worst totals for his career and has left fans wondering if the “Great 8” will ever recapture that magic that made him one of the league’s most exciting players. It is believed that a large reason that contributed to General Manager George McPhee’s hiring of Oates had to do with the development of Ilya Kovalchuck’s game in becoming more a more “complete” hockey player. Under Oates, Kovalchuck became a more responsible player in his own defensive zone, even contributing on the penalty kill. He also regained some of the offensive firepower that he was best known for under Oates, seeing his highest offensive output in goals and points since the 2008 season. The hope and belief is that Oates might be able to achieve some of these same results and rejuvenate Ovechkin back to his Art Ross Trophy and two-time MVP form.
With a new, more aggressive style of offense, a commitment to good team defense through solid positional play, and a more complete and offensively potent Alex Ovechkin, Adam Oates may find just the right recipe for success with a Caps team that is desperate for playoff success.
2. Who are the other new faces in the locker room?
Like in all off-seasons, naturally there are changes to the personnel of a hockey team and the Washington Capitals are no different. George McPhee was tasked with minimizing the losses of key components Alexander Semin, Dennis Wideman, and Mike Knuble. To do so, he was active in free-agency and the trade market. McPhee declined to go after superstars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and instead pursued the trade route to acquire center Mike Ribeiro, and signing low risk-high reward players such as Wojtek Wolski, Joey Crabb, and bringing back to Washington Eric Fehr. While none of these players possess the flashiness of a Parise or Suter, they offer the combination of work ethic and mysterious craftiness that could diminish the loss of a Semin. Mike Ribeiro, a 6-0 ft., 179 lb. center, has scored 50 plus points in eight straight seasons. He secures the second line center vacancy that Washington has been seeking to fill ever since the departure of Sergei Federov in 2009. Wolski brings to Washington a strong stick work mixed with speed and an aptitude to score goals. At a mere cost of only $600,000, the Caps believe that they have brought in a talent that can score and help to ease to burden of the first line to carry team in offense. Additionally, Wolski has proven to be quite the shootout specialist, and in a shortened season where every point gained will be crucial, Wolski could prove to be a secret weapon and valuable asset of sorts. The downside is that Wolski has proven inconsistent and injury prone at best over the last couple of seasons, leading to teams like the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers to part ways with the skillful right winger. Still, if he can recapture some of the abilities that made him a first round pick by the Colorado Avalanche in 2004, the Caps believe they may have made a sneaky, but brilliant move in the signing. Joey Crabb and Eric Fehr both bring depth, toughness, and a strong work ethic. While Crabb will likely be a fourth-liner, he will bring a grinder’s mentality to the game which will prove worthy come down the playoff stretch when teams buckle down and play more physical. As for Fehr, assuming he has overcome the shoulder injury that has nagged him for the better part of two seasons, he has proven that he could pose as an offensive threat, even potentially a double digit goal scorer in a full season. The Capitals would be delighted if he stays healthy and could add some scoring depth.
3. Holtby or Neuvirth? A good problem to have.
It seems as though for the past few seasons, the Capitals have had a very intriguing goaltending battle going into the regular season. Well, the 2013 season does not disappoint as once again, there appears to be an interesting war for the right to defend the area between the pipes again. And like in seasons past, this is not due to the notion that no one has stepped up to the challenge. An injury to free-agent signee Tomas Vokoun gave way to the goaltending dual between Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth toward last seasons’ end, down the stretch into the playoffs. Eventually, it was Braden Holtby, aided by a nagging injury to Neuvirth, that ultimately led to the emergence of a potential superstar in Holtby. Going into this season, it is assumed that the cage will be Holtby’s, but that is not to say that Neuvirth won’t have his opportunities. McPhee hinted last offseason before the Vokoun signing that he was perfectly comfortable entering the season with his two youngsters defending the net. He finds himself in that exact position again entering this season. Holtby’s .922 save percentage in the regular season last season was impressive and while he only played in 7 games, his stellar .935 save percentage proved to be no fluke and ranked 3rd in the NHL. Neuvirth struggled at times, posting a .903 in 38 games, good enough for 36th best in the league. Still, the Caps know that they have a very strong goaltender in Neuvirth and believe that he is capable of providing a very solid presence to backstop a Caps team that showed it’s very capable of playing good defense around him. It’s expected that both goaltenders will split the regular season in playing time, with the slight edge going to Holtby due to his playoff success last season. Still, the Capitals find themselves in a very reassuring position with the two youngsters and it will likely be the goaltender who gets hot towards the homestretch that will likely see the cage in the postseason.
4. Mike Green key to Caps success?
The biggest question mark, as it has been for the past few seasons, will be the health and production of defenseman Mike Green. Green once again struggled with injuries last season, but seemed to find his stride in the playoffs last season. Playing alongside Roman Hamrlik, Green showed real progress in his development as a solid shut down defensemen. Still, it is the offensive presence that the Caps find Green to be most valuable. Many have wondered if he can recapture some of the success he achieved in the ’08-’09 season where he recorded 31 goals. While it’s unlikely he will approach that mark again, especially with the shortened season, if Green can discover some of his offensive touch, the Caps will be improved exponentially. Green’s ability to move the puck and see open ice, combined with his superb skating ability is second to none in the league. Along with playing the point on the power play, Green’s ability to create in the offensive zone creates yet another offensive option that makes it almost impossible for opposing teams to defend when shorthanded. If Green and rediscover himself, build on his success from last postseason, and show a positive understanding of Adam Oates’ new system, look for a severely increased potency on the power play and for the Caps do be a dangerous offensive juggernaut once again
5. How will the short season impact the Caps?
While all teams will be affected by the abbreviated season, it may prove extremely costly to the Washington Capitals. As we saw with this team just last season with the firing of Bruce Boudreau and hiring of Dale Hunter, midseason coaching changes often prove difficult for teams to adjust to. It will take time for this team, like any other, to make these adjustments. While the Caps are currently in the midst of their 10 day training camp, there are no pre-season games to play in and it will likely not be enough time for the team to hit the ground running.
There are also question marks about the health of some key contributors with this team. Although they dodged a serious scare with what proved to be a mild neck injury to Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich will most likely miss at least the start of the season. Laich’s absence could prove costly as he is arguably the most durable and versatile player on the entire Capitals roster. Laich is a key component on the penalty kill, as well as sees time on the power play. Additionally, he is a great face-off man and if Laich is unable to go for the first couple of weeks, the Capitals may struggle in some key components of the game.
On the contrary, the delayed start of the season may provide a little help to a team that has struggled to keep key players healthy over the past couple of seasons. As the Washington Post reports, Green boasted “I feel great, yeah. A lot of energy. Probably the best I’ve felt in two years”.
The most detrimental component about the lockout to the Caps, however, lies within the schedule and divisional opponents the Caps will play. Carolina made serious improvements in adding scoring depth to their roster with the addition of Eric Staal’s brother Jordan Staal via trade. Additionally, they were able to lobby ex-Cap Alexader Semin’s services and Caps fans are all too familiar with how lethal the left winger can be. Furthermore, look for the Tampa Bay Lighting to have a bounce back year as they seemed to have solved their goaltending problem with the acquisition of Anders Lindback. While being stuck in the shadow, literally, of 6’6″ Pekka Rinne in Nashville, Lindback has been patiently waiting for a starting gig and has proven in limited action that he is more than capable of doing so. Combined with the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and a solid corps of blue liners, Tampa will be the early favorite to win the division. With the Florida Panthers winning the Southeast Division last season, and a Winnipeg Jets team that boasts one of the best home ice advantages in the league and a team that fought tooth and nail down the playoff stretch last season, the Southeast Division could prove to be one of the more interesting and competitive divisions in the league. Combined with a 48 game schedule where 30 of said games will be played against divisional opponents, the Caps can ill afford to lose many of these games. Divisional games will prove pivotal and crucial to the outcome of this season for the Caps.
While the Caps still boast a strong core of players, combined with youth and experience, they will find themselves right in the thick of the battle for the Southeast Division title. As mentioned before, many of the teams in this division bolstered their rosters this offseason and improved themselves immensely. This is no longer the pushover division where the Caps were good for 14-20 wins. With Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers expected to be early Eastern Conference favorites, and the likes of Buffalo, Philly, and Boston expected to be competitive, the Caps will find themselves in a dogfight for a playoff spot. Expect the Caps to be there down the stretch, but a slow start due to coaching and system changes may hinder this team and prove to be just too much to overcome as they finish 3rd in the division and to just miss the playoffs this year. Still, the future looks bright for this team.