2013 was a tale of two seasons for the Washington Capitals. They stumbled out of the gates, under new coach Adam Oates, by only winning two of their first eleven games. They finished the season very strong winning 15 of their last 19 games and winning the last ever Southeast Division title. The Capitals are going to need to pick it up this year because they are in a much tougher division than the old "Nascar Division." Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green all rebounded with big seasons. They will all need to repeat those performances if they want to complete with Penguins, Rangers and Flyers in their new hockey landscape.
Our guest today is Becca H from Japers' Rink as she gives us a better look into as things Capitals.
Many unflattering adjectives, like "lazy" or my favorite "enigmatic," have been used to describe Alex Ovechkin. Are these criticisms justified or unfair?
It's kind of amazing how the hockey media - and in turn some fans - have taken to attaching these terms to pretty much everyone from Russia, and for the most part they're both wildly unfair. "Enigmatic" in particular has never been a word I would use to describe Ovechkin; very little about his play has made me think "what the hell did he do that for?" or "now what is he doing?", and even then it's no more than any other player on the ice. And take out a few select times over the course of his career (most notably the infamous shift in the playoffs this past spring that was captured in gif form for all the world to see) and "lazy" isn't a word I'd use for him, either. He may have a momentary lapse in judgment, but if anything Ovechkin's biggest issues tend to come when he tries to do too much, when he gets frustrated and tries to do things like carry the puck through 117 defenders because he's so determined to score or when he stays on the ice for a two-minute shift.
Adam Oates lead the Caps to the playoffs in his first season behind the bench. Do you expect a return to the playoffs with the move to a much tougher division than the old "Nascar Division?"
They've definitely got a chance. The Caps may not have the "easy" path to a division title that they have had in recent years (and having watched them capture those titles, they haven't always been so easy) but nothing about the new Metropolitan (...really) Division is all that scary and certainly not as scary as people seem to think it is. Sure, the Penguins are still tough but they've also still got Fleury. The Flyers continue their Flyering with their "defense" and "goaltending". None of the teams in the new division have exactly steamrolled over the Caps in recent years, and none of them have made significant enough changes to their team to make us think they will start doing so this season.
That's not to say that the Caps are going to win the division, and there's always a chance that they don't even make the playoff cut - but they have good goaltending, a few stud defensemen and, with the addition of Mikhail Grabovski, a pretty decent forward lineup... at least on paper. They have the ability to hang with (or beat) any of the other seven teams, to say nothing of the rest of the East, and should at least be in the playoff hunt this year. And if they make the postseason, the hope is that playing in a slightly tougher division with tougher competition on a slightly more regular basis should help prepare them for a better playoff run. Eventually something has to... right?
How excited are you about the Mikhail Grabovski signing and do you wish it was for more than just one year?
So, so excited. We've been lusting after Grabovski since the Leafs set him loose (and really since before then) and see him as a potentially great solution to the problem that has plagued the Caps for years, namely the lack of a solid second line center. Mike Ribeiro did a good job in his limited time here but Grabovski is better at both ends of the ice, better at even strength, younger and cheaper. These are all things we like. And while a two-year deal might have been nice, one year isn't so bad - he's got something to prove, for sure, and a one-year tryout gives him a chance to do that at a cap-friendly rate for the team. If things work out, the Caps can lock him up with a longer term deal at some point this season; if not, chalk it up to a one-year mistake and go back to the drawing board. Obviously we're hoping it's the former...
Will Mike Green ever regain his form of 2008-09 or was that a fluke?
Along with John Carlson, Green is really one of the guys who drives the Caps' offense - he's dynamic, he's a great skater, and while his performance in 08-09 (and 09-10, really) was great, what's exciting about Green is that he's actually become a much better all-around defensemen than he was back then and certainly better than he's ever given credit for. His early success doesn't really seem to be a fluke, either. We saw signs of the old Green last season, as he had more goals than any other defensemen and scored them in anywhere from seven to thirteen fewer games than anyone who came close. And now that there seems to be some stability behind the bench and in the system the team is going to play, there's no reason to believe he can't regain his rightful place among the League's top offensive defensemen.
There are really two keys to that happening. The first is to stay healthy, because he's only appeared in 116 of a possible 212 games over the last three seasons and probably shouldn't have played in even that many. The second is to return to form at even strength, because while he continues to produce and drive offense on the power play, 5-on-5 production has dramatically declined. The former is all him, as he needs to learn how to not put himself in situations where he's going to get hurt (although a certain amount of luck, or lack thereof, is also obviously a factor); the latter is on Adam Oates and the rest of the coaching staff. They've already shown they can work their magic with Alex Ovechkin, so the test this season will be for them to coax a similar resurgence out of Green 5-on-5. We think they can do it.
Troy Brouwer had himself quite a season last year, the kind we have seen out of him in Chicago. Only Ovechkin scored more goals for the Caps than Brouwer. Do you expect even more production from him this season?
Not really. Brouwer's a good player but he's not usually the driver on his line and benefited last season from suddenly being the guy who needed to shoot the puck instead of the guy driving the net while someone else did so. He also got a huge bump from an absolutely lethal power play that probably won't be operating at close to 27% again this season (although...dare to dream). Obviously he played a role in it being as good as it was, but when you've got Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom and Green and Ribeiro firing the puck around, you're probably going to get a few goals of your own simply because the other team is focused on those guys. That said, he certainly has the ability to be a productive, effective second line player. He complements high-flying players well and definitely has the potential to put up at least 20 goals this season - especially alongside a guy like Grabovski, who is much better possession-wise than Ribeiro was and could help boost the even strength numbers a bit for a second line that was a black hole at times in both respects.
Braden Holtby has looked to finally solidify the goaltender position for the Caps. What should we expect to see out of him this year?
That's certainly the hope, since this team has gone through its fair share of starting goalies since Olie Kolzig departed back in '08. Holtby has put up some really impressive numbers in his short time as an NHL goalie - small sample size applies and all that but there's a lot to be excited about with Holtby. Last year was a bit of a strange one for him, as he had kind of a rough start (as did his team, and the two weren't necessarily unrelated) then rebounded only to have a less-than-stellar postseason (although by the numbers he wasn't exactly awful, to say the least). The team in front of him should be better and he continues to build up experience - including an invite to Team Canada's Olympic camp - that should help him continue to evolve, so we're expecting big things from him this year and beyond.
Who is the Caps player to have a breakout season this year?
Probably John Carlson. He's going to get a ton of minutes (especially if the Caps don't upgrade the blue line at all) and proved he deserved them last season, despite being saddled with less than impressive defensive partners like John Erskine for much of the year. He continues to improve every year and on top of his ongoing evolution as a great young defenseman, this year he'll also have the added motivation of proving he deserves a spot on Team USA's roster for Sochi.
A big thank you to Becca for her very informative answers. The Capitals will be the team lucky enough to score free tickets to the Blackhawks' banner raising ceremony, as they will be in town for the season opener on October 1st. We won't see them again until we squeeze them in after a trip to the White House on April 11th.