Capitals: Five Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
It has been a tumultuous time for the Washington Capitals the past few years, what with Bruce Boudreau being dispatched as head coach and replaced by former Capitals captain Dale Hunter last December. The coaching change didn't come without its growing pains, as the Caps became a more conservative, less dynamic team. That said, the Caps overcame a slow start to the season and up-and-down play under Hunter to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Then the seventh-seeded Caps upended defending Cup champion Boston in seven games before dropping an achingly close seven-game set to the New York Rangers in the second round. Hunter departed, though, in the offseason and was replaced by another old Capital, Adam Oates, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this past November. So this season begins like so many in recent years, with both high expectations and lots of questions.
1. No. 1 Question
Let's start with the question that everyone will be asking from the moment the puck drops until the end of the season: What's up with Alex Ovechkin? Apart from becoming engaged to his tennis-playing girlfriend, Maria Kirilenko, during the lockout, Ovechkin will come into the season looking to regain the form that saw him top the 50-goal mark four times and register 65 goals one time. In the past two seasons, though, his totals have dropped to 38 and 32. Now, that's not chopped liver, but it's also not Alex Ovechkin. We talked to Oates about his plan for his captain and it's simple, he's going to turn him loose. As he said during an interview, you don't pay Alex Rodriguez to hit singles and you don't pay Alex Ovechkin to have a good plus-minus rating. We're guessing Oates gets Ovechkin back into the hunt for a Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal-scorer and perhaps even an Art Ross. "They seem to be very excited about working together," GM George McPhee told ESPN.com shortly before camp opened. "Adam's very confident he can have Ovi playing at an elite level."
2. Backstrom's Health
While Ovechkin will garner all of the attention, the most critical piece to the Caps' offensive puzzle is the health and play of center Nicklas Backstrom. The skilled Swede was the victim of a cheap-shot blow to the head courtesy of Rene Bourque, then of the Calgary Flames. The hit left Backstrom with a concussion, and he missed almost half the season to injury. He returned in late March and had a decent postseason with eight points in 13 games but just two goals. Perhaps more troubling is that he missed time in the KHL in recent weeks with a head or neck injury, and Ovechkin described his teammate as being "dizzy" after getting hurt in late December. Backstrom saw a specialist before training camp started and told reporters in Washington he does not have a concussion.
If he's healthy, Backstrom has the potential to be a 90-point player and beyond. If he gets to that level again, it improves the chances that the Caps return to the top of the Southeast Division. While the Caps said goodbye to enigmatic winger Alexander Semin, who remains in the division having signed with Carolina, the Caps did bolster their strength down the middle by acquiring former Dallas Star and Montreal Canadien Mike Ribeiro. Ribeiro is one of 12 NHLers with eight consecutive 50-point seasons and that should take some of the pressure off Backstrom. Throw in Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault and the Caps may be as good down the middle as they've been in some time. "We want to make sure that part of the lineup is in good shape," McPhee said.
3. Rookie Coach
So, how will Oates adapt to his first head-coaching gig? Some might view the hire as a bit of a risk for McPhee, who is now on coach No. 3 in a little over a year. But Oates is one of the most cerebral and intense guys around. New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer, who had Oates on his staff during the Devils' run to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals, raved in an interview with ESPN.com about Oates' contributions to the team's success. Although Oates, one of the most gifted playmakers in NHL history, will bring loads of offensive savvy, it was interesting to hear assistant coach and former teammate Calle Johansson describe Oates' dedication to strong defensive play and the nasty streak he carried with him as a player. The Caps took the unusual step of having Oates coach alongside AHL coach Mark French in Hershey in an effort to help integrate Oates' new systems at the AHL level, as well as get a feel for his young personnel. With promising young defenseman Dmitry Orlov out with a concussion, Oates will likely use top defensive prospect Cameron Schilling with the big club to start the season.
4. One-Two Punch
The Washington Capitals have a bevy of top young goaltending talent, which is the good part. What's not completely clear is just who might emerge as the team's No. 1 goaltender. Michal Neuvirth was the starter two years ago when the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs. Then when injuries sidelined Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth last season, Braden Holtby was called up from the minors and was stellar in leading the Caps to the second round. Holtby, who continued his strong play through the lockout with the Caps' AHL affiliate, turned in a sparkling .935 save percentage in 14 postseason games. Have to figure Holtby will have the inside track to the No. 1 job, but he and Neuvirth have the capability to provide the Caps with a solid one-two punch in goal. "We're going to need both of them playing a lot," McPhee said. "I like that we have that competition there." Not to be forgotten is German Philipp Grubauer, who is also off to a terrific start this season and was named to the ECHL All-Star Game and will assume playing time in the AHL now that the lockout is over.
5. Watch Your Words
Maybe it will turn out to be a tempest in a locker room, but early on much attention will be paid to the reception given defenseman Roman Hamrlik by his teammates. Hamrlik was one of the few players to publicly criticize the tack taken by NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr during the lockout and was immediately excoriated by his peers. Even teammates like Troy Brouwer were swift to condemn Hamrlik's comments. What kind of impact will it have on the Caps' dressing room? Maybe none. Maybe some. "I don't care about that stuff," McPhee said. "It's just not a big deal. I don't know how else to say it."
Prediction: I like the Caps' depth in goal and up and down the lineup to push them back into the playoffs, just short of the division title.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering first NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: N/A
Moving Up: Braden Holtby
The reason many NHL 'tenders didn't simply lace up in the AHL during the lockout is that they were ineligible contractually. But Holtby, who came to prominence during the Caps' postseason run following the 2011-12 season, was able to go back to suiting up for the Hershey Bears, the place where he began his previous three campaigns (and the inspiration for the roller coaster-themed mask he used last season). So how does a player who posted a sparkling 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage in 14 NHL playoff games do against AHL competition the next season? In 25 games this season, he did almost as well, posting a 2.14/.932 split. He's on track to get the No. 1 gig in Washington this season, and as with Rinne, many of the players in his neighborhood of the rankings did not face pro competition during the lockout. Holtby appears ready to roll. -- Tim Kavanagh
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Capitals:
• May 26: Acquired C Zach Hamill from Boston.
• May 30: Re-signed G Dany Sabourin.
• June 22: Acquired C Mike Ribeiro from Dallas.
• June 26: Named Adam Oates head coach.
• July 2: Signed RW Joey Crabb.
• July 3: Signed D Jack Hillen.
• July 5: Re-signed RW Jay Beagle and C Mathieu Perreault.
• July 11: Signed LW Wojtek Wolski.
• July 16: Re-signed D Mike Green.
• July 18: Named Calle Johansson assistant coach.
• July 23: Named Tim Hunter assistant coach.
• Sept. 12: Re-signed RW Troy Brouwer.
• Sept. 14: Re-signed D John Carlson.
• Jan. 13: Re-signed F Eric Fehr.
• D Dennis Wideman (traded to Calgary)
• C Jeff Halpern (unrestricted free agent, signed by N.Y. Rangers)
• LW Alexander Semin (unrestricted free agent, signed by Carolina)
• G Tomas Vokoun (traded to Pittsburgh)
• C Keith Aucoin (unrestricted free agent, signed by Toronto)
• C Cody Eakin (traded to Dallas)
• D Sean Collins (unrestricted free agent)
• LW D.J. King (unrestricted free agent)
• RW Mike Knuble (unrestricted free agent)