Originally Published: September 24, 2013

Washington Capitals: Proving they belong

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas BackstromLen Redkoles/NHLI/Getty ImagesAlex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom will still be the heart and soul of the Capitals' attack.
Look at a synopsis of the Capitals' 2012-13 season and beside it you'll see a picture of a big old rollercoaster. Under rookie head coach Adam Oates, the Caps struggled through the first third of the season, at one point falling to last place in the league. But the Caps slowly turned a corner as captain Alex Ovechkin gradually adjusted to a move to the right wing. By the end of the season, the Caps were once again the top team in the Southeast Division, and Ovechkin won the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals and was named Hart Trophy winner for the third time in his career. The strong finish did not translate to the playoffs, however, as the Caps blew a 3-2 series lead against the Rangers and lost Game 7 5-0. Still, the nucleus of a team that has been a preseason Cup contender for five or six seasons returns and is determined to prove that this isn't a team facing the closing of a window of opportunity.

"I want us to be individually better," Oates told ESPN.com early in camp. "Every guy. From Ovi down to our sixth D and our 12th forward and our backup goalie. I want every guy to try and be better as a player individually. Because if they're all better and we're better coaches, then our franchise will gradually get better. That's what I believe."

CHANGES
Things are pretty constant around the Verizon Center this season as Oates gets ready for his first normal training camp and 82-game slate of games. Gone is Mike Ribeiro, who was a nice fit as a second-line center behind Nicklas Backstrom. George McPhee waited until late in the offseason to fill that hole by signing erstwhile Toronto center Mikhail Grabovski, who couldn't come to terms with the Leafs after falling out of favor with head coach Randy Carlyle. Grabovski should fit nicely with Oates' style and should approach the season as someone with much to prove. Perhaps the most significant change is the promotion of longtime netminder Olie Kolzig to head goaltending coach after apprenticing under his old goaltending coach Dave Prior for the past couple of seasons. The Caps have a trio of high end young goaltenders in Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and, perhaps the most intriguing of the lot, Philipp Grubauer, who has wowed wherever he's played. If they play up to their potential under Kolzig, the Caps will be playoff bound.

STRENGTHS
Let's not forget that Oates was in his first year as an NHL head coach and had about two hours to prepare his team before the post-lockout season began in mid-January. Over their final 23 games, the Caps were 17-4-2 and were a league-best 11-1-1 in April. Yes, the Caps got to beat up on the rest of the woeful Southeast Division but, hey, they didn't make the schedule, did they? The Caps finished the season averaging more than three goals a game (they were fourth in the league in goals per game) and iced the top power-play unit in the NHL. Bottom line is, with a full training camp at his disposal, Oates should be able to build on the obvious strides taken in the second half of the season with a talented, experienced squad.

Quibble if you will with Ovechkin's Hart Trophy win, the proof was in the pudding as he lit it up in the second half of the season after moving to the right side. He finished with 32 goals in 48 games, including 14 in 13 games in April. He and Ribeiro (now in Phoenix) finished tied for first in the league with 27 power-play points. Backstrom, who suffered a concussion in 2011-12 that limited his playing time and effectiveness, rebounded from a slow start to finish with 48 points in 48 games. His 40 assists were third in the NHL and he, too, finished on a tear with two goals and 15 assists in 13 games in April. Mike Green continued to provide offense from the back end and his 12 goals were the most among NHL rearguards. The Caps also showed a tremendous amount of resiliency, ranking first in wins collected after trailing through the first period (nine). They also won five games when trailing after the second period, tied for the most in the league.

"It feels like now we know the coaching staff a little bit more too," Backstrom told ESPN.com. "In the end, we want to start off good, we want to be ready right away."

WEAKNESSES
The Caps were middle of the road (18th) in goals allowed per game and much worse on the penalty kill (27th), but either way the team needs to be much better in its own zone this season. There is also the issue of the team's depth down the middle with Ribeiro's defection and the question of whether Grabovski can adequately fill that hole. The durability of glue guy Brooks Laich is also an ongoing concern for the Caps as Laich managed to appear in just nine regular season games and none in the playoffs. To make matters worse, he was dogged by injury at the start of training camp.

Defensively, Oates separated longtime defensive anchors Karl Alzner and John Carlson and moved the more offensively minded Carlson with big veteran John Erskine, while Alzner paired with Green. Can Erskine shoulder that load over the course of a full season, given how much ice time Carlson's skill set demands? This is also a group that is in the middle of transition with Jack Hillen, Steven Oleksy and Tomas Kundratek earning ice time during the lockout-shortened season. The maturation of that group will speak volumes about whether the Caps can continue to be a playoff team in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division (they've reached the playoffs six straight times).

Perhaps the biggest question mark is whether the Caps will ever be able to get the job done in the playoffs. Holtby struggled in goal after the Caps took a 2-0 series lead over the New York Rangers in the first round and allowed 15 goals in the final five games, including five in a Game 7 loss. On the other side of the puck, the Caps were shut out in Games 6 and 7, so the fault can't be laid solely at Holtby's feet. Backstrom, for one, lamented his lack of production in the playoffs.

"I'm going to be honest with you, I'm a little bit disappointed in my game. I think I can play a little bit better. Especially in the playoffs. That's when it counts," the center told ESPN.com. "We've got to be better in the playoffs. Every one of us. We've got to take responsibility to make sure that we produce there too.

"Of course when you lose it's always disappointing and the way we did it too. Came off a good start, 2-0 lead in the series. I think we played better than the results showed to be honest with you but that's nothing to think about right now."

REALIGNMENT EFFECT
The Caps finished first in the Southeast Division and earned home ice advantage (not that it did them much good, as it turns out) even though they were tied for the fourth best record in the conference and were just two points better than the eighth-place New York Islanders. That should give you an indication of the battle that looks inevitable to find a playoff berth in the Metro Division. In short, no backdoor route to the playoffs now that used to exist in the sometimes soft Southeast Division. In some ways, though, perhaps that urgency from the first puck-drop of the season might make the Caps a stronger team in the long run.

PREDICTIONS
Burnside: The Capitals should once again be a threat, realignment or no realignment. Good to great offensive depth and solid young goaltending all under a very bright, young coach should see the Caps slide into the second spot in the new Metropolitan Division.

Custance: Fourth in the Metropolitan Division.

LeBrun: Fourth in the Metropolitan Division.

Melrose: Second in the Metropolitan Division.

Strang: Third in the Metropolitan Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer

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