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Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Washington Capitals

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season andPuck Drop Preview offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page.  Today is the 2014-15 Washington Capitals.

Last Season

The Washington Capitals were expected to have a bounce-back year after finishing the 2012-13 shortened season with just 57 points and being eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Contrary to hopeful expectations, the Caps struggled right out of the gate during their first full season under rookie head coach Adam Oates.

The team only managed to win two of their first seven contests and never quite seemed to find their groove as the season lingered on. Suffering multiple-game losing streaks, including an unfathomable seven-game point drought in January, proved to be Washington’s inevitable demise. Throughout the entire 2013-14 campaign, the Capitals did not see one five-game win streak. They were fortunate enough to muster up a few three-games and even a single four-game, but beyond that, they weren’t able to string together 60-minute efforts on a regular basis.

This transitions directly into the winning characteristic they lacked most last season – consistency. Being a consistent hockey team and playing a certain style game in and game out is essential for any organization to have convincing success in the NHL. The Caps were not one of those teams. They didn’t achieve a concrete identity whatsoever. On any given night, it would be a toss up for D.C. fans as to which Washington team they would watch hit the ice. Would it be the fast-paced, high-octane offensive juggernaut of the Bruce Boudreau days or the tentative, defensive, sit-back team that was spawned by Dale Hunter? The hockey universe never knew for sure.

It’s clear that Oates was never successfully able to forge his own set-in-stone philosophy for how he wanted his team to play the game. From unconventional coaching decisions to inconsistent line combinations on a nightly basis, it was obvious the Hall of Famer’s brilliant hockey mind had not yet transferred to his career behind the bench. While inexperience in the coaching department was without a doubt a contributing factor to the Capitals constant perils, it wasn’t alone by any means.

Inconsistent play was seen all throughout the lineup over the course of last year’s 82-game season. Offensively, the Capitals struggled immensely at even strength. Their five-on-five play was mediocre at best. The Caps of old were a dominant puck possession team. Last season, their performance in that very same category was laughable as they finished in the bottom third of the league in both Corsi and Fenwick numbers. As a result, they spent most nights chasing the puck in their own end rather than dictating the pace at their own discretion.

On the defensive front, Washington was even worse. While it’s true that opposing teams had the puck on their tape more often than not, the Capitals did a horrific job at attempting to keep it out of their own net. Aside from the top pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, the team’s defensive lineup was inexperienced and noticeably flawed. In fact, it was so difficult for Adam Oates to find three consistent pairings that 14 different defensemen suited up for the Caps last year. No matter what team you are, that is not a recipe for success.

With constant turnovers inside their own blue line, an unbearable inability to clear their own end, and a passive mindset when having the lead, this Washington team took the crown when it came to leaving points on the table. They developed a nasty habit of allowing their opponents to score answering goals within two minutes of scoring themselves. This occurred an astounding 29 times throughout the season, eventually forcing many games into extra time and even further to the shootout. The Caps saw themselves compete in 21 breakaway competitions to be exact and only found ways to win 10 of them.

Despite the fact that they finished the season with 38 total wins, the Capitals only managed to win 28 of those in regulation or overtime. To put this number in perspective, at the end of the 48-game campaign the prior year, they finished with 24. Only four other teams in the league concluded their regular season with less ROWs [New York Islanders (25), Edmonton (25), Florida (21), and Buffalo (19)].

Regardless of their constant struggles, it was nonetheless shocking when the Caps missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They ended their season with a combined record of 38-30-14, as well as a goal differential of minus-five.

The one and only plus side to their 2013-14 season was their always-feared power play. Washington finished the year first in power play goals with 68 and tied for first with a 23.4% success rate. Unfortunately, their power play alone will not have the strength to carry them to the playoffs this upcoming year and cannot be relied upon if they hope to find the consistent success they’ve been desperately searching for.

2014-15 Washington Capitals

Offseason Changes

Team owner Ted Leonsis kicked off the summer with a bang when he made the decision to fire Oates along with 17-year general manager George McPhee.

After careful examination and much deliberation, Leonsis, with the help of team president Dick Patrick, hired former Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz and promoted assistant general manager Brian MacLellan to the full-time GM position. After officially being given the reigns in Washington, Trotz went on to hire ex-Predators assistant Lane Lambert, ex-Penguins assistant Todd Reirden, and ex-Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn.

To say the least, it was a blatant, deliberate wakeup call for the Capitals. Leonsis believes in his players, but it will be those very same players being shipped out of D.C. at the end of this season if the team fails to perform once again.

After the coaching staff was finalized, the free agent market opened up as it always does on July 1. It was clear that the Caps were searching to improve their team in the areas they suffered from most last year, and that’s exactly what MacLellan attempted to do when he shelled out two massive contracts to two former Penguins blue liners. Matt Niskanen was signed to a seven-year, $40.25 million contract while fellow teammate Brooks Orpik was handed a five-year, $27.5 million deal as well.

Regardless of whether or not the terms and salaries were justified, the addition of Niskanen and Orpik make Washington a deeper team on the back end. In previous years, subpar defensemen such as Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, along with multiple greenhorn rookies, were forced into starting positions that they weren’t qualified to handle. Like it or not, the core is stronger than it has been in quite awhile.

As far as goaltending goes, Braden Holtby has been given the No 1. starter’s job for the Capitals. There was a lot of talk amongst management that the team may have possibly wanted to sign a veteran netminder during free agency to compete against Holtby for the spot between the pipes this season. Ultimately, those rumors did not come to fruition, as MacLellan eventually signed former Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters as the assumed backup to Holtby for the 2014-15 campaign.

This could not have been a more intelligent move by the Caps, as Holtby will finally have the chance to take ownership of the net without any form of doubt in his mind. The three-headed goalie monster that haunted Washington last year was an unhealthy environment for all goaltenders involved. The season was split between Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Michal Neuvirth, and trade deadline acquisition Jaroslav Halak. Oates did not give full confidence to any one specific player and the entire team suffered as a result.

In addition to trading away Neuvirth to Buffalo at the deadline, the Capitals also lost Halak, center Mikhail Grabovski, winger Dustin Penner, and defenseman Tyson Strachan as the offseason progressed.

2014-15 Lineup Projections:

The following is a projected lineup for the 2014-15 Washington Capitals. It is entirely opinion-based as a number of players could potentially be swapped for one another.

Disclaimer: As not to start an uproar over Alex Ovechkin’s projected position on the left wing, head coach Barry Trotz has publicly stated that he plans to go in that direction:

 “There’s no question,” said Trotz after the team’s first afternoon session of rookie camp. “I want him to develop to play both sides. He did. We’re going to go into camp, I’m going to say I’d be leaning more to left than right.” (CSN Washington)

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Marcus Johansson
Brooks Laich – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera – Eric Fehr – Joel Ward
Jay Beagle – Andre Burakovsky – Tom Wilson

 (Michael Latta, Aaron Volpatti)

Brooks Orpik – John Carlson
Karl Alzner – Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov – Mike Green

(Jack Hillen, John Erskine)

Braden Holtby
Justin Peters

(Philipp Grubauer)

Players to Watch:

Braden Holtby: Following a less than stellar 2013-14 season between the pipes, Holtby has been at the center of much criticism as fans and analysts alike claim that he is not cut out to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. They say he’s a young guy who had a fantastic couple of playoff performances but has since “fizzled out.” They say he’s inconsistent, that he can’t be relied on to make the big saves, that he can’t handle the pressure. However, when you take Holtby’s situation over the last few years into account, it’s entirely unfair.

It’s true. Last season was an extremely tough one for the 24-year-old Saskatchewan native. He finished with an overall record of 23-15-4 along with four shutouts to his name. His save percentage and goals-against-average sat at .915 and 2.85 respectively. While the hockey universe may look at those numbers and say Holtby was to blame completely, those close to the Capitals organization know that isn’t the case.

The defensive play of Washington last season was their absolute worst over the last handful of years. On a nightly basis, defensemen were seen constantly setting their netminders up for failure due to poor tracking and awful zone coverage that led to multiple odd-man breaks as well as one-on-ones with the goalie.

Unfortunately, Holtby was the one who became victimized the most, as he was undeservingly pulled from numerous games in the first period solely because of the fact that the team in front of him never decided to show up. In November, he started 12 of the Caps’ 15 total games and finished the month with a record of 8-3-1 paired with a .933 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against-average. To his surprise, Adam Oates decided to relegate him to the backup slot as newcomer Philipp Grubauer was confusingly given the starting job. At one point in the season, Holtby only made four starts in a span of 18 games.

Despite these numerous mental hurdles, he finished eighth in the NHL in even-strength save percentage among goalies who appeared in at least 35 games with a .928. With a full season playing behind a tighter, more structured defensive core in his horizon, don’t be so eager to write off Braden Holtby.

Matt Niskanen: Coming off a career year in Pittsburgh where he managed to put up 10 goals and 36 assists while maintaining a plus-33 rating, Matt Niskanen will be highly motivated to show critics that his breakout season with the Penguins was no fluke. Receiving the huge contract that he did this summer, he knows he will have to earn it.

As an incredible puck-moving skater with a ton of offensive ability, Niskanen will be looked upon to provide the Capitals with the back-end production they have been critically lacking in years past. While many aren’t convinced of his true offensive potential, citing that his success last year was solely due to the wide array of talent that surrounded him in Pittsburgh, Washington isn’t a bad place to be in terms of offensive upside.

Niskanen will be getting top-four minutes and will most likely end up on the point for the team’s top power play line. With Mike Green plagued by injuries and Carlson not quite the offensive commander the Caps looked to him to be, Niskanen will have the opportunity to feast alongside superstar sniper and power play specialist Alex Ovechkin and silky-smooth Swedish playmaker Nicklas Backstrom. It’s unclear whether or not he will have himself another 45+-point season, but regardless, Niskanen will not be one to make Washington look stupid once October finally rolls around.

Evgeny Kuznetsov: After being selected 26th overall in the first round of the 2010 Entry Draft by the Capitals, Russian center Evgeny Kuznetsov finally booked a flight to D.C. and made his debut in the NHL. He spent most of last season playing for his hometown team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, in the Kontinental Hockey League. In 31 games played overseas, he recorded 8 goals and 21 points. While he only appeared in 17 regular-season games for the Caps last year, registering three goals and six assists, the offensive skills that he put on display were quite impressive for a 22-year-old who had not yet had a chance to adjust his game to the North American style.

Kuznetsov is an electric player with equal playmaking and finishing abilities. He has the coveted versatility to play all three forward positions, as well as the talent and vision to work the half-wall on the power play. Since the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, he has put on 15 pounds and is working hard on strengthening his core. If he manages to find ways to excel along the boards this year, which has undeniably been his biggest weakness, Washington should have no concerns about the future progression of their young prospect.

Next Thursday, the team’s full training camp kicks off. Kuznetsov will then begin to fight experienced players for the second-line center role behind Backstrom. With the amount of pure hockey skill that he possesses, there’s no doubt that he will inevitably suit up at that position once the season begins on October 9. Look for him to be the frontrunner alongside Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin for the Calder Memorial Trophy.

On the Rise:

Joel Ward: What can you really say about the type of year Joel Ward had this past season? The 6-foot-1, 226-pound Ontario native had a hugely successful 2013-14 campaign where his 24 goals and 25 assists marked a career year.

At even strength, Ward’s third line partnered with Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr was arguably the true top forward trio for the Capitals. They were the only line to play a consistent, hardworking style each and every game without deviation, and Ward was the anchor that allowed that to happen. He can play in all situations on the ice. He drives five-on-five play, is a regular penalty killer, and has the ability to slot into Troy Brouwer’s net-front position on the team’s 1-3-1 power play setup.

Prior to last year, his regular-season record for total points sat at 35, which he achieved during his 2008-09 season with Nashville. While only averaging 16:04 of ice time per game, Ward finished just one point shy of hitting the 50-point mark but was also able to convincingly surpass the 40-point mark for the first time in his career. He also exceeded the 20-goal mark for the first time and finished third in goals among Caps players, one behind Brouwer’s 25. Additionally, Ward finished third in points as well (49) and led the team in plus-minus (+7), shorthanded goals (2), and shooting percentage (18%).

To cap off his most productive season to date, he was also invited to join Team Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championships in Belarus. He eventually went on to lead the team offensively with 6 goals and 9 total points in seven games played in the tournament. It doesn’t look like Ward is ready to slow up anytime soon. Expect him to hit the 50-point mark this season and with more ice time, possibly even reach 30 goals.

On the Decline: 

Brooks Orpik: It’s best to get this out of the way right off the bat. It’s truly no secret that Orpik was given an outrageous contract by general manager Brian MacLellan this offseason. The 33-year-old veteran blue liner will be getting paid $5.5 million for this year, yet he did nothing in Pittsburgh to justify a raise from his previous $3.75 million. Couple that mistake with another as Orpik is set to be locked up in Washington for the next five seasons. There’s no avoiding the obvious. The Caps have a recipe for imminent disaster as the years pass by.

His two goals and 11 assists last year sure weren’t anything impressive on an offensive level and the shutdown ability he once had years ago simply isn’t up to par at this stage in his career. He’s an aging defenseman who stills brings a heavy, physical presence to the back end, but his body is not cut out for what the Capitals expect him to do over the next five years.

After suffering numerous knee injuries over the past few seasons, Orpik’s skating ability is slowly but steadily declining. In a league as fast as the NHL, a defenseman’s skating has to be their greatest asset if they wish to succeed. For Orpik, it will be a challenge to keep up with the top offensive stars of today’s game if he’s thrown into a first-pair role. It seems that a second-pair slot would benefit him more on a number of levels, including reduced responsibility as well as dependability. Washington cannot rely on him to shutdown the Crosbys, Getzlafs, and Stamkoses of the league on a regular basis. If they try to, positive results will not follow.

Mike Green: Yet another defenseman who seems to have put his better years behind him, Green has been the sole passenger of a one-way rollercoaster fixed on a downward spiral. Over the last four seasons, he’s struggled immensely with groin injuries as well as concussions that have seemed to alter the once-offensive dynamo he used to be known as.

Starting in 2008 following his first full season in the NHL, Green strung together three years of phenomenal productivity with the Capitals putting up 56, 73, and 76 points respectively. Since then, it’s as clear as day that the Norris-nominated Mike Green of old is long gone. It’s a sad statement to make but a true one all the same.

Over the course of the previous season, he missed 12 games due to injury, was demoted to the team’s second-line power play unit, and finished with a minus-16 rating. He did produce nine goals and 38 points, but that isn’t nearly enough when taking into consideration the kind of offensive game Green had the ability to play at earlier points in his eight-season career.

During the offseason this summer, his name was even brought up on multiple occasions involving possible trades with a number of teams, Detroit being the most active potential destination. Despite the fact that Trotz and MacLellan still consider Green to be a crucial piece of Washington’s defensive future, with the new additions of Orpik and Niskanen, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he’ll be bumped down to the third paring this year. Every Capitals fan is hoping Green will somehow remain healthy and find his scoring touch again, but the realistic likelihood of that occurring this year is slim at best.

Brooks Laich: There’s nothing to be optimistic about this upcoming season as it pertains to 31-year-old forward Brooks Laich. After only missing four games over the course of a five-year span from 2008 to 2012, the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has only appeared in 60 games over the last two seasons for the Capitals. During the 2012-13 NHL lockout, Laich traveled overseas to play for the Kloten Flyers of Switzerland’s National League A. He would ultimately suffer a devastating groin injury that would haunt him for the next two years and keep him out of the lineup on a consistent basis.

As the pain continued to linger on even after a number of various treatments, Laich made the tough decision to undergo sports hernia surgery in a last-ditch effort to finally solve his lasting, persistent health issues. Although he is currently training normally and claims to feel “fantastic” in every which way, there’s no telling whether or not he will be 100 percent once he experiences the true physicality of regular-season action. He’s a player that arguably should have been released with Washington’s final remaining buyout during the offseason but for one reason or another wasn’t.

He scored eight goals paired with seven assists for a total of 15 points in 51 games played and was a minus-seven last year. Putting aside whatever leadership qualities or locker room presence Laich may bring to the team, $4.5 million is far too much salary to be wasting away on a player who may not even pull on a jersey for the majority of the season.

2014-15 Season Expectations:

The Washington Capitals claim that they will be a brand-new team, one with structure, discipline, and accountability present at all times. “Rocket” Richard Trophy-winner Ovechkin, the face of the franchise who amassed 51 goals and 79 points while also taking ownership of a minus-35 rating last year, commented on the changes that took place this summer:

“Responsibility [is] on us, [it] is always on us,” said Ovechkin. “Coaches, trainers, the head guy [owner Ted Leonsis] give us a wake-up call, say, ‘listen, you have to do something, you guys have to win or you guys going to be next.’ I’m pretty sure this organization and the fans [are] tired [of] losing and not show exactly what we can do. That’s why we made the changes.”

 He’s right. It is on them. When it comes down to it, it’s always on the players. They’re the ones performing on the ice, they’re the ones who have to execute the game plan, and they’re the ones who have to find ways to win.

This season will mark the 40th anniversary of the Capitals organization in the NHL. They have the highly sought-after opportunity to host this year’s Bridgestone Winter Classic. They have a new coaching staff, a new GM, and a new group of faces to hit the ice with this fall. If they’re to ever have a breakout season, this would be the time to put their heads down and work harder than they ever have before.

Surprise the hockey universe. Prove the doubters wrong. It all starts October 9th at the Verizon Center when the Montreal Canadiens come to town. Will Ovechkin and company be up to the task this year? We’ll all find out in less than a month’s time.


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