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NHL’s 30 in 30: Washington Capitals

For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top. Today’s team: The Washington Capitals. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.

NHL’s 30 in 30: Washington Capitals

Finishing 9th overall, the Washington Capitals posted a record of 45-26-11 to end up with 101 points, placing them in second place in the Metropolitan division and just three points ahead of the wild card Pittsburgh Penguins. Their home record (23-13-5) accumulated for 51 points. Their away record (22-13-6) was just enough to earn them the points needed to make the dance. Under the new head coach and a new philosophy, the Capitals became a legitimate threat once again, finishing second in the Metropolitan division.

The 2014-15 Regular Season

In his first season as general manager, Brian MacLellan put his focus on bolstering the blueline and ensuring that his team’s weakness was no longer on defense. Perhaps his biggest hire in the off-season was the one made behind the bench, bringing aboard Head Coach Barry Trotz, who had recently been released by the Nashville Predators. With him, he brought a long track record of defensive-minded hockey, a philosophy that Nashville ditched in favor of Peter Laviolette’s high-octane offense, but in Washington it was heavily needed. The Capitals made it to the Conference Semifinals for the first time since the 2011-12 season, but similar to that campaign they were defeated by the New York Rangers in seven games.

Alexander Ovechkin continues to be the greatest goal-scoring player of our era. Of his 53 goals last season, 25 goals came on the man advantage and that’s no real surprise. The man likes to shoot and on the powerplay he has free reign to do so. He also had 11 game-winning goals and averaged 20:19 of ice-time. His linemate, Nicklas Backstrom, has blossomed into one of the premiere playmakers in the game. He does have the best scoring winger in the league on his flank and gets preferential treatment with offensive zone face-offs, but his defensive game is still great. Andre Burakovsky burst onto the scene at the age of 20 and had a tremendous start to the season. He found himself in and out of the line-up but when he played, he never looked out of place and finished the season with 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists) in 53 games.

Jason Chimera‘s role has lately been best served on the fourth line, as he can still play a physical game at the age of 36. His offensive production has dropped however, which makes him a liability in the top-six . Brooks Laich also found himself dropping down the depth chart. He can still play in a complimentary role, but his game at the age of 31 has regressed almost to the point of no return. Marcus Johansson played a decent game last season, but his inability to control the puck in heavy traffic and inconsistency to drive the play has made him more valuable in a complimentary role than on the top line. Sadly, the same can be said for Tom Wilson, the Capitals first-round draft pick in 2012. With only seven career goals and over 300 penalty minutes in two seasons, Wilson has basically become a fourth-liner at this point in his career. Luckily, he’s only 21 and still has untapped potential to work with.

A late first-round gem back in 2008, John Carlson has emerged as a legitimate number-one defenseman in the league. Of his 55 points, 38 came at even strength, which is impressive considering the Capitals had the best powerplay in the league last year. Matt Niskanen banked on a great season prior to last and provided a great service to the Capitals. His numbers dipped but he was still effective at moving the puck up the ice. The same can’t be said for the Capitals other signing, as Brooks Orpik had a relatively tough time adjusting. To be fair, he also received a great deal of defensive zone starts and played tough assignments.

Karl Alzner provided another element to the Capitals blueline. The 26-year-old defenseman not only hit, but finished with 165 blocked shots last season while averaging 19:25 of ice-time, while adding 21 points (5 goals, 16 assists) in 82 games and just 20 penalty minutes. Dmitry Orlov missed the entire 2014-15 season due to wrist injury, so it’s safe to say that if he’s healthy, he’ll be playing a significant role on the Capitals blue-line next season. Nate Schmidt provided some stability to the bottom pair but he suffered a broken collarbone during his time in the AHL, which cut his season short. A spot on the roster next year may be more permanent than last season.

In net, Braden Holtby was a man on a mission last season, playing more games and more minutes than any other goaltender in the NHL last season. Unsurprisingly, no goalie faced more shots or made more saves than he did, and his 41 wins and nine shutouts were good enough for second among all netminders, yet not enough to earn him a Vezina nomination. At the age of 25, he’s just hitting his peak and still has many years of greatness to give. What he’ll need is a quality back-up to cut the work load a bit, and that will come to a decision between Philipp Grubauer and Justin Peters. Grubuaer was recently signed to a two-year deal and with how poorly Peters played last season, he should have the upper hand over the latter.

The Off-Season and Free Agents

Heading into the off-season, the Capitals have a total of ten free agents to decide on. Of the ten free agents, just three of them are restricted to the team, including forwards Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and goaltender Braden Holtby. Forwards Joel Ward, Curtis Glencross, Eric Fehr and Jay Beagle, and defensemen Mike Green, John Erskine and Tim Gleason are the upcoming unrestricted free agent. In terms of non-roster players, MacLellan will have to decide on five restricted free agents and seven unrestricted free agents.

The Capitals are committed to ten forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders for the upcoming season, which does not include Holtby for the time being. Considering the fact that both Johansson and Kuznetsov should be receiving new contracts, there won’t be too much room left to fight for on offense. If the price is right, MacLellan should put some thought into bringing Fehr back, especially after he exceeded expectations playing on the Capitals third line and being a big reason why that line was so dominant.

With about $20 million in cap space and their number-one goaltender expecting a nice contract to start next season, don’t expect too many large contracts handed out to defensemen on the free agent market. Instead, the Capitals could go an inexpensive route and replace unrestricted free agent Green with one of their prospects, such as Madison Bowey. The Capitals have a nice mix of youth and veteran depth so adding Bowey would not be harmful to his development, as he would play sheltered minutes on the bottom pairing with a veteran defenseman to hold his hand.

Considering both Peters and Grubauer are signed through at least next season, signing Holtby to another deal spells the end for one of the two back-up goaltenders. At this point the most they could expect for Peters is a late round pick, and they may end up settling for future considerations; he’s a below-average back-up that posted an AHL-caliber performance last season. In the long run the Capitals will benefit from icing a Holtby-Grubauer duo.

The Draft Table

It will be a rather bland draft for fans of the Washington Capitals, as the team possesses just five picks in seven rounds. Their second and third-round picks were sent to Calgary in the Curtis Glencross deal, and their seventh-round pick belongs to Winnipeg. They did receive Buffalo’s third-round pick however, acquired in the Michal Neuvirth/Jaroslav Halak trade. In all, the Capitals will select 22nd, 62nd, 113th, 143rd and 173rd.

While five picks may be a little short, the 22nd and 62nd picks can still bring in a few gems in what is considered to be a deep draft. While the idea is definitely there to trade the 22nd pick and move down, picking up a few 2nd-round picks in the process, we’ll have some fun and pick away at potential selections instead. A big body winger like Brock Boeser would add another threat offensively in the Caps line-up in a few years. Offensively, there isn’t too much to pick apart. He has a heavy, accurate shot and while he’s not the quickest skater, he’s stable on his skates and moves well. Defensively, he is just as good, using his stick properly to break up passing lanes and suffocate the neutral zone. If the Capitals want a big boy on defense, one of Thomas Chabot, Jakub Zboril or Noah Juulsen could be considered.

In the third round, MacLellan could have a choice of big wingers like Roope Hintz or Yakov Trenin, or else defensemen like 5’9 Sebastian Aho or Alexandre Carrier. It will have to be a case of organizational needs rather than best player available at that point and one of the Capitals biggest holes to fill in their prospect pool are on defense and left wing. If the Capitals take a forward in round one, picking up a defenseman or two in the following rounds would be essential. Vice versa if they go with a defenseman for the 22nd pick.

With the stage set, the Capitals will enter the season with a philosophy that the rest of the NHL now recognizes them. They can still score goals en masse, but the days of running it up against them are long gone. Defensively tight, the Capitals are perhaps a few depth players away on offense and defense from making a strong push towards a Stanley Cup Final appearance.

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