NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The ending felt all too familiar in 2012-13 for the Washington Capitals, but the journey to that point was a little different than most seasons in this recent era.
Washington won the final edition of the Southeast Division, securing a fifth division title in six years. The Capitals also lost to a lower-seeded team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, and were on the wrong end of a decisive Game 7 at Verizon Center for the fourth time since 2008.
The Capitals began the season with a new coach and the early returns were nearly disastrous. A second-half surge pushed Washington to the top of the division and Alex Ovechkin to a third Hart Trophy. A 15-2-2 run to end the season offered a glimpse of what the Capitals could be with Adam Oates in charge, but the first-round exit, which included a 5-0 drubbing in Game 7, left familiar feelings of frustration lingering through the offseason.
"There are lots of explanations for it, whether it was the new coaching staff or no time to prepare, but the bottom line is we didn't start very well. In a short season, it is not easy to turn it around and it took us a while to turn it around and we were terrific down the stretch," general manager George McPhee said. "It was a different kind of year in that respect."
It was a quiet offseason in Washington until McPhee nabbed Mikhail Grabovski on a one-year, $3 million contract last month. He is expected to fill a hole left by the departed Mike Ribeiro, and combined with a full season from deadline addition Martin Erat and a healthy season for Brooks Laich, the Capitals again look like a formidable foe in the Eastern Conference.
Ovechkin scored 23 goals in the final 23 games of the season and that, combined with an injury keeping Sidney Crosby out for the final 12 games, led to his third MVP trophy in six years. His season did not start well but eventually the move to right wing clicked, and the combination of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom again became one of the most potent in hockey.
His season did not end well, though. Ovechkin did not register a point in Washington's final five postseason games, and his two points in the series loss against the New York Rangers was easily the lowest output of his career in a playoff series.
Ovechkin's fantastic finish to the regular season began when he and Backstrom were reunited on the team's top line. Debating which player is the catalyst for the other can devolve into a chicken-or-the-egg argument at times, but Ovechkin and Backstrom can make magic together.
An interesting wrinkle last season was the new third member of their line. Marcus Johansson is one of several guys who have tried to nail down the No. 2 job at center behind Backstrom in the past and not been able to. But he clicked on the left side of the top line in 2012-13, collecting 20 points in those final 23 games.
"We still like him as a center a lot, but trying to find the right person for that line is not easy," McPhee said. "You want someone who has speed and can finish. Right now he plays real well there, and maybe that's a line combination that we keep together going forward."
While the top line is set, the next three are a pretty fluid situation at the moment. The pieces available to Oates are talented and the combinations are intriguing, but how they all fit together hinges on a few factors.
First and foremost is Laich's health. He's been bothered by a hip flexor during camp, which comes on the heels of a lost season because of a groin injury.
The second issue is 19-year-old Tom Wilson. If he sticks with the Capitals, it could lead to a ripple effect. If he goes back to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, the picture looks a little clearer.
A third wrinkle is who will land the No. 3 center spot behind Backstrom and Grabovski.
Oates has experimented with Eric Fehr and Martin Erat at center, and then there are Laich and Mathieu Perreault. Wilson, Fehr and Troy Brouwer are all right wings who could end up on the second or third line. Laich, Grabovski and Jason Chimera are all potential left wings for the second or third line. When everyone is healthy, Chimera and Joel Ward seem likely to be the wings on the fourth line with either Perreault or Jay Beagle in the middle.
There could be a lot of different combinations in the early part of the season. Another fascinating twist could come near the end of the season.
McPhee said prior to the start of training camp he hopes Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team's top prospect and one of the best players in the world not in the NHL, will join the club after his season with Traktor Chelyabinck of the Kontinental Hockey League ends. Kuznetsov's skill is tantalizing, but how much of an impact he'd make is part of the mystery with him.
Mike Green led all NHL defensemen in goals for the third time in six seasons, but still missed a chunk of the season because of injury. He will pair with Karl Alzner, who has developed into one of the top defense-first rearguards in the League.
John Carlson is Washington's best all-around defenseman, a force at both ends of the ice and a strong candidate for the United States Olympic team. He also skates on the second pairing, though he still logs a lot of minutes.
John Erskine secured the spot beside Carlson last season and Oates has said on multiple occasions that it is his job again in 2013-14. Erskine exudes a physical element that most other members of the defense corps lack, but whether he can handle a top-four role for a full NHL season remains to be seen.
Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy are likely to start as the third pairing. Oleksy was a journeyman until he started the season well with Hershey in the American Hockey League and then established himself as a regular on Washington's blue line. Tyson Strachan was a low-cost free-agent signing and should be the team's extra defenseman.
Holtby had a strong season after a rough start, finishing with a .920 save percentage. Despite the Capitals' meltdown in Game 7 against the Rangers, he still has a .931 save percentage in 21 career Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Michal Neuvirth is a capable backup who still fancies himself as someone who could win the job back again. He was the team's starter during the 2011 playoffs after spending the prior couple of seasons battling for playing time with Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov.
Should either of them get hurt, Philipp Grubauer is the next homegrown talent in Washington's goalie assembly line and could see some NHL action if needed.
"We think we've developed [Holtby] properly," McPhee said. "We've taken our time. We think he can really have a big year for us. Michal Neuvirth is also one of the most talented goaltenders in the League. He plays almost perfect technically, and we think he can have a good year as well. We've got a couple of good ones in Hershey in case one of them gets banged up. It is a position that's as stable as it's been in a long time."
OUT: Joey Crabb, RW (free agent, Panthers); Matt Hendricks, C (free agent, Predators); Tom Poti, D (free agent); Mike Ribeiro, C (free agent, Coyotes); Jeff Schultz, D (free agent, Kings); Wojtek Wolski, LW (free agent, Torpedo, KHL)
Jack Hillen - Steven Oleksy
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