NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The Washington Capitals were back on top of the Southeast Division after a one-year hiatus, and the team's stars were healthy and productive again. There are questions, from debating the strength of the opponents the Capitals ripped through to reach the postseason to another playoff failure, but the base from which Washington builds from appears to be back intact.
There also are questions about where everyone fits in the lineup, but the collection of talent alone should make the Capitals playoff contenders again. Reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs no longer is a given considering the new division and new playoff format, but should Washington qualify again, the questions about past performance can wait.
For now, here are a few notable things to watch as the Capitals strive for a seventh straight berth in the playoffs:
1. How big of a difference will a full training camp make? -- Adam Oates became the team's third coach in a year, but then had less than a week to implement his complex ideas. The Capitals started slow, but figured things out and roared to a 15-2-2 finish.
Now the team has had 55 games (counting the playoffs) and a full training camp to grasp everything Oates has tried to implement. Oates has tendencies -- he's big on lefty-righty defense partnerships -- but he also has some relatively unique ideas.
He's clearly more statistics-friendly than some NHL coaches, and his attention to detail has earned plenty of praise. In short, if general manager George McPhee was looking for someone to provide a happy medium between the strengths and weaknesses of Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter, he may very well have found that guy.
2. Will Mikhail Grabovski be the steal of the summer? -- "Why hasn't anyone signed Mikhail Grabovski yet?" was a recurring theme of the offseason, until the Capitals scooped him up on a one-year, $3 million contract. Grabovski excels at puck possession and produced plenty of points prior to last season when Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle altered the way the center was deployed.
Grabovski likely will center Washington's second line. While his linemates at this point aren't set, Grabovski should supplement the offense provided by the first line and also see plenty of ice time with Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green on the top power-play unit.
The recruitment and signing of Grabovski was another hint at the strengths of Oates as well.
"I think Adam can really relate to him because he played the position and was an offensive player," McPhee said. "I think it is important for a player in a lot of respects to be able to talk to the coach more than the manager because the coach is the one who is deciding how much ice time he gets. I think [Grabovski] walked out of the meeting saying, 'This is a guy I'd like to play for.' I think Adam has had that effect on a lot of our players."
3. How much will the Capitals miss the Southeast Division? -- This more than likely is going to be a big narrative for Washington during the 2013-14 season. If the Capitals struggle in the early part of the season, expect to see plenty of "see what happens when they're not in the Southeast Division" stories.
Not being in the same division as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets is not the biggest reason why it will be tougher to make the playoffs for the Capitals in the long term, but adding teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, plus the three New York-area clubs, does make the task look more difficult in 2013-14.
"I've been reading about it online and hearing what people have to say," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It's going to be a huge change, very tough for us, but at the same time maybe keep us a little more prepared and know what to expect coming into playoffs. I think it'll be fun. I think it's going to keep the team really honest for 82 games."
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