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Offense dominates Capitals' six questions

Monday, 08.06.2012 / 3:00 AM / 30 in 30

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Offense dominates Capitals' six questions
In two of the past three postseasons, offense has become the problem for the Washington Capitals and remains an uncertainty.

From the time coach Bruce Boudreau arrived in November 2008 until the 2010 playoffs, the Washington Capitals wowed with their offense while at times the defense and goaltending proved less than satisfactory.

In two of the past three postseasons, offense has become the problem for Washington. First it was goalie Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens' penalty-killers in 2010, then it was a wide-range of issues from player performance to team philosophy with new coach Dale Hunter in 2012, but as the Capitals’ ability to prevent goals has improved, they have struggled to score enough when it counts.

Much of the intrigue with the 2012-13 Capitals again, almost strangely, revolves around offense. Goalie Braden Holtby had a great postseason, and though both are still young, he and Michal Neuvirth should be a solid tandem. The defense could be better at helping the goalies in their own end with the subtraction of Dennis Wideman, the addition of Jack Hillen, and a return to regular playing time for Dmitry Orlov.

That leaves the offense, which is far from the certainty it once was in Washington, to dominate the six questions facing the Capitals entering this season:

1. Can Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green return to previous production levels?

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 38 | ASST: 27 | PTS: 65
SOG: 303 | +/-: -8
Washington’s “Young Guns” -- the three names listed plus Alexander Semin -- combined for 370 points in 2009-10. Ovechkin and Backstrom each passed 100, Semin scored 40 goals, and Green led all NHL defensemen in goals and points.

Ovechkin has slipped from 109 points that year to 85 in 2010-11 then 65 last season. Backstrom went from 101 to 65 to 44, though he was limited to 42 games last season because of a concussion. Green has played 81 games in the past two seasons because of multiple injuries, and has 31 points in those contests.

Semin is gone to the Carolina Hurricanes, with Mike Ribeiro arriving from the Dallas Stars in a trade to play on a line Backstrom doesn’t center. For Washington to become an elite offensive team again, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green need to stay healthy and produce at a level at least close to what they once did.

2. Who are the two wings in the top six besides Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer?

Backstrom and Ribeiro will center the top two lines, with Ovechkin and Brouwer as locks to be alongside them. The other two wings are far less certain.

Brooks Laich scored 69 goals in three years as the No. 2 left wing behind Ovechkin, but he has transitioned to center and the Capitals would like to leave him there to anchor the team’s No. 3 line. Ovechkin scored 38 goals last season, and with Semin gone, the second-highest returning total is Jason Chimera’s 20, which was three more than he had in any of his eight previous NHL seasons.

Chimera could be a top-six candidate, but like Laich is more of a fallback option at this point. A pair of players who never really nailed down the No. 2 center job, Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, could be the first to audition for the spots. Johansson had 14 goals and 46 points last season, and Perreault had 16 and 30 as each earned prime ice time when Backstrom was injured. Free agent Wojtek Wolski and prospect Stanislav Galiev are possibilities.

Another scoring wing or two looks like Washington’s biggest need on paper as the season approaches. If the internal candidates do not produce, the Capitals have salary-cap space for general manager George McPhee to add another top-six forward.

3. Enough about the forwards, what about the offense from the defense?

Washington entered the 2011-12 season with potentially the top set of offensive defensemen in the League. Green, Wideman and John Carlson all could be the No. 1 offensive option for some teams.

Green’s season was again derailed by injury, and he was not a factor offensively. Carlson scuffled at times during his sophomore season but looked like a top-pair defenseman again late in the season and during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Wideman made the All-Star team because of his offensive numbers, but slumped in the second half and was a mess in his own end in the postseason.

30 in 30: Washington Capitals

Caps look for smoother ride in 2012-13

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer
After years of run-and-gun hockey, the Capitals tried to get defensive. Now they'll aim to find some middle ground with new coach Adam Oates and return to the top of the Southeast Division.
READ MORE ›

The Capitals will replace Wideman with Orlov, who has some offensive potential but probably isn't at Carlson’s level. Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz aren’t going to fill up the scoresheet, but Green and Carlson could be among the top offensive tandems in the League.

It will be interesting to see how new coach Adam Oates deploys Green, Carlson and Orlov on the power play -- when Ovechkin was manning one point for nearly two minutes, that didn’t leave a lot of ice time to go around last season.

4. About that power play ... can Adam Oates revive it?

Three teams have converted at least 25 percent of its power plays in the past 15 years -- two of them were the Washington Capitals in 2008-09 and 2009-10 (the Detroit Red Wings in 2008-09 was the other). Power-play proficiency is down across the NHL the past two seasons, but Washington has finished tied for 15th and tied for 18th since leading the League in 2009-10.

Enter Oates, who was an assistant coach in charge of the power play for the New Jersey Devils. Granted, the Devils (at 14th) barely finished above the Capitals, but Oates didn’t have as much talent to work with (particularly from the defense and with forward Travis Zajac out most of the season).

Whatever Ovechkin’s relationship was with Boudreau at the end of his tenure or during Hunter’s brief regime, there is a good chance Oates could curry favor with his captain by showing him video of those 12 postseason power-play goals the Devils had in the first three playoff rounds (one in particular against the rival New York Rangers was majestic).

Ovechkin had at least 36 power-play points in his first five seasons before 24 and 23 in the past two. If Oates can boost the power play, that alone might be the difference between his first playoff game as an NHL coach being at home or on the road.

5. On that subject, is Oates ready to be a coach in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

It might be less of a certainty that Washington is a playoff team in 2012-13, but it will be expected. For a franchise that hasn’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals despite all its regular-season success in the past five seasons, hiring someone with no head coaching experience at any level is a curious move.

Oates was a great NHL player, and like Hunter starred in Washington, but he has three years of coaching experience at this level as an assistant and none as the lead guy. What’s more, neither of his assistants have head coaching experience.

Like Oates, Calle Johansson is one of the best players in franchise history, but his resume has one season, with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League in 2006-07, of coaching on it. He’s been working as an analyst for a Swedish television station.

Oates’ other assistant, Tim Hunter, has been in the NHL as an assistant coach for 13 years (including in Washington when Oates and Johansson were playing), but he’s never been a head coach.

McPhee’s track record is clear -- he’s not afraid to hire someone without NHL head coaching experience. In fact, each of the five coaches the GM has hired in D.C. has been a first-timer. But an entire staff having never been a head coach, at any level of professional hockey, could be risky even by his standards.

6. Will Braden Holtby keep the No. 1 job in net?

Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 4-2-1
GAA: 2.49 | SVP: 0.922
Holtby was a revelation in the postseason, showing poise and confidence far beyond what would be expected of a 22-year-old with 21 NHL games before the 2012 playoffs started. Washington played 13 games that were decided by one goal, and Holtby was fantastic throughout.

It seems obvious he would be the No. 1 goaltender as the 2012-13 season beckons, but assuming such would mean ignoring the past five years of history at the position in Washington. Simply put, the player who was the team’s No. 1 goaltender during the previous postseason has not held that same distinction by the time Game 1 of the next postseason arrived four years running.

Cristobal Huet left after 2008 as a free agent. Semyon Varlamov took the job from Jose Theodore during the 2009 playoffs, then gave it back in part because of injuries. Varlamov again grabbed the job during the 2010 playoffs only to see Neuvirth become Boudreau’s man for the 2011 postseason. Holtby wasn’t even on the roster for most of last season, and Tomas Vokoun was the team’s No. 1 when healthy. Holtby was thrust into the spotlight because Vokoun and Neuvirth were injured when the postseason began.

Since Olaf Kolzig ceded the No. 1 job to Huet near the end of the 2007-08 season, no one has kept the title for very long.

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter at: @cmasisak22

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