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30 in 30: Second-half surge raises Capitals questions

by Corey Masisak

For an organization that has built a roster it expects to contend for the Stanley Cup every year, the past couple seasons have been a little rocky compared to the previous four for the Washington Capitals.

There was a pair of coaching changes, but Adam Oates drew rave reviews from his players and his bosses in his first season and appears to have provided stability moving forward. The top stars on the team had dips in production but rebounded in a big way the second half of 2012-13.

The Capitals won a fifth division title in six seasons but lost another Game 7 on home ice. It was a quiet offseason, but given the way Washington played in the second half and the free-agent addition of Mikhail Grabovski, the Capitals expect to be back in the hunt for a high seed in the Eastern Conference and another chance to finally break through in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Here are six questions for the Capitals to answer if they are going to have that chance:

1. Which half of last season is a better representation of where the Capitals are at? -- The Capitals finished the first half with a pair of lopsided losses at home to the New York Islanders and New York Rangers. At that point the Capitals were 10-13-1, an improvement after a 2-8-1 start.

They lost three of five to start the second half but finished with a 15-2-2 run and rallied from nine points down to win the Southeast Division. The schedule softened, their top players got hot, other teams in the division faltered; all of it combined for a remarkable surge.

"I was really delighted with the way we got playing because then you could see all of the things we had planned for and hoped for were real," general manager George McPhee told "It was happening for us. We felt like we had a good hockey team and it became a good hockey team."

Washington is moving to a tougher division (the new Metropolitan) but will open training camp with a better roster than it had in January. The Capitals will have their first full training camp with Oates, and there could be a built-in, impact, late-season addition (more on that later).

The Capitals performed at a 71-point pace in the first half of 2012-13 and at a 123-point clip in the second half. The middle is a 99-point team, and somewhere slightly higher than that might be the right range for this season.

2. Can the remaining "Young Guns" repeat their 2012-13 success? -- After two consecutive seasons of diminishing returns, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green each rebounded in a big way in 2012-13.

Ovechkin won his third Hart Trophy, Backstrom finished third in the League in assists, and Green led defensemen in goals for the fourth time in six seasons. Alexander Semin is no longer around, but the other three the team once marketed as "Young Guns" are all grown up and were back among the best at their position.

This Washington team could be better defensively and have more consistent goaltending than some of the high-flying editions from a few years ago. If Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom remain among the elite offensive producers, this group of Capitals won't need a late-season surge just to get into the playoffs.

3. Who is the fourth defenseman? -- Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner are a strong top three. The problem for the Capitals last season was the chasm between them and the bottom three, regardless of who was in the lineup.

There are several candidates to earn the No. 4 role, which likely means playing in a pair with Carlson. John Erskine was there a lot last season. Dmitry Orlov had injury issues but has the most upside. Another possibility is Jack Hillen, who missed about half the season because of injury but was around for the big run to the finish.

"It might be right under our nose," McPhee said. "We've got some young guys we're committed to playing. Orlov needs to play, and Jack Hillen thinks he can be a top-four guy this year; he played very well for us last year. We've got young players there because we've built up the depth in our organization again, whether it is [Cameron] Schilling or [Nate] Schmidt or Orlov. It is time to take a look."

Brooks Laich
Brooks Laich - Career
Center - WSH
Goals: 117 | Assists: 165 | Pts: 282
Shots: 1,177 | +/-: 8
4. Who is the No. 3 center? -- Backstrom and Grabovski are set in the middle of the top two lines, and there are options for No. 3. The most likely candidates are Mathieu Perreault and Brooks Laich, but which one it is might be decided by someone else.

That would be Tom Wilson, the 16th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft who could force his way onto the team with a strong training camp.

"We really like him. The issue this year will be, what's right for him?" McPhee said. "That's different than what's right for the Washington Capitals. If he's ready to play, we're going to play him. If we think he could use another year of junior, that's where he's going to play. We'll watch him closely during camp."

If Wilson makes the team, he probably will slot in as one of the wings for the third line. Laich will be on that line, either as a wing or the center. Eric Fehr is likely to be there too, so Wilson's arrival could push Perrault down the depth chart.

"I'm trying to take the next step," Wilson said. "I've played and I just want to be more permanent, work as hard as I can and make it tough for them to send me away."

5. Will the power play regress? -- The short answer to this is probably, yes it will. That could be misleading because the Capitals finished the 2012-13 season with a power-play proficiency rate of 26.8 percent. Not only was that tops in the NHL, it was the best figure in more than a decade.

Over the course of a full season, it will tougher to replicate that prowess. Oates earned a reputation as a power-play technician before he got the Washington job, so it won't be a surprise if the Capitals remain an elite team with the extra man. A healthy Martin Erat and Grabovski should make up for the departure of Mike Ribeiro, who signed with the Phoenix Coyotes.

"We would love it to be there again, but who knows?" McPhee said. "I think we'll always have a good power play, but in a short season that's a pretty high percentage. We expect that we will be at least a top 10 team on the power play and hopefully in the top five. Percentages are nice, but it really comes down to having a power play that scores you a goal when you need it."

6. Is there an end in sight to the Evgeny Kuznetsov saga? -- Kuznetsov is one of the best players in the world who won't be at an NHL training camp. He was Washington's first-round pick in 2010 (No. 26), and the Capitals want the center in their lineup as soon as possible.

They thought it was going to be two years after they drafted him, but this will be season No. 4 for Kuznetsov in the Kontinental Hockey League since then. His KHL contract is up at the end of its season and that could mean it's time for him to come to North America.

The 21-year-old is a dynamic offensive player. The Capitals have a deep group of forwards, but they will make room for him when he's ready.

"He's indicated to us that he's definitely coming over, so we do see a light at the end of the tunnel, and he indicated that as recently as two weeks ago," McPhee said. "We're hoping we see him late this season and that he is as good as advertised."


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