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After bumpy season, Caps look for smoother ride

by Corey Masisak

The ambition in Washington remains the same, but for the first time in several seasons when prognosticators compile a list of Stanley Cup contenders, the Capitals are not likely to be near the top.

There are enough questions about the Capitals that despite five straight postseason appearances, there are likely to be several NHL teams considered better bets to claim the Stanley Cup in 2013. But if Washington can find enough answers, the Capitals just might squeeze their way back into the League's elite.

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One offseason ago Washington general manager George McPhee was feted for his alterations, adding Tomas Vokoun, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern to a club that had just finished back-to-back regular seasons atop the Eastern Conference.

A turbulent campaign followed, as the Capitals failed to win the Southeast Division title for the first time in five years. Some of the enthusiasm from upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champion in the first round was stunted by the Capitals' passive style of play, and coach Dale Hunter's decision to limit playing time for stars Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

While Hunter's way kept the Capitals competitive, ultimately the same lucky bounce that helped them defeat the Boston Bruins was part of their undoing in Game 7 against the New York Rangers, and another season without Washington in the second half of the NHL's postseason came and went.

The narrative in Washington during the past five years has always seemed to revolve around the process instead of the results. Bruce Boudreau's Capitals were a revelation, but were dismissed by some pundits for their overly offensive approach.

When they weren't able to solve the postseason puzzle (and inexplicably began the 2010-11 season in an offensive slump), the pressure to conform to a more traditional approach won out. The goals against in the past two seasons have receded, but so have the goals for.

Boudreau tried to change the Washington philosophy, then after he was fired Hunter arrived and pushed the Capitals in that direction even further. It seemed an uneasy alliance, as Washington's offensively gifted players tried to adhere to Hunter's expectations.

Shortly after the season ended, Hunter decided to return to southwestern Ontario and both of the family businesses -- the London Knights and the farm. One of his former teammates in Washington, Adam Oates, will replace him.

For the fifth time in McPhee's tenure, the GM hired a coach with no experience at the position in the NHL. Oates is an interesting case, though, with no prior head coaching experience at any major level. Boudreau earned a reputation as an aggressive, offense-oriented coach during his years in the minors. The expectation when Hunter arrived was his defense-first philosophy would be a stark change, and it proved to be.

Oates has been an assistant coach in the NHL for three seasons, in 2011-12 for the New Jersey Devils. His reputation behind the bench has yet to really be formed. Given all of the attention to Washington's style of play in recent seasons, a fresh start might be the best thing for the Capitals.

"When you look at the Finals this year, you saw two teams that were basically in-your-face teams, all over the ice," Oates said of the Devils and Los Angeles Kings. "I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it. I look at the Caps lineup and the talent level and I don't see any reason why we can't push the pace and be an aggressive team but at the same time not sacrificing defense. It requires commitment all over the ice."


Additions: C Mike Ribeiro, LW Wojtek Wolski, RW Joey Crabb, D Jack Hillen, C Ryan Stoa

Subtractions: RW Alexander Semin, G Tomas Vokoun, D Dennis Wideman, C Jeff Halpern, C Cody Eakin

UFAs: RW Mike Knuble

Promotion candidates: D Tomas Kundratek, D Cameron Schilling, LW Stanislav Galiev

There is still plenty of talent for Oates to work with. Alexander Semin signed with the division rival Carolina Hurricanes, but the Capitals added Mike Ribeiro in a trade on the first day of the NHL Draft in June. Other stalwarts Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green remain, while a second wave of young players Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Braden Holtby have moved into prominent roles.

Ribeiro is McPhee's lone marquee addition of this offseason, though there is plenty of salary cap space for another if he chooses. Veterans Tomas Vokoun, Dennis Wideman, Mike Knuble and Halpern will not return.

Holtby and Michal Neuvirth will handle the goaltending, and each has led the club into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in one of the past two seasons. Dmitry Orlov was a regular as a rookie for much of last season before falling out of favor for Hunter's staff, but he's expected to replace Wideman, with free agent Jack Hillen added for defensive depth.

The big questions are up front, where the Capitals need to replace Semin and, to a lesser extent, Knuble. They also need more from Ovechkin, and better health for Backstrom and Green.

When training camp begins, the focus will almost certainly be on how Oates expects his club to play, and his relationship with Ovechkin, the two-time League MVP who has had the two lowest goal and point totals of his career in the past two seasons.

Other teams in the Southeast, particularly Carolina and the Tampa Bay Lightning, could be much-improved this season, but expectations in Washington will be to secure a fifth division title in six years.

Should Oates be able to find some sort of middle ground between the firewagon days at the beginning of the Boudreau era and the more passive play from last spring, he might be the guy who helps the Capitals to their first significant postseason success since he was a center on the 1997-98 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final.

"Our philosophy has been to go in there and to try to find the difference makers, try to find the players with the most upside and really swing for the fences," McPhee said when Oates was hired. "And that's what we tried to do here. We believe Adam Oates has the most upside and can be a real difference maker."

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter at: @cmasisak22

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