Depending on the division of the team that one follows, the NHL realignment taking place starting in the 2013-2014 season is a change for the better for the most part. With two fewer divisions and more teams filling up each respective grouping, the NHL appears to have taken the necessary steps to prevent winners of weak divisions from coasting toward the playoffs and garnering a top-3 seed, despite collecting fewer points over the course of the season. While there are a few moves that drew the ire of hockey purists, such as moving the Detroit Red Wings to the Eastern Conference, the NHL seems as if they are putting a major premium on high-level, regular season competition throughout all 82 games. Coming off the negative outcry from the lockout that shortened the 2013 season, the NHL looks as if they are putting that negativity behind them. In fact, with two divisions consisting of eight teams compared to nine, the league has left the door open for further expansion and additional teams.
One of the few negatives of the realignment, albeit in a cosmetic vain, would be the naming of the division that the Philadelphia Flyers were put in: The Metropolitan Division. Considering most of the teams in the division were former members of the Atlantic Division (which now consists of a chunk of the former Northeast Division), the name change seems trivial and worthy of all joking and prodding toward the NHL. Despite the name, the Flyers’ division is loaded with talent, history, rivalries (new & old), and most importantly nine teams who all feel as if they belong in the 2013-2014 playoffs. Of the nine teams: Philadelphia, Washington, Columbus, Carolina, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Columbus; only the Devils and Hurricanes finished with a sub-.500 record.
With the layout of the new league, the top three teams in each division automatically make the playoffs. The remaining four playoff spots (two in each conference) will be filled by the leading point-getters, regardless of divisions. The new format puts a major premium on trying to record points every game and, with the increased games played against more division members, competition level should trend upward quickly.
While there are a few familiar faces in the division that will be previewed down the road, I thought the best place to start would be a newcomer to the division, but a team the Flyers have maintained a rivalry with through the last NHL realignment: The Washington Capitals. At the tail-end of the first decade of the 2000s (not sure what it’s called), the Capitals entered every season as the Stanley Cup favorite. They obliterated scoring records, won regular season awards, President’s Trophies, and put themselves in a position every year to make a serious run at the cup. In fact, it was after a thrilling seven-game series loss to the Flyers in the 2008 playoffs, that analysts and experts alike anointed the Caps as the most promising young team in hockey.
Fast-forward half a decade and the Caps have yet to get past the second round of the playoffs. After an epic bow-out at the hands of the future Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who knocked off the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Caps have found new ways to exit the postseason scratching their heads every year. As the top seed in 2010, Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens came back from a 3-1 deficit to stun Washington on their home ice before falling to the Flyers in the Conference Finals. The Capitals fell to their then-division mate Tampa Bay Lightning the following year, and have fallen victim to the New York Rangers each of the past two postseasons.
Despite their struggles and a few minor tweaks here and there, the same Capitals team, with the exception of Alex Semin, is still searching for the run that puts them over the top. Owner Ted Leonsis has put together a winning product in a town whose fickleness with their sports teams has been well documented. The Verizon Center is one of the more electric atmospheres in hockey and their fan base has taken to their Capitals for the better part of the last decade.
Carrying the flag for the organization since he exploded onto the scene as a rookie is Alex Ovechkin. While ‘The Great Eight’ is no longer scoring 50-60 goals a season, his 32-goal MVP-campaign during the lockout shortened season showed that Ovi still has what it takes to dominate in the NHL. Ovechkin is what makes this team go, but entering their second season under head coach, and former Flyer, Adam Oates, there is a lot to look at with this Capitals team as they enter a new division.
2012 Profile: 27-18-3 (Won Division); Lost to New York Rangers in Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (4-3)
Having only glossed over Ovechkin, it is worth fleshing out just how impressive his 2013 campaign was. Following a slow start, pundits around the league were all but assured that the Russian winger’s days of dominance were behind him. There were even rumors that teams had completely figured out the dynamic scorers game and rendered most of his trademark techniques useless. The doubt appeared to be all Ovechkin needed. Leading a resurgence for his team toward the top of the Southeast Division, Ovi captured the scoring title and Hart Trophy, shelving any of those questions for the time being. While his scoring touch, once again, did not translate to the postseason, there is little doubt that Ovechkin will take on the new challenges of this division like a freight train.
Fortunately for Oates and the Capitals, this is far from a one-man offensive force. As the pivot man for Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom has emerged as one of the more talented, playmaking centers who, when he wants to, can dominate the game in all three zones. Speedster Marcus Johansson took hold of the first line winger spot with Ovi and Backstrom and performed quite admirably in his stint. Look for ‘Mojo’ to play with more confidence and tap into some of the potential that the organization has counted on for the last few seasons.
A huge issue with the Capitals, even in the days where they were winning President’s trophies, is the second-line center spot. While nothing is official yet, the acquisition of former Toronto Maple Leaf Mikhail Grabovski, should address that vacancy for the time-being. Grabovski performed quite well on last year’s Toronto team that made the playoffs. Considering the premium for top-6 centers these days, for the Capitals to have reportedly inked Grabovski for $3 million is a major steal.
The Capitals cycle through an impressive collection of wingers, most of which with ample NHL experience in a winning environment. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward both have a knack of scoring in big places and fan-favorites Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr seem to flourish in the Capitals scheme. A potential wild-card in the Capitals offensive attack could be Martin Erat. Erat was acquired at the trade deadline for prized prospect Filip Forsberg in a swap with the Predators. He only tallied three points in the regular season and was held off the score sheet in the playoffs, but Erat has a history with a very solid Predators squad and demanded a trade for the chance to win with a contender. Do not expect Erat to tear up the scoresheet, but do not be surprised if, over the course of a healthy season, Erat emerges as a locker room leader for the Caps.
A player who could take a major leap for Washington this season is centerman Mathieu Perreault. The slight-ish trigger man held very little value under interim, defensive-minded coach Dale Hunter in 2012. However, under Oates’ philosophy, which is heavily geared toward a free-flowing, offensive-minded attack, Perreault is given the chance to flourish. His quick hands and nifty stick work in tight spaces make him a dangerous weapon on the third line and, at only 25, the expectation is that the rest of Perreault’s game should continue to round out.
A game changer, should he decide to make the trip over from Russia following the Olympics, for the Capitals would be prized prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov. The former 1st round pick of the Capitals has distanced himself as the premiere, NHL-ready talent in Russia whose game is a treat to watch. Unlike the aggressive, blitzing style of his countryman Ovechkin, Kuznetsov is more of a playmaker, a brilliant one, with a scorer’s touch. Speculation has swirled as to why Kuznetsov has not made an appearance in the NHL at this point, as his game is clearly ready. Following Ilya Kovalchuk’s surprise retirement from the NHL, the fear surrounding Russian prospects with millions of dollars of tax-free salary sitting for them in Russia is at an all-time high. I do expect to see Kuznetsov at some point in the near future in the NHL. When he does arrive, opponents should take note, as it will not take long for the scintillating Russian to leave his mark for Washington.
The Capitals did lose the services of fourth-line center and world-class grinder / agitator Matt Hendricks this offseason, as he was scooped up by the Predators via free agency. I cannot imagine there were too many more players who made the most of their time on the ice, or in the penalty box, then Hendricks did for the Caps. Whatever any coach asked for from Hendricks, which even included some very nifty shootout performances, the Minnesotan almost always delivered and provided a spark for his team when need be. Players like Hendricks are difficult to replace, because it is difficult to scout the intangibles they bring to the game. While it may not always show up on the score sheet, I expect the Capitals to miss Hendricks more than they don’t.
While the calling card of the Capitals over the past five or so seasons has been their blitzkrieg offense executed by a stable of skilled wingers, they have quietly built up a very impressive crop of young defensemen. Their top pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, while maybe not the biggest names in the NHL, are as fine a duo as a team could ask for. Their games compliment each other extremely well, with Carlson being more offensive-minded and Alzner as the prototypical ‘Stay at Home’ defenseman. Both players are under team control for the near future and, barring any sort of regression in their game, should solidify themselves as one of the top pairings in the league.
Mike Green, whose bullish numbers used to challenge most forwards in the game, enjoyed a career resurgence last season. Having a career riddled by injuries for the past few years, Green was able to play in 35 of the 48 games last season and make the most of it. He scored 12 goals in the regular season and added another two in the playoffs. Green is far from the second-coming of Adam Foote, but when he is healthy, he possesses a blistering shot from the point that he uncorks with staggering accuracy. Green has been along for the ride just as long as Ovechkin, and if the Capitals can get another season where he plays the majority of the games, look for him to continue to tally the points.
While those are the three names that stick out for the most part on the Capitals blue line, their organizational depth at the position allowed for a few smaller names to shine at crucial points last season. Jack Hillen demonstrated some inklings of an impressive offensive game and Tomas Kundratek performed well when he was called upon as well. Steven Oleksy is another name to keep watch for, as the second-year tough guy should be seeing an increased role after the departure of Jeff Schultz. John Erskine, a player that Flyers fans should be more than familiar with following recent interactions with Wayne Simmonds, continues to be a rock on the back-end for the Capitals. He is fearless, responsible, and, along with Oleksy, brings a toughness to the Caps that have made him a fan-favorite.
A player that missed most of last season but impressed during his time the year prior is Dmitry Orlov. The former 2nd round pick of the Capitals finished with 20 points (3 G, 17 A) in his first season in the pros and rarely looked as if he was a rookie. However, an upper-body injury limited him to action in only five games. Unless Orlov, psychologically, has taken a major step back, he possesses the skills to be a top-4 defenseman for the Capitals. It would probably be tough to put him with another offensive-minded player like Green, but should the Capitals like what they see from Orlov when he falls into a more consistent role on the big team, they may not have a choice but to find more time for the talented Russian.
The Capitals have one of the more unique goalie situations in the NHL. They currently have two young, cheap, talented options who have both won for them to varying extents. Michal Neuvirth, who has been in the organization since being drafted in 2006, has climbed the ranks for the Capitals and helped their minor-league affiliate to back-to-back Calder Cup Championships. Neuvirth was the unquestioned starter for the Capitals for the better part of the two seasons prior to the lockout. He performed very well in the regular season, much like the rest of the team, but was only average in the playoffs. After making a stellar first impression in his call-up in March, rookie Braden Holtby was brought in by the Capitals on the last day of the 2012 season after injuries to Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun. Holtby’s first task would be facing the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All Holtby did was help dethrone the Bruins in seven games and turning in a world-class performance in a devastating seven game loss to the Rangers. Even after the loss, Holtby’s performance all but assured the Capitals that they had a premiere talent between the pipes for years to come.
During the 2013 season, Holtby entered as the unquestioned starter. While the young netminder still demonstrated the elite talent that helped him in the playoffs, warning signs (a .889 save percentage in 35 starts) started to pop up for Washington. While Holtby, for the most part, was fantastic during the playoff series loss to the Rangers, it is tough to get out of one’s head the five goals allowed in the series clincher to a team that had only scored two in the two games prior. Whether it is a matter of focus or simple lapses in judgement, Holtby does have his spots where he looks as if he does not know what he is trying to stop. The Capitals probably want Holtby to be their guy for the future, but it is tough for an organization to put 100% confidence behind a guy who came up that small in such a big game for the franchise. While their tandem probably won’t alternate games like the Flyers will, the Capitals are perfectly happy with their two starting-caliber goalies in the locker room for the time being.
As someone who is exposed a great deal to the Capitals, I was genuinely surprised with their performance last year. Not so much because I did not have faith in Adam Oates as a coach, but I was not sure if 48 games would be enough to take to some of his drastic changes. The Capitals and Oates proved me wrong and won their division, entering the playoffs as the hottest team in the league. Part of me felt as if the Capitals finally had the collective unit to put together a legitimate cup run and cash in on all those years of disappointment. With how impressed I was with the way the Caps ended their regular season, I was that perplexed when I saw them in the playoffs. Once again, it seemed as if they reverted to playing another team’s game, and losing in doing so. While the Rangers are no pushover and, under John Tortorella, played a very safe style of game, they were not the Rangers team that entered the season as the prohibitive Cup favorites, nor were they as good as the team that beat Washington the year before. One could argue that with a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist, the team in front of him shouldn’t matter. While Lundqvist is great, the Capitals, perhaps more so than any other team, know how to score on him and did not do it when it counted.
Washington, perhaps more than any other team, benefited from playing in the weakest division in the NHL. They have made the Southeast division their personal whipping boy since 2007, winning five of a possible six division crowns. One could almost pencil the Caps in as a top-3 seed in the playoffs with at least one home playoff series year in and year out. While I am personally a fan of what the Capitals are doing as an organization and feel as if Adam Oates has the potential to be a great, dynamic coach, something tells me the Capitals are in for a bit of a rude awakening entering this season. In a division with: the Flyers, Penguins, and Rangers; the Capitals will be facing a team that knocked them out of the playoffs in the last six seasons. From top to bottom, the Caps are an extremely solid team with a few elite talents. Unfortunately for them, they are moving from a division that might have had two players that could crack the Caps top-five from a talent standpoint, to a gauntlet of teams each possessing multiple talents that could challenge even the great Alex Ovechkin. Annual rivalry matchups that used to be a treat for Capitals fans, knowing they had the cushion of matchups with the Panthers and Lightning to soften the blow, will become much more foreboding for the Caps as they get acclimated to playing against higher level competition. On talent and gameplan alone, I expect Washington to remain in the mix throughout the whole season. However, barring Kuznetsov joining the team and blowing the doors off the league, I have a tough time imagining the Capitals making the playoffs in the new layout.
Projection: Fifth in Division; 9-11th in Conference (Miss Playoffs)