27 Thoughts: Hockey is Finally Here

Mikhail Grabovski's addition should really alter the shape of Washington's 2013-14 season.

Man, what a crazy offseason.  In the first summer following the NHL's second lockout in less than a decade, we've seen some great moves, some awful ones, and the progression and outlook for franchises seemingly change at the drop of a hat.  But with on-ice sessions for rookies starting this week around the League, it's time to take a look at what has happened and what could happen this upcoming campaign not just in Washington, but around the NHL.  

And we're off, with 27 thoughts (apologies to Mr. Friedman).

1.  Once again, the Capitals very wisely stayed out of making a big splash in free agency and if you think that they should have spent big you are not paying attention.  As always, the deals handed out on and around the first day of free agency were ridiculous and a few teams, like the Leafs, made themselves significantly worse with the moves they made on July 5.  There was nobody out there who could help this team win now or in the future except Mikhail Grabovski.

2. George McPhee beat the market and signed a good player to a bargain deal with little risk and a high reward?  The devil, you say.  That move was exactly the type of transaction that you have to make in inflated markets, and once again showed that spending big in the early days of free agency is a poor way to do business.  David Clarkson for seven years at over $5 million per, Vinny Lecavalier for five years at over $4 million per, or Grabovski at $3 million for one year?  The answer is Grabovski.  He’s a far better and more versatile player than either of those two.

3. The Grabovski signing is really a great move; it’s difficult to put in to words.  The Maple Leafs convinced themselves that a 55-60 point center with great two-way ability who wasn’t scoring with Colton Orr on his wing was expendable for some reason, and so they bought him out.  Nearly two full months later, Washington signed a perfectly capable second-line center for as much money as they are paying Joel Ward.   And he is a significant upgrade over Mike Ribeiro, especially at even strength, and he totally changes the outlook of their season.

4. Todd Cordell of the Hockey Guys compiled in August that Grabovski has more even strength goals over the last two seasons than Ilya Kovalchuk, Derek Stepan, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, and Daniel Sedin.  Oh man.  Also, Dave Nonis is nuts.

5. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Capitals won't be on the struggle bus this upcoming season.  This past season, they relied on luck and a dominant stretch of play from Alex Ovechkin to make the playoffs, and basic mathematical principles like the law of averages indicate that a correction is in order statistically both as a team in terms of PDO (luck) and Ovechkin himself.  They improved in the offseason with the addition of Grabovski, but a statistical correction and their division make it likely that they will have to battle for a playoff spot.

6. Adding to the difficulty of making the playoffs with be Washington’s new division, the Metropolitan, and the NHL’s new scheduling.  They move from a format where they played 48 games in the weaker of the two conferences last season, including a whole mess of games within the Southleast Southeast Division, in to a new format in which they play every team in the Western Conference twice and compete against a much stronger set of teams within their own conference and division.

7. The Capitals’ new division consists of them, the Penguins, the Blue Jackets, the Flyers, the Devils, the Rangers, the Islanders, and the Hurricanes.  Right now, I think they are only certainly better than one of those teams on paper, and that’s Carolina.  And even that might be a stretch with Cam Ward healthy and the solid across the board numbers that team put up.  Ward is no superstar, but he’s a hell of a lot better than a combination of Dan Ellis and Justin Peters. 

8.  I think Pittsburgh and the Rangers are virtual locks for a playoff spot next season within the division, with the other six teams competing for the final spot solely from Division finsih.  The Penguins are simply loaded, and the Rangers have a much better coach than last year.  I am tempted to put the Islanders in that “lock” area as well – they’re a good possession team with some young players on the upswing and a very good coach in Jack Capuano.  UPDATE: There are two playoff spots outside of the six from within the Divisions for the Capitals to compete for.  Thanks to George Ays for informing me of this.

9. Within the Division, I believe the Devils are a lot better off than people think.  Losing Ilya Kovalchuk obviously hurts in the short term, but New Jersey missed the playoffs last season despite allowing the fewest shots in the NHL because of an atrocious season from the legendary Martin Brodeur, whose .901 save percentage was in the bottom third in the league among qualified goaltenders.  With Cory Schneider in nets, expect more pucks to stay out and, in turn, his team to win more games.

10. Also contributing to my feelings on New Jersey this season are that they were a dominant puck possession squad last season, finishing third across the entire league in FenwickClose.  They were also exceedingly unlucky, as only three players who played more than 20 games had a PDO over 1000, which means the roster was inherently snakebit on both sides of the puck.  They have a great coach in Peter DeBoer, too.  They will challenge heavily for a playoff spot in the Met at this current juncture as long as DeBoer has the brains to play Schneider like the starter he is and not get sentimental with a goaltender who is now decidedly mediocre despite his legendary past.

11. Washington will compete for a playoff spot with Grabovski, which I would not have said in mid-August.  They have some holes in the top half of their defense and their penalty kill needs to be improved, but they are right in the thick of the teams in their division gunning for what should be two open playoff spots.  If nothing else, this new division setup will make for fascinating hockey.

12. I really couldn’t be happier with the contract that Karl Alzner signed – the only minor qualm that I have is that it wasn’t slightly longer.  Alzner and John Carlson are now both signed to team-friendly, cap-conscious deals that are ideal for players like them and the Capitals.  Both players are likely to get better, too – I hope that Washington is a real contender in order to really utilize the flexibility that these value contracts provide.

13. As the saga involving Evgeny Kuznetsov drags on – some say he could be over after the Olympics, others say he could not be, and others say he might not come over at all – I once again find myself sick of listening to this guy waffle.  There is no doubt of his talent, but I felt slighted when he decided to stay in the KHL for two more years and I’m a bit cynical about his intentions.  I’ll believe it when I see it with Kuznetsov, though I am fully expecting him to be a gamebreaker if he ever crosses the Pacific (or Atlantic. Whatever).

14. Bold prediction: Dmitry Orlov will emerge as a top-four defenseman under Adam Oates this year if given a chance to play with John Carlson regularly.  He is so talented and has a lot to play for (he’s in the final year of his contract).

15. I don’t think that Tom Wilson will have as big an impact this year as some (including me) hope.  Unless significant injuries strike, there is not a place for him in the top six, which means that there is not a place to fully utilize his skill set.  If he makes the team, he won’t play a lot – he will be in the bottom six using his big frame to check people and be a bruising presence.  And that’s unfortunate, because entry-level deals for high-upside first round picks are a terrible thing to waste.

16. Bold prediction: Mathieu Perreault breaks 45 points this year as an effective player on the third line.  He’s earned a prolonged look and his possession numbers suggest the potential for a diamond in the rough if placed in the right situation.  I could see him centering a line with Brooks Laich and Joel Ward or perhaps a flip-flop of him and Laich with him on the wing.  Either way, Perreault should be given a chance to produce at this level regularly.

17. Some have complained over the last four months that Michal Neuvirth’s two-year, $5 million contract extension was either “dumb,” “stupid,” “nonsensical,” “further proof that McPhee is the worst GM in hockey,” or “all of the above.”  In reality, however, the contract was smart asset management by McPhee for a goaltender receiving his third contract.  I expect Neuvirth to see around 30 games this year before he is likely traded next offseason.  That is, as long as Braden Holtby doesn’t go Steve Mason on us.

18. Final bold prediction: John Carlson and Mike Green combine for 150 games played, 30 goals, and 80 points.  It’s time for the Washington defense corps’ gunslingers to break out and stay healthy, respectively.

19. My opening night lines: Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin; Erat-Grabovski-Brouwer; Perreault-Laich-Fehr; Chimera-Beagle-Ward; Alzner-Green; Erskine (ugh)-Carlson; Oleksy-Kundratek; Holtby.  Related: the Aaron Volpatti contract was silly.

20. Let’s bounce around the league a little bit – The Maple Leafs will be a bonfire this season.  Not only did they buy out Grabovski, arguably their best center, but they signed an aging David Clarkson, who has never scored more than 46 points in a season, to a massive contract.  They also signed “Terrible Tyler Bozak” to a big extension and traded away assets for a goaltender that they didn’t need.  That, and they got exceedingly lucky last year, they have a crazy coach, and are a brutal possession team.  I almost feel bad for them, but there are enough vitriolic fans who think they’re Stanley Cup contender that I cannot wait to watch this disaster.

21. I really like the Rangers’ chances this upcoming season.  I believe that Brad Richards will be slightly rejuvenated with an offensive coach in Alain Vigneault, and some of New York’s young guns on offense like Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin will also markedly improve under AV.  They’re a good possession team with a lot of talent and Henrik Lundqvist in goal.  What’s not to like?

22.  The Bruins’ decision to trade Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley essentially for Loui Eriksson was a curious one in my opinion, but it’s only because of future potential.  Eriksson will explode playing top line minutes with a center as talented as Patrice Bergeron and a fellow winger as well-rounded as Brad Marchand, and that will certainly help the Bruins offensively.  But Peverley is one of the most underrated players in the game to me and a very good third line center.  Seguin is still just 21 years old and was pretty unlucky this season; I think he was the best player in the trade all told.  It was a bold move by Peter Chiarelli, but Boston fans may not be big supporters of this exchange in a few years.

23. I say this almost every year (including last year and boy was I wrong), but I also really like what the Edmonton Oilers have put together.  They already have a great young core of offensive talent and a good young goaltender and they bolstered their defense with an elite possession center in Boyd Gordon and a good, physical, shutdown blueliner in Andrew Ference.  If Dallas Eakins lives up to the hype, the playoffs will return to Rexall Place in April.

24. Another club I fear will suffer similarly to the Leafs in terms of a letdown is the Anaheim Ducks, despite the awesomeness of Teemu Selanne.  The Ducks have some good goaltenders but questions on defense and effectively only one line following the departure of Bobby Ryan via a trade in July.  The Ducks have some great young talent and a much better coach than Toronto does, but they will need some more luck to make the playoffs this year in my opinion barring a huge breakout from just about all of their young players.  Southern California is still the Kings’ turf.

25. Speaking of Bobby Ryan, the Senators will be good this year – probably much better than they were last year.  The loss of Daniel Alfredsson hurts but in reality the offseason additions of Ryan and Clarke MacArthur will more than compensate for the absence of a player who is frankly a shadow of what he used to be.  The Senators are a very good possession team with one of the best coaches in the show and will actually have Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza healthy this year, huge boons to the probability of their success.

26: The United States Olympic team for the Sochi games should look like this: Joe Pavelski, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, David Backes, Bobby Ryan, Dustin Brown, Paul Stastny, Ryan Suter, Jack Johnson, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Paul Martin, John Carlson, Keith Yandle, Jon Quick, Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller.  Oh, and Dan Bylsma was the best possible coaching candidate for that team.

27: My predictions for the NHL’s 2014 awards: Hart, Sidney Crosby; Lindsay, Crosby; Art Ross, Crosby; Rocket Richard, John Tavares; Norris, Alex Pietrangelo; Vezina, Tuukka Rask; Selke, Patrice Bergeron; Calder, Jacob Trouba; Jack Adams, Alain Vigneault.  Stanley Cup: New York Rangers; Conn Smythe: Lundqvist.

Follow me on Twitter @HarryHawkings for news and updates on the Capitals this season.