27 Thoughts: It’s Christmas Eve

Photo by Chris Gordon

For almost four full months, as the NHL lockout wore on, Capitals fans and fans all over the League were asking one question: when would their teams take to the ice?  Early on the morning of January 6, that question was answered when the Board of Governors and the NHLPA agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that will lead to a shortened, 48-game season that will begin on January 19.

But since that cold January morning, as players have begun to trickle in from their teams abroad and their residences away from Washington, more questions have arisen for the Capitals than answers.  Once again, as hockey makes its comeback, the Capitals must adjust on the fly to a new coach, a new system, and new players in less than a week before the games count for real.  Twenty-seven bullets:

1. First thing first – Nicklas Backstrom has got to stay healthy at all costs.  I wrote in this space in late October that though I was happy to see Nick playing and producing, the fact that he was doing it in Russia made me a bit uneasy.  It’s not because KHL coaches don’t care for players, it’s because he was away from Washington fresh off a season in which he missed 40 games with a concussion.  The Caps dodged a bullet when news broke Friday that Nick had been cleared and was on ice practicing, but as always, you never know with a concussion.

2. Backstrom, when healthy, is the best player on the Washington Capitals.  He is the engine.

3. Alex Ovechkin had quite the season in the KHL before coming home, with 40 points in 32 games for his hometown club in Moscow.  That in itself is obviously very encouraging, but I don’t think it’s a signal of a potential return to dominance for Alex in America.  He’s obviously still a good player and  a top-level goal scorer, but he’s not going to score something ridiculous like 35 goals and 70 points in 48 games.  Adam Oates’ biggest task is getting him as close to that as he possibly can.

4. One last thing on Ovechkin: though I understand that he was probably posturing again, I was not a fan of Ovechkin saying that he needed to “think” and look at the new CBA before deciding if he was going to come back to the Capitals.  He’s the captain of the team with the biggest contract in the League.  Just play.  You're getting paid $80 more million to play a game, it's not a burden.

5. The Capitals have a hole on the wing, but it’s not as big as you might think.  I make the case in much further detail here, but I really do think that Wojtek Wolski can play top-six minutes well on this team.  He’s showed good possession ability when healthy and can put up points, especially if he plays with a healthy Backstrom.  He’s a smart, fast forward and his contract makes him a brilliant move by George McPhee.

6. If Wolski plays with Backstrom, that means Ovechkin should play with Ribeiro.  Again, I detailed this more in a summer article, but Wolski would benefit most from playing with Backstrom and will balance Washington’s lines more than if he were to play away from Backstrom.  Ovechkin and Ribeiro will be good together.  If you want to see what I think the lineup as a whole will look like, click here.

7. Speaking of McPhee – could he be on the hot seat?  As much as I am inclined to think so because of last season and another coaching change in June, I don’t think he is.  Consider the following: Ted Leonsis is a very loyal owner, almost to a fault.  The GM of Leonsis’ other franchise, the Wizards, might actually be the worst in the league and the team is equally terrible.  And yet, after several seasons, Ernie Grunfeld still has a job.  And finally, another year without a deep playoff run will likely be blamed on a “short season, a new coach, and new players,” and not McPhee.  I can see the Ted’s Take post now…

8. I am confident that McPhee will make an in-season move this season as the condensed schedule takes shape and the team begins to come together.  There is no doubt that this team will need some additions, big or small, as new coach Adam Oates’ system becomes clearer and it becomes obvious what is needed to help make the team better.  Based on early indications from Oates, he wants to play a very fast and aggressive style – that will require some tinkering.

9. Braden Holtby should not, under any circumstances, be given the full reigns this season and play more than 32 games.  With a career save percentage better than the current all-time high at the moment, the young Canadian goaltender has nowhere to go but down in the short term.  Is he still electric?  Yup.  Can he still be elite?  You bet.  Is he the starter right away?  Not a chance.  Michal Neuvirth is too good to not give at least half of the starts to, health permitting.

10. On Neuvirth – I was not a fan of his last season, and I made it quite clear several times, including his offseason evaluation.   But he’s really good, he’s young, and has the potential to be better than Holtby because of his superior positioning and calm demeanor in the net.  I really think he’s going to surprise everyone this year, and people writing him off are crazy.  Especially those that wanted to trade him this summer – that would have been a disaster with the number of back-to-back sets the Caps have this year.

11. Tom Poti, if healthy, will be a big boost to this team if he can get back to his old form.  Poti is a veteran with good ability on both ends of the ice and the Capitals have missed his composure in his two-year absence from the team.  I really hope for his sake that he can pass the physical and compete, because he deserves it and with him present, Washington’s defense becomes better.  What’s more, salary cap space with Poti is not an issue.

12. Playing time for Poti means bench time for Jeff Schultz if Dmitry Orlov is healthy.  Yes, Schultz is better than John Erskine and I have advocated him playing over Big John as such – but if Poti is healthy, he should come out.  Roman Hamrlik could also get some more rest – though I slammed Hammer early last season he was markedly better down the stretch, and will be a good partner for Mike Green should Oates decide to deploy him in that fashion.  The presence of Cam Schilling Jack Hillen, and even of Tomas Kundratek gives the Caps good depth at an important position that will be critical in a condensed season.

13. Karl Alzner has a big 48 games (or more) ahead of him as he works in the final season of the two-year deal he received in the summer of 2011.  Alzner’s team-friendly cap hit of just under $1.3 million this season is bound to go up this summer, it’s just a matter of how much and for how long.  A restricted free agent, Alzner is not likely to give in and take another small deal, especially now that he has begun to start a family.  Given his stature in the locker room and ability, I think it’s likely Alzner gets a deal like defensive partner John Carlson’s – in the 6 year, $24 million range.

14. Carlson’s going to have a big year.  Now 23, the Caps’ young defensive star had a bit of a down year last season, but played very tough minutes and produced points at a respective clip.  Another year matured and back in a system that (hopefully) can use his talents better, I think this is the year Carly finally puts it all together.

15. Carlson and Alzner make up the best under-25 defensive pairing in the NHL.  Go ahead, try and name another.  Bueller?

16. I guarantee that Mike Green is not going to be a popular character among many fans at the start of this year as he attempts to justify his risky, but necessary contract.  Green is the best power play quarterback and offensive defenseman the Capitals have, and now with a full offseason to rehab another set of injuries suffered last season, the Calgary native has a chance to make good on his promise once again.  He’s never going to do what he did 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, and he might not come close, but 35 points in a 48 game season is doable and would be an acceptable total to me.  Anything more than that is gravy, especially as Green continues to improve defensively.

17. Moving back to forwards for a bit – I like the Eric Fehr signing as a bit of scoring depth on the wing for this team.  The big, skilled, injury-prone Fehr spent most of last season as a healthy scratch for below-average Winnipeg, but has the tools and his contract, like Wolski’s, carries almost no risk as the Caps try and plug some potential holes on the wing.  If he plays and produces, which seems like a longshot, it will be gravy.  If he doesn’t, he’ll be gone after this year.

18. Another player who has a big season upcoming is Marcus Johansson, who has underwhelmed a bit in his career so far despite being placed in situations that may aid his success, such as with Ovechkin last year.  He shows flashes of brilliance and has excellent speed, but needs to live up to expectations and turn around his puck possession this year, especially because he will play a top-six role out of necessity despite not yet earning it fully.  In the final year of his entry-level deal, Marcus knows he needs a big year, too.

19. I keep hearing Mattias Sjogren’s name as a potential player to make the roster out of camp and play a big role with the team this season, and I have no idea why.  Sjogren played well for the bears this fall by all indications, but there is little room for him on the roster and even less of a role, because he’s a bottom-six center, and the Capitals have plenty of bottom-six centers.  Maybe with injuries, we’ll see him on the team.  But if he makes it out of camp, who gets cut out?

20. Joel Ward makes too much money, but unless the Capitals come under a harsh cap crunch, I don’t think he will be bought out.  He’s a good defensive player and a good forechecker with a big body that can help the Caps.  If he plays with Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera, they will produce a formidable shut down line.

21. Chimera probably won’t come close to last year’s offensive totals, not just because of the shortened season.  I will be happy with 12 goals and around 25 points from the speedy winger, who is signed at a very affordable price for this season and next.

22. The only player on the Capitals roster who is under more pressure than the captain is new center Mike Ribeiro.  Even though McPhee pulled off his trademark thievery to get the shifty center by trading Cody Eakin and a second-round pick, the former Dallas man is expected to be the “answer” to the second-line center hole the Caps have had since Sergei Fedorov took his impeccable excellence back to Russia.  Ribeiro has played the last couple of seasons in a market that doesn’t usually have high expectations, unlike this one, so how he responds in the abbreviated season will be critical – especially because he is in the last year of his current contract.

23. I think the Capitals are the best team in their division, at least on paper.  The positive impact of the loss of Dale Hunter’s system will be felt immediately, especially by players like Ovechkin and Green.  The loss of Alexander Semin hurts, but McPhee has shaped enough options on that wing, while improving the center position, enough to keep that from being a glaring hole offensively.  The defense is good, too, and the Caps have a tandem of young goalies that rival any team in hockey.

24. The other teams of the Southeast, in order: Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, Winnipeg.

25. Why I ranked them the way I did: Carolina will have an electric offense capable of scoring a ton of goals with the Staal brothers, Semin, Alex Skinner, and eventually Tuomo Ruutu that should be able to compensate for their shortcomings on the blue line.  The Lightning had an off year but with a new goalie, the addition of Matt Carle, and electric star Steven Stamkos, they will be better.  Florida was below .500 last year if you count overtime losses and are still young.  Winnipeg, I feel, overachieved last season and still lack elite talent on offense.

26. Finally, on the lockout and the Caps’ “favors” to season ticket holders: 20% of merchandise is not a favor.  It’s not a gift.  It’s a sale designed to get people who wouldn’t spend money otherwise to spend because of the discount, lining the pockets of the owner even more.  Anybody can go to an open practice at Kettler, making one at Verizon isn’t special except for the glass and seats.  And making fan fest only available to season ticket holders isn’t fair to the other fans that wanted to go, but couldn’t because of the lockout.

27. You know what’s exciting?  The thought of getting Evgeny Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg in Washington.  That will be something special, and it may just lead the Caps to their promised land.

Harry Hawkings is a college student who is credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here for all your news and analysis needs this upcoming season.

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