One of the more intriguing teams to watch going into this year's trade deadline is the Washington Capitals, as while the Caps traditionally finish the regular season strong, there are several sizeable questions surrounding the franchise.
Washington has qualified for the playoffs for six straight seasons, in large part thanks to a 54-24-11 overall record in March since 2008.
This year, the Capitals head into the deadline on a 7-2-2 streak, having moved into the playoff picture again tied in points with the Red Wings for the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot.
But the problems surrounding this year's edition of the Capitals are a bit more complex than in past years and less easily fixed with a deadline deal. In recent seasons, the problem area in need of fixing has been in the forward corps, as the team has acquired Jason Arnott and Martin Erat at recent deadlines in order to fill holes at center and wing, respectively.
But this year's major issue for Washington has been more concentrated in a lack of defensive depth beyond the top three of Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Mike Green. Washington has had a revolving door to fill out the bottom three, dressing a dozen different defensemen, including four who have made their NHL debut this season.
The lack of defensive depth has hurt the Capitals, particularly against teams with good depth up front, as mismatches often occur and leave the goaltenders with a tough task. Washington is allowing an average of 33 shots against per game, fourth-worst in the NHL, and also yielding many prime scoring chances rather than keeping them primarily to the perimeter.
Sunday against the Flyers, Holtby was good with Philadelphia getting several prime chances before a poor penalty by Orlov likely cost the Caps a valuable standings point in a 5-4 overtime loss.
In addition, if Washington does manage to sneak in the playoffs with the current roster, the defensive depth issue figures to be a factor in the second season where depth forwards tend to make a bigger impact on a series and teams can't usually get by with just three decent blueliners.
While the Capitals could more easily plug in a single player or two via trade into the forward corps to help their chances in years past, Washington likely needs at least a pair of at least NHL depth defensemen, as the bottom three have left the team vulnerable to scoring chances.
Washington may be anticipating the return of injured defenseman Jack Hillen will help, but Hillen's health has been an issue in appearing in just 25 games of Washington's past 110. Hillen is currently rehabbing a broken leg he suffered in the team's home opener in October down in Hershey, and could be part of the team's plans to combat the depth, but question is how effective he can be filling that role.
Offensively, the Capitals certainly still have some issues - although they pale in comparison now to the issues facing the team defensively - as the team's offense has primarily come from their top weapon, Alex Ovechkin, who is accounting for just under a quarter of the team's goals this year. Not only that, 8 of Washington's 29 wins have been won off the stick of Ovechkin, again over a quarter of the teams total.
Washington has just three players on pace for over 20 goals (Ovechkin, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer), and last year's acquisition in Erat has as many trade demands than goals this season - one.
However, Washington seemingly is awaiting the arrival of prized prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has Tweeted various indications he plans to come over to the NHL once his contract with the KHL's Traktor Chelyabinsk is over following this season.
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Kuznetsov elected to stay in the KHL with a two-year deal back in 2012, in part due to a chance to make the Russian Olympic roster in 2014 as well as the uncertainty surrounding the NHL lockout, and his decision reverberated across the Atlantic since. One of Washington's top rated prospects who dazzled scouts at the 2011 World Junior Championships in Buffalo with Russia's gold-medal squad, the Caps had hoped he would have been in the lineup by now but has had to wait for him for two more seasons to decide to make the jump to the NHL, and had to acquire Erat last season to help fill the void left by his absence.
While the Capitals cannot plan on Kuznetsov's arrival until he is released from his KHL deal - presumably once Traktor's ends - they apparently have quietly anticipated him as a potential deadline-type add to the lineup. Kuznetsov's club has one game left in the regular season - Tuesday - and will need a win and some help to make the KHL playoffs and extend their season past that, so the Caps could know if they might have him in the fold soon by the time the deadline arrives Wednesday at 3 pm.
Of course, Kuznetsov has also suffered several injuries these last two seasons, and scored 25 goals and 38 assists in 80 games over the last two KHL campaigns - and just 7 goals in 29 games this year, so it remains to be seen how he will adapt to the North American game.
Washington certainly has some chips to try and move at the deadline as well, although it remains to be seen how much of a return of Erat would bring. The Capitals do have three seemingly NHL-caliber goaltenders in Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Phillipp Grubauer, with Neuvirth seemingly the one the Caps would be more willing to part with.
For the Capitals players themselves, though, with a recent history of finishing the regular season strong, there is an expectation in the room that the team can overcome a major mid-winter slump to earn another playoff spot.
"Yeah, I think there's a confidence [in the room]," Holtby said after Saturday's win over the Bruins. "The [Olympic] break was much needed for our group. There's been a bit of a struggle to start the year and everyone really, really needed that break and come back really refreshed."
The Capitals also know with 20 games left in the season - and none left before the deadline - they can't afford another slump that dropped them out of a playoff spot.
"We're playing more solid right now," Ovechkin said after Saturday's win. "We don't have time to make mistakes, and every point now is big for us."
But certainly, Capitals general manager George McPhee has several choices to make, particularly on defense. And while it seems unlikely the Capitals will do anything but look to buy at this year's deadline -- with the team's recent strong play having them in a tight Eastern Conference chase for both the top three in the Metropolitan Division and the Wild Card -- they may also hope the addition of Hillen and Kuznetsov could be enough to give the team a boost.