by Japers’ Rink Staff
1. Power play.
Throughout coaching changes and roster turnover, one thing has remained constant for the Caps in recent years: their dominance on the power play. Since the 2012-13 season, Washington has scored on roughly 25 percent of their opportunities with the extra man, racking up 172 goals during that span -- 16 more than their closest competitor, the Pittsburgh Penguins (and doing so with 10 fewer power-play opportunities).
Chalk it up to the deft orchestration of Nicklas Bäckström, who led the League with 30 power-play assists. Or to the unstoppable shot of Alex Ovechkin, whose 25 goals took top spot last year for the third consecutive season. Or maybe it’s the system put into place by assistant coach and power-play guru Blaine Forsythe, or the quarterbacking skills of blue-liners like John Carlson and the since-departed Mike Green.
The reality, of course, is that it’s all of those things put together, a perfect combination of skill and system that just works for this team year in and year out -- regardless of who makes up the supporting cast. Because of that, there’s no reason to think that T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams can’t step into the role once occupied by Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer (and do so with slightly more skill), or that Matt Niskanen or Dmitry Orlov aren’t capable of filling the void left by Green. And as long as Ovechkin and Bäckström are running the show, there’s no reason to think that this power play can’t continue to be as good as it’s ever been.
After a somewhat disastrous and woefully mismanaged 2013-14 season, Braden Holtby was able to not only bounce back with a strong 2014-15 campaign, but also put himself into the conversation as one of the league’s best goaltenders. Aided by a more defensively-stable team in front of him, and guided by the unorthodox genius that is goaltending coach Mitch Korn, Holtby finished in the top 10 in every notable goaltending category by the end of the season -- and was even better in the playoffs.
The good news is that Holtby is locked up for the next six years and is firmly established as the team’s No. 1 guy in net. The better news? He might actually get to rest a bit this season, with Philipp Grubauer set to make the move to the NHL and immediately provide the Caps with a better backup option than they’ve had in the recent past.
3. Top-six forwards.
It’s hard to remember a time when the Caps weren’t looking for at least one or two forwards to fill out their top six, whether it was the second-line center role or the coveted spot alongside Ovechkin and Bäckström. That all changed this summer, with the additions of Oshie and Williams by GM Brian MacLellan, giving them seven legitimate top-six forwards (you do the math). Add in the fact that Evgeny Kuznetsov has emerged as a legitimate option to center the second line and emerging star Andre Burakovsky provides the team with skilled depth and versatility, and the Caps now boast one of their strongest top-six groups in recent memory… on paper, at least.
by Japers’ Rink Staff
1. Shutdown forwards.
Sure, the team has speed and skill… but you also need to be able to slow down the other team’s attack, and coach Barry Trotz (a firm believer in the importance of such deployments) doesn’t have a ton of options in that department. This is where the loss of guys like Joel Ward and Eric Fehr, to the Sharks and Penguins, respectively, will be felt the most for the Caps. They’ll likely need to cobble together some sort of shutdown line with a combination of players on the wrong side of 30 (like Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera), younger players who haven’t had much experience in that role (think Tom Wilson or Michael Latta), or players who simply aren’t suited to the task (such as Burakovsky).
2. Penalty kill.
If the team’s power play has long been a strength, the flip side has frequently been a mediocre-to-bad penalty kill. In fact, only five teams have given up more power-play goals than the 186 ceded by the Caps since 2011-12, and their penalty-killing rate of 81 percent over that span puts them in the bottom third of the league.
They saw a slight improvement last season, thanks in large part to some stellar goaltending by Braden Holtby -- which means he’ll have to replicate that performance to give the team a fighting chance while down a man. The underlying numbers there are still concerning, as is the question of who will replace penalty-killing stalwarts Ward, Fehr and Troy Brouwer.
3. Killer instinct.
The Caps had their struggles playing with leads (though they got better in that respect as last season wore on), and nowhere was that more painfully on display than when they were a mere 1:41 away from dispatching the Rangers in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series … until they weren’t. New York tied and won that game and took the next two. And that was that.
Sure, something like "mental fortitude" is un-quantifiable and intangible in ways that a glance at the roster or stat page aren’t, but this is a team that has blown more 3-1 playoff series leads than some franchises have had playoff series. So until they can demonstrate an ability to consistently close out opponents, it’ll remain a question mark.
1. Can the Caps build on their momentum to become a contender in the Eastern Conference?
2. Can John Carlson keep the Caps’ power play atop the League?
3. Will the Caps be able to cobble together an effective bottom six (including a shutdown line)?
Get the answers at Japers' Rink.
by Japers’ Rink Staff
Buoyed by the additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, the Caps are able to roll out one of the league’s most potent one-two punches, demolishing opponents offensively, while still remembering to take care of things in their own end. Meanwhile, after a second season of Mitch Korn tutelage -- and with a solid defense in front of him -- Braden Holtby puts together another stellar season. John Carlson proves to be a competent power-play point man to keep that unit humming and the penalty kill makes advances. In short, everything clicks… and, for once, it does so at the right time.
by Japers’ Rink Staff
Barry Trotz proves unable to make optimal or even effective use of the talent with which he’s been provided up front. The power play desperately misses Mike Green and it gets "solved." An aging Brooks Orpik logs too many minutes in key situations. The penalty kill struggles with glaring personnel issues and and not-so-glaring system issues, all of which dig the Caps in too deep a hole from which to escape in an improved Metro Division. And that’s just the "and they stay perfectly healthy" version of the worst-case scenario ...