December 19, 2014

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Preseason Roundtable Part 2

Opening night of the 2013-14 season for the Washington Capitals is finally upon us! With that in mind, the District Sports Page Caps staff and contributors will take a look at several key areas that will affect the Caps season as they get ready to start play in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.

The first half of our roundtable posted Friday.

Also, for your enjoyment, here are links to out position previews:

Left Wings
Right Wings
Centers
Defensemen
Goalies

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, Caps Staff Writer for DSP; Abram Fox, former Caps Page Editor at DSP, Erika Schnure, RinkRebel.com and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, Caps author and contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.com.


5) Where will Brooks Laich spend the majority of his time this season (wing, center, second line, third line, infirmary, whatever)?

Dave: For me, I’d like to see Laich at third line center, between Eric Fehr and Joel Ward as the “shutdown” line. All three play extensively on the penalty kill, and Fehr could end up as a secret weapon source of offense in this grouping. I think more likely though, Laich will start out as left wing on the second line with Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer. Of course, all this is with a caveat to Laich’s health. No one can like how much preseason practice he missed, though he’s declared himself ready for the opener.

Katie:  Brooks should play on the third line, but it looks like Oates wants to play him on the second line. I think that’s a stretch, but if he can stay healthy and contribute to the offense, that would be reasonable. Further to that note, Laich is an asset to the penalty kill, so the team definitely needs him there. Get well soon, Brooks.

Abram:  Hopefully, somewhere appropriate to his talent level and skill set. Chances are he will spend the most time on second line wing, because whenever there’s an injury on the first or second line he’ll be shifting up. With his reputation as a utility man, he won’t be able to find purchase on any one line.

Erika: Brooks Laich will spend most of his time still practicing. But no seriously, the Caps seem intent on the Laich at center experiment. However, if Grabovski fits in well, maybe he’ll move into the 2C and Laich can go back to wing.

Ted: Laich will spend most of his time on the wing, but certainly, his recent injury history has to be a concern for Washington. An injury sustained while playing overseas during the lockout put a big dent in his performance last year, and while he has said he is healthy, it has to be a concern for the Capitals as another injury has limited his preseason time.

Sky: I think he’ll end up as the left wing on the top line with Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, but that all depends if he stays healthy, which he hasn’t been in the last year.

Harry: I would expect Laich to play about 55 games this season, and play most of them in a third-line center role.  The team views him as a center, and he is a very good bottom-six center.  I think the team is best with him in that role, though I could be convinced that he should play wing if the Caps find someone to play center on the third line.  Injuries are a big concern with Laich, though.

6) Which young player, who may or may not make the opening night roster, will have the biggest impact on the team this season?

Dave: The Caps have several youngsters ready to make an impact, but I have to go with Tom Wilson. After they recalled Wilson to make his NHL debut in the playoffs against New York, I was certain that he would be on the opening night roster this season. At 18 years old, he already plays like a man. He’s got a nice scoring touch in addition to the physical presence he adds, and if the Caps can develop him while on the big roster, he could end up being a major contributor to this team for a long time. The Caps have a lot invested on him, essentially giving away Mathieu Perreault to ensure the cap space to keep Wilson on the roster.

Katie: The obvious answer is Tom Wilson. The most common arguments against Wilson making the team were “he won’t get a whole lot of ice time” and “what’s the point of him staying if he’s going to play six minutes a night?” Valid concerns, but what is overlooked is how important it is for Wilson to get the daily instruction players receive each day in practice. So whether he’s logging major minutes or not, he’s still learning and developing at the NHL level, which I think is beneficial.

Abram: Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov. These two youngsters appear to be the real deal. For that reason, Washington’s personnel decisions going into this season and going into next season are being made with the expectation that Wilson and Kuznetsov will take up two prime roster spots in 2014-15. For the same reason, the Caps didn’t commit to winning this season as much as they may have without these two guys in the pipeline.

Erika: We saw a little bit of it during last year’s playoffs, but I think Tom Wilson will make a big impact. With Matt Hendricks gone, Wilson can fill in that “tough guy” role, but the difference is that Wilson is a very effective offensive force as well.

Ted: Evgeny Kuznetsov, like it or not, has impacted the Capitals before he has even arrived in North America. The team was hoping to have the Russian star for last season, but the 21-year-old opted to sign a two-year deal with the KHL’s Traktor Chelabinsk – largely because of the NHL lockout and a spot on Russia’s Sochi Olympic team was threatened if he headed to Washington. As a result of Kuznetsov skating overseas, the Caps had little depth at wing and ended up trading top prospect Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat to shore the position up for last year’s playoff run.

Now, with Adam Oates having gone overseas to chat with the young Russian over the summer, it’s quite clear the Capitals expect Kuznetsov to be the equivalent of a trade deadline deal, a player who will help the team down the stretch once Traktor’s season ends and allowed to sign with Washington. While there’s nothing official, Kuznetsov – whose absence hasn’t helped Washington over the past season – is seemingly a big part of the team’s late-season plans.

Sky: Connor Carrick. He’s made the team and could have a role like Steve Oleksy did a year ago.

Harry: Dmitry Orlov. Orlov has sort of fallen off the map in the last year or so because of injuries, and there are some rumors that he and Adam Oates don’t get along, but he is still an elite prospect with a lot of potential. He’s left-handed, too, and there should spot open alongside John Carlson in the top-four for a left-handed defenseman – John Erskine can’t possibly be there all season.  Orlov has had a lot of time to work on his game over the last 16 months and if he reaches his potential, he could turn the Caps’ top-four defensemen into a strength instead of a weakness.  But the coaching staff has to trust him first.

7) Where do you think the Caps finish this season?

Dave: I think the doomsayers about the new division and playoff format are overemphasizing the difficulties just a bit. The Caps play the Penguins the same number of times this year as last. They’ve played the Rangers seemingly in every playoffs the last eight years. The Devils and Islanders really aren’t any better than Winnipeg and Florida. I just don’t think that much has changed.

 I’m going to be bullish on the Caps this season. I think Ovechkin’s renaissance is for real. I think Dmitry Orlov will be paired with John Carlson before the Olympic break. I think Holtby will continue his maturation and growth as a franchise-caliber goaltender. I think the positives on this roster outweigh the negatives. Maybe it’s not enough to be a legitimate Cup contender, but make the playoffs and anything is possible.

I predict a 45-27-10 (100 points) regular season, and second place finish in the division behind Pittsburgh and fifth overall in the conference. I’ll say they slip past the Rangers in the first round this year and after that, anything is gravy.

Katie: I can’t see any scenario in which the Capitals are at the top of their division, but they may yet surprise me. I think they finish mid-pack in their division and squeak into the playoffs. I’d like to see them at least make it to the second round, but the Eastern Conference Finals would be a nice surprise.

Abram: 45-30-7. Third place in Metropolitan Division. Lose in the first round in seven games, because obviously what else would happen?

How is this team any different from any other Caps team? They’re good, they have some outstanding skaters, good goaltending, issues on defense. They don’t have the glaring weaknesses of non-playoff teams, but they are also not good enough to go over the top and contend for the Cup.

Erika: Third in Metropolitan Division, out in the third round of the playoffs. Maybe it’s just the cynical Chicago fan in me, but I don’t think the Cup is coming this year. I believe the Penguins and Flyers will finish ahead of the Capitals in the division, with the Rangers a close fourth.

Ted: Capitals will finish second in the newly created Metropolitan Division. While not quite in the level of likely division champion Pittsburgh, Washington can expect a dogfight for one of the playoff spots in the new alignment. While the Metropolitan Division looked very daunting when the new realignment was announced last season, some of the other teams in the division – the Flyers, Rangers and Devils primarily – stayed stagnant or took steps backward. The Capitals should be in the mix for one of the playoff spots up for grabs.

The new playoff format likely won’t help the Caps’ cause however, as more than likely, Washington would get a dose of the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers in the first two rounds, teams the Caps are 2-4 against in the playoffs since the team began their current playoff streak in 2008. The new format will generate some upsets and may actually make the later rounds a bit easier since good teams likely will be knocked out earlier, but also makes advancing even out of the first round more difficult – something the 1980s Capitals knew all too well.

Sky: 80 points or so, I have them fifth in their division and out of the playoffs.  Tougher competition and they can’t hide being in the Southeast anymore.  They could not beat playoff teams a year ago and they aren’t as good as they were a year ago.

Harry: I predict the Capitals will finish fourth in the Metropolitan Division behind the Rangers, Penguins, and Islanders.  They’ll be a No. 7 seed behind those three teams, the Bruins, the Canadiens, and the Senators, and finish with a record of about 43-28-11 (97 standings points).  If healthy, they make it to the second round before bowing out.

8) Free form. You have two paragraphs to get anything off your chest.

Dave: GM George McPhee made a conscious decision to get bigger and more physical this season, and it really started when he called up a 19-year-old in the middle of the playoffs last season to make his NHL debut. Just about every player decision he made over the summer was geared towards this team becoming “tougher to play against”. Trading Perreault as the last man off the squad was the last, most obvious transaction. Will that make the Caps better though? Generally, you don’t want to remove skilled players from the roster in favor of sandpaper.

The Caps have a lot of firepower on their top two lines and have enough flexibility in their bottom six to mix-and-match depending on the opponent. Hopefully, Orlov, Kundratek and Carrick impress enough early that they can press lesser-rounded defenders Erskine, Hillen and Oleksy for time sooner than later. Hopefully Ovi (and to a lesser extent, Holtby) don’t get sidetracked by the Olympics, Laich can get and maintain his health, and Grabovski can have as much impact in the regular season as it looked like he could during preseason.

Katie: Adam Oates is the best thing to ever happen to the Washington Capitals. The end.

Abram: I’m looking forward to the first full season of the Adam Oates regime. Unlike Dale Hunter, Oates is a blast from a past who wants to win in the NHL with the roster the Capitals currently possesses. D.C.’s offense will be fun to watch, especially the power play, which should again sit at the top of the league’s rankings.

This team will be entertaining to watch, but they’re stuck in a holding pattern. Just good enough to win more games than they lose, not quite good enough to go deep in the playoffs, but too good to warrant any sort of serious retooling of the roster. I’ll follow the games, but all post-season expectations are out the window.

Erika: With nearly every game this preseason going to a shootout, I am wondering how the Capitals will fare without shootout specialist Matt Hendricks. Other players on the team are not particularly adept at shootouts, and I’m definitely going to miss the “Paralyzer”.

I’m very surprised (in a good way) with how Connor Carrick performed in the preseason, making the opening night roster. He has shown some major promise, and maybe going to the OHL instead of college was a good move after all. I’m very excited for his future and what is to come from him.

Ted: The Capitals, and their fans, will certainly see where the team stands in the first full 82-game season in two years, as the team’s former “Young Guns” are getting a bit gray and expectations are still high in an increasingly tougher division and playoff format that makes it just a bit tougher to even qualify for the postseason, let alone advance further into it. Adam Oates turned around a floundering bunch early last season, bringing back the up-tempo formula that made Bruce Boudreau’s clubs one of the best in the NHL before an increased emphasis on defense and goaltending brought the Caps back to a style that could deliver success – but also one that opponents could more easily match.

Big question this year – at least long-term – is if the Kuznetsov saga finally ends with the top-rated Capitals prospect in a Washington uniform this spring. His decision to stay in the KHL two more years seemingly threw a wrench in Washington’s plans after Alex Semin’s departure. Staying at home with visions of skating with the Russians at Sochi in his head, now the star has to overcome another injury in the KHL that may keep him off the ice during the Olympics. Kuznetsov’s actions have impacted the Caps from afar, now the time should come to see if the prospect can play to his potential this spring.

Harry: I really wished that this team had given Mathieu Perreault a chance to play regularly with good players – like Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr.  Perreault may be a little bit small, but he has always produced when given solid ice time and has been no worse than third on the team among forwards in possession over the last three campaigns.  He had an affordable contract and had a lot to play for, as he is in the final year of said contract.

I firmly believe that he should have been given a chance on the third line, even if it was at the expense of not having Tom Wilson on the roster – who has yet to prove anything at this level, as promising as he is. Perreault earned his shot, but now he’ll have that shot elsewhere. I don’t like the idea of burning a year of Wilson’s ELC to shaft Perreault – it’s bad salary cap, asset, and roster management.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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