November 29, 2014

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Preseason Season Roundtable, Part I

Opening night of the 2013-14 season for the Washington Capitals is less than a week away. 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 second half of our roundtable will post Monday.

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.

1) Grade the off-season and why?

Dave: C. GM George McPhee was stealthy in his acquisition of center Mikhail Grabovski, waiting until well into the free agency period to nab the veteran pivot for a bargain one-year, $3 million deal. Grabovski should be sufficiently motivated to post big numbers and keep his nose clean, neither of which he did last season at Toronto coach Randy Carlyle misused the prime puck possessor as a third line grinder. But Grabo was the only acquisition of note.

I really would have liked to have seen a veteran defenseman with size brought in. Losses of Matt Hendricks and Jeff Schultz are inconsequential on the ice, though Hendricks was a real good guy in the room.

Katie:  Hard to put a number on this. They kept the core together and only lost Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks, and snatched Mikhail Grabovski after the initial free agent frenzy (which we know George McPhee doesn’t fall for). I’ll give the offseason a 6 out of 10.

Abram:  C. Our current era of grade inflation notwithstanding, this team had an average offseason, and that’s a C. I’m not convinced that this team will be better than in the 2013 season (I refuse to refer to a season that only ran in 2013 as 2012-13). However, they won’t be measurably worse. Mikhail Grabovski won’t be as good as last season’s Mike Ribeiro, but he’ll probably be equal to this season’s Ribeiro.

Only two things of note happened. First, Ribeiro left as a UFA, and Grabovski was signed a few months later to replace him. Second, the Caps signed steady defenseman Karl Alzner to a four-year contract extension. They didn’t make any real splashes in free agency or through trades, and the other “big” names to leave the team – Matt Hendricks, Jeff Schultz – were both eminently polarizing and eminently replaceable. Essentially, this is the same team as last season.
Erika: The offseason is tough to grade for me. I love the acquisition of Mikhail Grabovski but I do think it was a bit of a mistake to let Mike Ribeiro walk. On the other hand, the Capitals unloaded Jeff Schultz (which is a move I’ve personally been advocating for some time). Based on the transactions made, I’d give the Caps a B-.

Ted: Capitals get a B for their offseason work, primarily upgrading from a grade of D, when they signed Mikhail Grabovski, who was bought out by Toronto after last season. Washington’s biggest shortcoming was center with Mike Ribeiro’s departure to Phoenix, and the indications early in free agency is that they would use Brooks Laich as their second-line center.But instead of a step backwards, the Capitals at least kept pace with last year’s club by plugging in Grabovski, who should rebound nicely in Washington after being marginalized in the last stint of his tenure in Toronto.

Sky: I give them a C because they lost a huge member of their locker room in Matt Hendricks and a solid second line center in Mike Ribeiro.  Ribeiro was the first half MVP, helped Troy Brouwer have a career year and was a key contributor to the best PP in the NHL and don’t forget, half of Ovi’s goals came on the PP.  Grabovski is a bit of a wild card.  I believe he will help them more 5-on-5, but the PP could be an issue and he has always been known to really struggle when adversity hits and adversity hits every team during the season.  I also think not being able to get another top-4 defenseman really hurts.

Harry: I give the offseason an A-.  Once again, George McPhee avoided the crazy deals of the opening period of free agency, instead waiting out the market to sign his players.  Letting Matt Hendricks and Mike Ribeiro sign for big money elsewhere was absolutely the right move, and in their stead McPhee signed a player who is younger and better than them both.  The only think that keeps McPhee from earning an A is that he didn’t bring in a top-four defenseman – but more on that later.

2) What is your single biggest area of concern?

Dave: The Defense. This defense is top-heavy, with Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson as strong as any three deep in the league. But John Erskine is miscast in the second pairing, though he’s still the only regular on defense that brings any snarl. Promising youngsters Dmitry Orlov, Tomas Kundratek and Connor Carrick will bide their time in Hershey as the undersized Jack Hillen and journeyman Steve Oleksy continue to see time as the third pair. Unless the youngsters play their way into the lineup, the third pairing is going to continue to be a problem spot.

Katie: At this point it has to be the 4D position. The team is pretty set as far as forwards go, but that isn’t a terrible problem to have. I’m concerned about John Erskine being regularly torched by other teams. He’s a big guy and willing to throw down when necessary, but he’s not that fast and not getting any lighter on his feet.

Abram:  Defense. It was an area that needed improvement. Washington has three NHL caliber defensemen – Mike Green, John Carlson, and Alzner – and everyone else is replacement-level. John Erskine, Jack Hillen, Tomas Kundratek, and Steven Oleksy are decent enough to take a shift in the big league, but the thought of any of them earning second-pairing minutes should induce feelings of dread in Washington fans. The Caps have a few prospects in the minors that could be serviceable pros one day, but unless Dmitry Orlov can make the jump to the big squad, the puck is going to be spending a lot of time in Washington’s end.

Erika: My biggest concern is that the coaching staff are still playing around with players’ positions. Moving Ovechkin back to left wing and constantly flipping him around does him no favors. Moving Brooks Laich to the ever-vacant second-line center made me a little nervous. Considering that Marcus Johansson actually is a center, why not put him in that position? Laich has played center in the past but I still don’t believe him a “natural” center. The constant position switching causes some concern.

Ted: After having traded for Martin Erat at the trade deadline last season, wingers are still a bit of a concern for Washington. Once a cornerstone of the team’s strength, the depth was tested with the departure of Alex Semin last season and there was a glaring need to replace his scoring threat. The Capitals picked up veteran Erat from Nashville for their 2012 first-round pick, Filip Forsberg, and Erat’s brief tenure so far in Washington was marked with injuries – the last being self-inflicted when he was barreled into by Alex Ovechkin at Madison Square Garden in Game 4 of the playoffs.

It will be interesting to see how Erat fills in his role on the second line – and how 2010 first-round Evgeny Kuznetsov will figure into the team’s plans once his KHL season ends and is eligible to come over and sign with the Capitals.

Sky: Complacency.  This team thinks they can win just by the skill on their team and they’ve been able to walk into the playoffs each season being in the Southeast Division.  They went 13-3 in the Southeast last season, which enabled them to make the playoffs, but in 55 games, including the playoffs, they only had four regulation wins against playoff teams.  Two of those wins were against a Montreal team that was eliminated swiftly in the first round, another was against Toronto which came back and put up a fight before eliminated in the first round and the fourth was against the Rangers in game one.

The Caps won seven games against their new division teams last season and four of those were against Carolina.  They can’t get off to a bad start and need to beat playoff teams this season, something they didn’t have to do in previous years to make the playoffs.

Harry: My single biggest area of concern is the defensive corps.  Washington has very good defensemen in Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and John Carlson, but there is a cavernous drop off following those three.  Jack Hillen lacks the size and great defensive ability that you look for in a lower-pair defenseman, while Steve Oleksy is bound to fall back to earth.  What’s more, John Erskine is currently a top-four option on this team, which is not going to cut it.  There is young potential in Tomas Kundratek, Cam Schilling, and Dmitry Orlov, but none of them have proved anything yet.

3) What do you expect out of Ovechkin this season?

Dave: This is a big year for the Captain. He’ll be in Greece over the weekend as the first Russian athlete to carry the Olympic flame as it journeys to Sochi for the games in February. He’s not only expected to be the best player on his NHL team and a face for the franchise, but the best player for his country as they host the Winter Games after such a disappointing showing in Vancouver.

Hopefully Ovi is as motivated for the Caps season as he is to represent his country. Barring injury, I think he’ll be in the 40-goal range, and count me as not as concerned about losing Mike Ribeiro on the power play. The power play unit might not be quite as prolific as last season — it would have a hard time repeating if Ribeiro was here or not — but it will still be a major strength for the Caps this season.

Katie: More of the same from last season, though he won’t win the Hart or Richard. He flourished under Oates even in the shortened season, so I expect that to continue. Ovi hasn’t really ever had a rapport with a coach the way he does with Oates, and that’s fun to watch.

Abram:  I expect a below-average season. Certainly it will be tough to replicate his MVP year. On top of an expected regression, 2014 is an Olympic year. Unquestionably the biggest Russian winter sports athlete in the English-speaking world, not to mention in his home nation, Ovechkin is the face of the Sochi Games. His focus from now until February is the gold medal. Once that’s done he may be able to re-focus onto the NHL, but until then, his performance will be lacking.

Erika: Ovechkin did take a while to warm up last season, but I chalk that up to having not one, not two, but three brand new coaches. Ovechkin seems to have a great rapport with Oates, and I think that with the right line combination, Ovechkin can easily silence the naysayers and get back to his usual impressive form.

Ted: Ovechkin should have a good campaign, as unlike his tenure under the late Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter eras, he is allowed to take more chances offensively, and as a result, should put up some good numbers.

Like the past season where he led the league with 32 goals in 48 games, you should see Ovechkin score goals in bunches – as well as dry spells where his production drops significantly – and he should be able to record his
first 40-goal campaign since 2010-11, and perhaps even hit the 50-goal mark this year.

Sky: Everyone says he did so well playing on right wing but Ovechkin only had half his goals there.  The other half was on the power play.  I think he’ll have around 30 goals due to the fact this power play won’t be as good as a year ago.  One thing — defenses adjust.  Another, not having Ribeiro will really hurt them.  Grabovski isn’t as good as Ribeiro is with the extra man.

Harry: I  expect a solid season from Alex Ovechkin.  He won’t approach the absurd power play numbers that he did last year simply because the unit as a whole will regress, but his switch to right wing has invigorated him for now. He’ll need to adapt again as teams key on him in his new position, but given full health, I would expect between 35-38 goals and about 80 points.

4) Are you satisfied with the goaltending situation?

Dave: For the most part. Braden Holtby has a lot on his plate this season, as he’s being considered for the biggest job in Canada: Olympic goalie. If he plays well in the first half of the season, he could very well find his way to Sochi. Holtby is an athletic marvel and a terrific puck-handler, but his aggressiveness still hinders him at times.

Neuvirth is steady as a backup, but on the occasions he’s had to steal the No. 1 job for one reason or another it just hasn’t worked for him. He could end up a trade chip if Holtby continues his stranglehold on the top spot. Philipp Grubauer, who will start the season in Hershey, might end up being the best of all of them. Caps goalie coach Olie Kolzig loves the kid.

Katie: Who wouldn’t be? The Caps have two young, talented goalies on their roster for less than a $5M cap hit. Can’t beat that. I think eventually Neuvirth will want to be the number one guy somewhere else, and move on, but for now, the Capitals are in a good situation.

Abram:  Yes. Between Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, there’s at least one quality NHL goalie there. I definitely feel good about Holtby, and Neuvirth’s not too shabby either. Neither man is Henrik Lundqvist or Jonathan Quick, but very few goalies are. I also like Grubauer in the minors. There’s some pretty good depth at the position.

Erika: The goaltending situation seems to be a bit awkward at the moment. Holtby appears to be the clear number one, especially now with Kolzig becoming head goaltending coach, since Holtby essentially is a young Kolzig. Last year, I was definitely feeling some vibes that Neuvirth was extremely dissatisfied and annoyed playing second fiddle to Holtby. It should be interesting to see how the goaltending situation shakes out, particularly in terms of the trade market. As far as the minor leagues go, I’m very excited for Grubauer to eventually make his way up (I’d expect some call-ups this year) and make a big impact.

Ted: While young, the Capitals are very deep in goal, and it will be interesting to see how the depth plays out over the next 12 months.

Braden Holtby is certainly the starter under Adam Oates, as the 24-year-old got the bulk of the work last year under the new coach. Holtby has shown flashes of brilliance at times, and while not quite at the elite level of goaltending yet, he is a very capable and solid workhorse that should provide the Caps good goaltending this season.

The big question, if not now, is the backup. Michal Neuvirth, age 25, is certainly a more-than-capable backup with good skill, but the emergence of 21-year-old Philipp Grubauer in Hershey will certainly bring a tough decision sooner or later for George McPhee, as it will become impractical to have three young NHL-ready goaltenders on the roster as soon as Grubauer gets more seasoning. With the organization very high on the young German goaltender, it seems that sooner or later, Neuvirth could be the odd man out barring injury to one of the other two netminders.

Sky: Yes, they have three goalies capable of start in the NHL, that’s all you can ask for.  I think Holtby will have a great season.

Harry: I am satisfied with the goaltending.  Braden Holtby has shown to be a very capable goaltender at this level and Michal Neuvirth is a fully capable backup with starter potential should Holtby falter.  I still expect Neuvirth to be traded at some point, but goaltending is my area of least concern right now.

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. 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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