Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the Washington Capitals…
The Washington Capitals are coming off one of the best seasons in NHL history. Well, one of the best regular seasons, that is. The Caps blew right past the competition in the first half of the 2016-17 campaign, then cruised through the second half to claim the Presidents’ Trophy with relative ease.
That’s where the fun ended though.
Washington ousted the Flyers in the opening round of the playoffs, but ran into the wrong team at the wrong time when they faced the Penguins. The end result was a hard fought, tightly contested series in which the Capitals ultimately bowed out earlier than expected.
Was it a disappointment? Yes — especially considering their self-imposed lofty expectations and their track record in the postseason. It’s not fair to pin losses from the 1980’s or 90’s on the current roster, of course. But it’s tough for fans in D.C. to completely forget the past after yet another year that failed to produce a Stanley Cup.
Can this group stay completely dialed in for the next 82 games?
The regular season can be a grind at times. And, as we see year after year, there always seems to be a couple clubs fighting for a playoff spot all the way down to the 82nd game of the year.
That’s not typically the case for the Caps though. They just won 56 games, then showed good patience to keep essentially the exact same roster intact for the upcoming season. The real test for these guys doesn’t come until April and May.
That scenario prevents its own unique challenges, however. Not the least of which is the notion that it could be really tough for this team to stay focused on a nightly basis. No matter how much they win games by in November and December, they still can’t improve on last year’s end result until the playoffs roll around. And that could turn into a significant psychological hurdle at times.
Fortunately, they have Barry Trotz behind the bench. And there’s a reason he’s the reigning Jack Adams Award winner.
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
Lars Eller (from MTL)
Nothing flashy here, but that’s not always a bad thing. Washington didn’t have a lot of needs, but third-line center was certainly on GM Brian MacLellan’s wish list. Eller should slide into that role nicely, as a versatile forward with the ability to win some faceoffs and decent playoff experience.
Madison Bowey (drafted: No. 53 overall in 2013)
The Caps are loaded with star power — but it’s really all jammed into the front part of the lineup. The blue line, on the other hand, flies somewhat under-the-radar. Guys like John Carlson and Karl Alzner get the job done more often than not, but they don’t really grab headlines.
To that end, the defense corps is probably the best spot for a young player to break into this lineup at the moment. And Bowey might just be that guy. At 21 years of age, he’s still a player on the rise. But he’s already shown himself to be an offensive asset ont he back end, notching 50 goals in 199 games over the course of three years in the WHL.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Alex Ovechkin ($9.538 million)
Few players in the world make more money to play hockey than Ovechkin does. And none of them put the puck in the net more often than him.
Good luck finding a more reliable goal scorer over the last two decades — and it’s not like he’s slowing down. Ovi just hit the 50-goal mark for the third consecutive year, and the seventh time in his career. Nobody feels the weight of these postseason disappointments more than he does, which means even more motivation for arguably the most dangerous offensive weapon of an entire generation.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
One of the more prevalent themes after Washington’s exit at the hands of Pittsburgh was the stinging realization that this was probably the best lineup the Capitals had ever fielded. And Oshie was a major reason why.
But he’s an unrestricted free agent next summer, meaning this could be his last crack at a Cup in D.C. Which, of course, gives some credence to the growing concern that the Caps’ window of opportunity could start sliding shut soon if they don’t take advantage, like, now.
As we’ve established, everything with this group is measured in terms of potential playoff impact. And that’s where Kuznetsov still has room to improve. Two years ago, he made the postseason into his own personal breakout party, notching five goals and two assists in just 14 contests. And that proved to be a preview of what he could do over a full season.
In all, the gifted young Russian tallied a club-high 77 points as a 23-year-old in the 2015-16 campaign. But the production dried up in the playoffs. And, considering just how close that series with the Pens was, a scoring uptick for Kuznetsov in the 2017 postseason could go a very long way.