The Caps drafted two top-flight prospects in Filip Forsberg and Thomas Wilson at the NHL Draft, while at the same time trading for skilled centerman Mike Ribeiro. They also added free agents Wojtek Wolski, Joey Crabb and Jack Hillen. Finally, the team subtracted Mike Knuble, Dennis Wideman and Alexander Semin.
All told, the Washington Capitals are about as strong as they were at the end of the 2011-12 regular season, when they finished seventh in the East, and were tied with the Ottawa Senators for the fewest number of points among all Stanley Cup playoff participants with 92. In fact, ESPN's NHL Power Rankings supports that theory in their preseason edition, placing the Capitals 14th in the NHL.
Elsewhere in the Southeast Division this offseason, other teams were getting stronger.
One of those teams was the Carolina Hurricanes. The Caps closest divisional opponent from a geographical standpoint finished the season with 82 points, dead last in the Southeast Division and 23rd overall of the 30 teams in the entire NHL. Yet in their preseason Power Rankings, ESPN has the Canes rising all the way to 15th—right behind the Caps and second among Southeast Division teams.
But thanks to all of Carolina's off-season progress, the Washington Capitals could actually be looking up at the Hurricanes during the 2012-13 season.
To compete with the Capitals—or anyone in the Southeast Division—the Hurricanes have to score more goals. In 2011-12, Carolina finished 18th in the league with 213 goals for. Of the five Southeast Division teams, only Florida scored fewer goals, tying for 26th in the league with 203 goals for.
The Hurricanes felt that improving their offense would offset their struggling defense, which underwent minimal net changes this offseason. Last season, the Canes totaled 243 goals against, 23rd in the league. By comparison, the Capitals' defense surrendered 230 goals against, 19th in the league.
The Hurricanes' goal differential of -30 was sixth worst in the entire NHL, but the Canes closed this gap immediately by signing right wing Alexander Semin. Sasha has averaged 28.1 goals per season in his seven-year NHL career. That type of production would be a boon for the Carolina Hurricanes. Even a repeat of last year's goal total of 21, the lowest of Semin's career since he scored 10 in 52 games in his rookie season, would be a welcome addition to Carolina's offense.
Alex Semin's addition strengthens the Carolina Hurricanes while at the same time weakening the Washington Capitals. But Washington's biggest failure of the offseason was not in letting Alex Semin go but rather in not replacing his production. Mike Ribeiro will help, having averaged 14.4 goals per season during his 12-year career and scored double-digit goals in each of the last eight seasons.
But Wojtek Wolski is not the answer. True, Wolski's career average of 13.6 goals per season, when combined with Ribeiro's season average of 14.4, almost exactly equals Semin's season average of 28.1. But Wojtek Wolski has not scored double-digit goals since the 2009-10 season, when he tallied 23 in 80 games split between the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes.
Coincidentally, that was the highest total of his seven-year career.
So, if Wolski approaches a full-season career high in goals with the Washington Capitals, he would be approaching Alex Semin's full-season career low in goals with the Washington Capitals. Therefore, the Capitals did indeed take a significant risk in attempting to replace the scoring lost by Alex Semin's departure.
In addition to signing Alex Semin, the Carolina Hurricanes completed another even more important off-season transaction. However, this one had less to do with offense and more to do with improving Carolina's team defense. The Canes signed veteran pivot Jordan Staal, younger brother of Carolina captain Eric Staal, in a draft-day trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jordan has averaged 20 goals per season in his six-year career, but he excels at the less glamorous aspects of the game.
In 2011-12, Jordan averaged 2:38 of average short handed time on ice per game (SH TOI/G), 60th in a league of 894 skaters, to go along with 1:59 of average power play time on ice per game (PP TOI/G). His faceoff win percentage (FO%) of 51.0% last season ranked him 46th in the league, and his home faceoff percentage (HFO%) of 54.9% was 27th best in the NHL. And he finished the season with a plus-minus rating (+/-) of 11, while only playing 62 games.
But these stats don't reveal Staal's true value to a hockey team. Jordan Staal is most valued as a defensive stopper. Adam Gretz of CBS Sports explains that Jordan's specialty is more important than any offensive production he provides:
As soon as he was traded to Carolina there was talk about how he would now get a bigger role offensively and be relied on to be a top scorer. I don't know that he's ever going to be a big-time point producer, and I don't know that he needs to be give his style of play.
Hockey isn't about scoring a certain number of points and getting a certain level of production out of your "No. 1 center," it's about simply outplaying and outscoring the other team. Staal is still probably going to match up against the other teams top line, he's still going to help shut them down, and he's still going to outplay them. He doesn't need to produce 80 or 90 points while playing that type of game.
The acquisition of Jordan Staal to bolster Carolina's team defense becomes more important in relation to the system already installed by head coach Kirk Muller, who was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes on November 28, 2011. As then-defenseman Derek Joslin explained to Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times before a game against the Washington Capitals on March 6, 2012, the Carolina players had already seen the positive results of Muller's coaching:
We’re a lot more aggressive in all three zones. He really stresses we work as five, so you’re going to see the defensive zone with five guys back and the neutral zone all five guys helping out each other. We’re really hounding the puck. I think it’s just the consistency in practice of really putting the pressure on us to learn the system and perfect the system.
Joslin may have moved on, but Muller and his system have remained. And Jordan Staal is the perfect player to help execute this system. He can further illustrate to his new teammates that this type of hockey is successful in the NHL.
Finally, the most important reason why the Capitals will be looking up at the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2012-13 NHL season is simply a matter of repetition.
Adam Oates plans to preach a system to his Washington Capitals very similar to that of Kirk Muller and his Carolina Hurricanes. But the Caps will be hearing this system from this voice for the first time come training camp. The Carolina Hurricanes have already heard that system from that voice for 57 regular season games.
The Washington Capitals will begin this upcoming NHL season in a transition period, growing accustomed to this system instructed by this coach. Meanwhile in Raleigh, the Carolina Hurricanes will need no such transition period and will get a running start on Washington and the rest of the division.
Before the Capitals know what hit them, the Carolina Hurricanes will be leading the Southeast Division.
And no one will catch them.
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