Usually, when I get an AP Mobile Alert on my iPhone at 2:45 am PST, it is rarely good news. Invariably, it always seems like a big earthquake has struck somewhere, or there are tsunami warnings being issued or something quasi-cataclysmic like that.
But at 2:45 am, PST, on Sunday January 6, 2013, I got the alert all hockey fans had been wishing about for months: At long last the NHL lockout was over.
As reported by various outlets, such as ESPN, the NHL and NHLPA finally put their petty differences aside and agreed on the framework for a new 10-year CBA that brought the lockout to a merciful end and salvaged a 48-game season.
For Washington D.C. sports fans, the end of the lockout means the return of the Washington Capitals. And with the devastating injury suffered by Robert Griffin III (ESPN), the return of the Caps could not have come at a better time.
So there will be a season after all and it is now time to look at the upcoming 48-game sprint to the playoffs—and start making some predictions for the Caps.
The last time we saw the Caps, roughly eight months ago, they had just lost a Game 7 to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It was a bitter defeat and the lockout made the rancid taste of that loss linger in the mouths of Caps' fans for far too long.
For the Caps, they come into this truncated season with lots of questions—and a ton of potential to do some really great things.
How great can things get for the Caps this season? It's hard to say. But if we are going to dream, why not dream big?
Let's take a look then at five bold predictions for the Washington Capitals for the 2012-2013 season.
Look for Mike Ribeiro to really prosper in the Caps up tempo system
Even though the Capitals had a relatively quiet offseason, they did make one big move.
On draft day 2012, George McPhee cut a deal with the Dallas Stars whereby the Caps got Mike Ribeiro in exchange for Cody Eakin and the 54th pick in the draft (Washington Times).
The thought process for McPhee was simple. He had been looking for a second-line center for a couple of years and he felt that Ribeiro would more than fill that role.
Ribeiro comes to the Caps in the last year of his existing contract. One would assume that Ribeiro will do all he can to impress the Caps and his teammates. In a 48-game season, I believe Ribeiro will do more than just impress—he will break out in a big way.
He brings a ton of experience to the Caps as he has played in over 700 games during his NHL career. Despite all that action, he is not injury-prone. In fact, the fewest number of games he has played in any season since 2003-2004 was 66 during the 2009-2010 season. A 48-game season is going to be a walk in the park for Ribeiro.
While Ribeiro cannot really be considered a prolific goal scorer, he is more than adequate as far as lighting the lamp. He has averaged 19.88 goals per season since the 2003-2004 campaign with a high of 27 goals in 2008 and a low of 16 in 2006.
All this and Ribeiro played on some rather average—or less than average—teams during that stretch. The Caps have enough offensive talent and firepower that it is very conceivable that Ribeiro could have a career year this season in D.C. True, it won't be a perfect comparison because it will take place over 48 games as opposed to 82.
But I can definitely see Ribeiro flourishing in the Caps' system. Adam Oates is going to make the Caps much more up-tempo than they were a year ago. It might not be on the same level as the 2009-2010 Caps were—but they should be fun to watch. Without question, the 2013 version of the Caps will be significantly better than many of the downright mediocre Stars' teams on which Ribeiro played.
Another factor indicating Ribeiro might have a career year is that though he was brought in to be a second-line center, he might very well get some time as the top-line center.
If Nicklas Backstrom had to miss some time, then Ribeiro would likely be moved to the top line and paired up with what many of us expect to be a refocused Alexander Ovechkin. That is only going to help Mike Ribeiro's production.
It might be too much to ask for a 20-goal season from Ribeiro. But if he can get to that 15- or 16-goal mark, I think the Caps will be thrilled with the result.
Even in a shortened season, I think Mike Ribeiro is about to have a career year.
Braden Holtby will get the chance to shine this season...and he will succeed
You all remember Braden Holtby, don't you?
As most will recall, Holtby came from practically out of nowhere last spring to lead the Caps to a stunning first-round upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and Tim Thomas.
Holtby, proving his stellar performance against Boston was no fluke, then very nearly upended the top-seeded New York Rangers and Vezina trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist before falling in a great seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
Along the way, Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average.
Only Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the 2012 NHL playoffs, and Lundqvist had a better goals against average than Holtby, among goalies who played more than 10 playoff games last year.
Holtby also had a .935 save percentage.
Only Quick and Phoenix's Mike Smith had a better save percentage among goalies playing in more than 10 playoff games.
Suffice it to say, Braden Holtby had a tremendous postseason, no matter how you try and measure it.
It was so solid that it was pretty much a given that Holtby would enter training camp as the Caps' starting goaltender.
But the lockout came and delayed everything. Holtby, though, was far from idle during the lockout.
Holtby went back to Hershey and played for the Caps' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. He played a ton and he played quite well.
Holtby played in 25 games for the Bears and logged over 1400 minutes between the pipes.
He was fifth in the AHL with a 2.14 goals against average, third with a .932 save percentage, was second in the AHL with four shutouts and was seventh in saves with 712. It looks like he will finish with a 12-12-1 mark during this AHL stint which is good but, admittedly, not great.
Naturally, the AHL is a far cry from the NHL talent-wise. But if you look at Braden Holtby's numbers, they did not slip too much from what he was doing in the playoffs last spring.
What is more important, though, is how, unlike some of the other elite NHL goaltenders, Holtby has been playing consistently, against solid competition, for the duration of almost the entire lockout.
Jonathan Quick has been recovering from microdiscectomy surgery he had back in August (Los Angeles Times).
Henrik Lundqvist has spent most of the lockout in Sweden and the only real action he has apparently seen was a charity game to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy (New York Post).
Roberto Luongo's status is still up in the air (The Vancouver Sun).
I am sure all of these guys have done their best to stay in shape during the lockout and stay sharp. But you have to love the experience Holtby got in Hershey and the fact that he stayed pretty sharp during the lockout.
I expect Holtby to hit the ice a step ahead of just about any other goalie I can think of. I expect him to be very sharp and highly motivated now that he will be back in the NHL and wearing the Capitals' uniform again.
He will get the Caps off to a quick start and set a pace that the other NHL goalies just won't be able to match.
Look for Braden Holtby to win the Vezina Trophy this year.
Alex Ovechkin will return to form this season...and then some
During the course of the lockout, those of us who regularly cover the Washington Capitals wrote numerous articles about Alexander Ovechkin. One might have thought we were trying to be psychiatrists with all the analysis we were giving to the Great Eight.
What was wrong with him? Was anything really wrong with him? Had he lost his touch? Would he get it back? If so, when?
I believe this upcoming 2013 season will be the one where Ovi emphatically shows that there is nothing wrong with him, he has not lost his touch and he will silence all those who have doubted him by capturing the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player for a third time.
As Caps fans know, statistically speaking Ovechkin's numbers have been down the past couple of seasons. There is no denying that but, in reality, they are not down quite as much as many think.
Yes, compared to his 65-goal, 47-assist onslaught during the 2007-2008 season, Ovechkin's numbers are way down. But when compared to the rest of the NHL, they are not so terrible.
Ask most Caps' fans and Ovechkin's 38 goals a season ago would be considered a major disappointment. Still, Ovi was fifth in the league in goals.
Where Ovi's numbers fell off badly though were in the assists and points departments. He only had 27 assists last year (a dismal 122nd in the NHL) and his 65 total points ranked 37th in the league. Without question, those numbers must improve and I think you will see a sharp improvement, taken within the context of a shortened season.
The main reason for this likely return to form will be new head coach Adam Oates. ESPN recently previewed the Caps 2013 season and in that article there is some enlightening information about Oates' mindset as far as Ovechkin is concerned:
We talked to Oates about his plan for his captain and it's simple, he's going to turn him loose. As he said during an interview, you don't pay Alex Rodriguez to hit singles and you don't pay Alex Ovechkin to have a good plus-minus rating. We're guessing Oates gets Ovechkin back into the hunt for a Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal-scorer and perhaps even an Art Ross.
For Caps' fans, they have to be thrilled to read that. Oates is going to release the hounds, remove the chains and turn Ovechkin loose upon the league and he is exactly right.
You don't use a guy like Alexander Ovechkin to have a good plus-minus rating and Dale Hunter did that far too much. You let a player like Alexander Ovechkin be what he is, a dynamic goal scorer and one of the best players in the world.
Another factor that should help Ovi get off to a quick start is the fact that after spending the entire lockout in Russia playing in the KHL, Ovi will be ready for the 2013 season. His time spent playing for Dynamo Moscow indicates that Ovi might be poised for a really big 2013 season.
For the Russian club, Ovechkin played in 31 games, scored 19 goals (fourth-best in the KHL), had 21 assists, 40 points and a plus-13 rating. Anyone who watched any of the KHL action saw that Ovi looked a lot like the Ovi of old.
While the Rocket Richard or Art Ross trophies are certainly going to be within reach for Ovechkin this season, I believe his play is going to lead the Caps to new heights in 2013. As to how high, go to the final slide and find out.
But, at the end of the day, I believe Alexander Ovechkin's play and performance this season will result in him winning a third Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's MVP.
Adam Oates is poised to have a tremendous rookie season as the Caps coach
If these first three bold predictions come to pass, it is almost automatic that this fourth bold prediction will also come to fruition.
In fact, predicting a rookie head coach to win the Jack Adams award as NHL coach of the year might be the boldest prediction yet. It just does not happen that often.
Marc Crawford was the first to do it in 1995 when he was the rookie coach of the Quebec Nordiques.
In 2010, Joe Sacco of the Colorado Avalanche got nominated for the award in his rookie season but lost out to Dave Tippett.
But by and large, rookie coaches do not have the success necessary to warrant consideration for the Jack Adams award.
Adam Oates will buck that trend this year. Oates is not exactly like most rookie head coaches as most rookie coaches do not get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame just prior to their rookie season beginning. But Oates did just that getting inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this past November (Washington Times).
In the ESPN preview article on the Caps, Scott Burnside offered his take on Oates and why he has a great chance of succeeding in his first season:
But Oates is one of the most cerebral and intense guys around. New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer, who had Oates on his staff during the Devils' run to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals, raved in an interview with ESPN.com about Oates' contributions to the team's success. Although Oates, one of the most gifted playmakers in NHL history, will bring loads of offensive savvy, it was interesting to hear assistant coach and former teammate Calle Johansson describe Oates' dedication to strong defensive play and the nasty streak he carried with him as a player.
This is huge for the Caps, as one of the questions many fans have had is if Oates can get the Caps back to being the offensive juggernaut they were without sacrificing the defensive discipline and style they gained from playing under Dale Hunter, a style that brought them within a whisker of the Eastern Conference Finals.
If Burnside is correct, it sounds like Oates has already been hard at work trying to figure that out.
Another factor that bodes well for Oates' success is the coaching staff he's put together. Oates has an eclectic group with the relatively inexperienced Calle Johansson to work with the defense, the very experienced Tim Hunter as an assistant coach and Blaine Forsythe, Olaf Kolzig and Dave Prior, all of whom were on the staff last season under Dale Hunter.
Another big advantage Oates will have over other rookie coaches who have come before him is that this staff, prior to ever actually coaching an actual regular-season NHL game will have attained quite a bit of experience coaching games together.
As many know, Oates and pretty much his entire staff co-coached the Hershey Bears for a period of time during the lockout (Washington Post). Almost all of Oates' coaching staff was either with him in Hersey in some capacity, or they were working with the Caps' ECHL affiliate, the Reading Royals.
All of this will enable Oates and his entire staff to hit the ice skating as fast as possible. If Oates can successfully find balance between the defensive philosophy of Dale Hunter and the up-tempo style of Bruce Boudreau, as well as help Alexander Ovechkin recapture his scoring touch and get the Caps off to a hot start, there is no telling how far they can go.
I believe all of these things are very possible and you will see a true rarity—a rookie coach winning the Jack Adams award.
This is the year Caps fans...just believe.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, if you are going to dream then why not dream big.
For Caps fans, this is as big a dream as there is. But it is not nearly that far-fetched. Far from it actually.
There are numerous factors to suggest that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year that the Stanley Cup finally makes its way to D.C.
A key factor is that the Caps learned how to play playoff hockey last spring. They learned what it takes to win in the playoffs. They learned that defense wins championships and they learned how to play the defensive style of hockey that will lead to even further playoff success in 2013.
Of course, the Caps have to get to the playoffs first but I don't believe that will be a problem.
As mentioned in this article already, the Caps should be as ready as any team in the NHL to get off to the quick start they will need to make the playoffs.
Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were both playing for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. We looked at Ovechkin's stats earlier but Backstrom was impressive in Russia as well with 10 goals and 15 assists in 19 games played.
As reported by Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, Backstrom was on the ice skating with the Caps on Friday so the concerns over his health seem to be put to rest.
Then you have the fact that Braden Holtby got all that ice time playing for Hershey. Even if he does not win the Vezina Trophy, I suspect that Holtby will be ready to go as of January 19 and that he will be sharp.
Add in that the Caps' entire coaching staff got in some quality time working together in Hershey and from top to bottom the Caps are going to be as ready as any team in the NHL to win now. I fully expect the Caps to win the Southeast division and go to the playoffs as no less than a No. 3 seed.
Once they reach the playoffs, the Caps will be ready. With at least a No. 3 seed, the Caps will enjoy home-ice advantage for at least a series, if not longer. Combined with the playoff success and experience from last year, the Caps could go very far once the playoffs begin.
How far can they go?
Dare to dream Caps fans, dare to dream.