5 Moves the Capitals Must Make If They Hope to Make the Playoffs in 2014

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIMay 22, 2013

5 Moves the Capitals Must Make If They Hope to Make the Playoffs in 2014

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    With the 2013 season now firmly in the rear-view mirror, it is time for the Washington Capitals to turn the page and move ahead.

    It has been a little over a week since the Caps' Game 7 meltdown against the New York Rangers, and while the sting of that defeat still burns, it would nevertheless be unwise to linger on that defeat too long and lose sight of the fact that the 2013-2014 season will still start in less than six months.

    Let the questions begin for a franchise that perpetually seems in transition and seems to be in that posture yet again.

    For the Caps, this past season was a constant work in progress. It started very badly with that 2-8-1 start, then ended so strongly as the Caps got red hot and took the Southeast division title and then ended so badly again with the Caps blowing a 2-0 series lead for the ninth time in team history and being unable to score a a goal in the final two games against the Rangers.

    Opinions vary as to whether the Caps can still compete or whether they are far away from being truly competitive. Have their best years passed them by—or are better times still ahead for this franchise?

    All we know for sure is that there won't be any lockout this season. The Caps will have a normal schedule and a normal offseason routine. That will help things some, but it would be naive for anyone to think the Caps can stand pat and still compete, particularly with the new landscape that will be the NHL during the 2013-14 season.

    No, the Caps must make some changes if they are going to make the playoffs this coming season, and they will have to make some moves as well. Here are five such changes and/or moves the team must make if the Caps hope to qualify for the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.

1. They Must Change Their Mentality

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    It might not seem like much of a move or change to make, but I think one of the biggest tasks head coach Adam Oates will face, along with the Caps in general, is that they have to change their mentality considerably if they hope to get back to the playoffs at the end of the 2014 season.

    This franchise has to realize—and realize very quickly—that the 2013-14 season will be something like Back To The Future for the Caps.

    Making the playoffs has almost been a given the past six seasons as the Caps have just mauled the other teams in the now defunct Southeast Division. The Caps absolutely feasted on the teams from their division as evidenced by their five Southeast division titles in the past six seasons.

    The times are, however, changing. Instead of bludgeoning the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers, for the 2013-14 season the Caps will have to contend with new (or old depending on how long your memory is) divisional rivals who will present a much more formidable challenge.

    In addition to the Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Caps will have to contend with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils next season.

    All of these teams are good. The Pens might very well be defending Stanley Cup champions next season.

    If this was the World Cup, then the Caps' new division would absolutely be the Group of Death.

    Whatever this division is ultimately named, it is almost an exact replica of the old Patrick Division that existed up until the 1993-94 season. Those who do have a long memory will recall the wars that were involved in determining the Patrick Division champion.

    In fact, if one goes to the Patrick Division's Wikipedia page it becomes readily apparent how tough of a division it was. The Caps won one—just one—Patrick Division regular season title and that was in 1989. The only time they won the Patrick Division championship in the playoffs was in 1990.

    It might be overlooked, but making sure the Caps understand the daunting task ahead of them might be the most important thing Oates does this offseason. The Caps have to understand and realize they are not in the Southeast division any longer. They are back in the badlands, and every team in their new division—save for the Blue Jackets—have a great deal of history with the Caps.

    If they understand this before the puck is dropped, then the Caps should be all right.

    If they do not understand this right away, it just might be too late.

2. Let the Kids Play

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    Perhaps I am in the minority here, but I am a big believer that the Caps simply cannot just go along with the same old strategy and expect to achieve results. The old guard does not work. It has not worked for six years now, and there is no reason to expect something radically different this coming season.

    So why not let some of the Caps' rather promising prospects play? Give the kids a chance to see what they can do. What do the Caps really have to lose?

    The Caps did this with Tom Wilson during the playoffs. Wilson was taken with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft by the Caps.

    At 6'4" and 210 pounds, Wilson has great size and strength for a 19-year-old right winger. He did not score a goal against the New York Rangers, but he played very hard and made an impression on many of the fans. Wilson might actually have been the best Caps' player on the ice in Game 7.

    Wilson, however, is not the only young Caps prospect who the team should give a nod to this coming season.

    There is Stanislav Galiev. Galiev was selected in the third round of the 2010 NHL draft by the Caps. Galiev is a very strong skater who has good hands and a very good shot. He has exceptional speed and very good vision on the ice.

    Galiev just turned in a very strong season for the Reading Royals of the ECHL, scoring 23 goals, gathering 24 assists and registering a plus-16 rating in just 46 games for the Royals. He did struggle some while he was in Hershey earlier in the season. Still, his performance for the Royals was quite impressive and certainly would seem to justify letting him play to see what he can do.

    Or how about someone like Connor Carrick? Carrick was drafted in the fifth round by the Caps in the 2012 NHL entry draft.

    The young defenseman has exceptional speed and is not afraid to play physically. Carrick has shown the potential to be a two-way defender. While playing for the US National Development Team from 2010-2012, Carrick scored eight goals and had 17 assists in 89 games.

    This past season, Carrick played in 68 games for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL and had 12 goals, 32 assists and a solid plus-27 rating. Those numbers sound a lot like Mike Green's, and we all saw what Green was capable of, when healthy, this past season.

    The Caps also have experienced players like Dmitry Orlov. Orlov has already played in over 60 NHL contests and has shown some real potential. Yet he has not been given a chance to play in the playoffs either of the past two seasons.

    Ditto for Tomas Kundratek, another talented young defenseman who showed some real promise for the Caps in limited action this season.

    And if the Caps can get Evgeny Kuznetsov to actually come to D.C. prior to the end of the 2014 season, he could provide precisely the sort of offensive burst the Caps might need to compete for a playoff spot.

    The point in all of this is that the Caps need to give some of these younger, and very talented players, a chance to see what they can do. This is not to suggest that the Caps just blindly embrace a full-on youth movement. Still, the Caps are not getting any younger and what sense does it make stockpiling all these draft picks and prospects if none of them get the chance to play?

    With a full 82-game schedule, the Caps will have some leeway to experiment with the lineup. Not much, but more so than this past season.

    If the Caps want to compete for a playoff spot in 2014, then let the kids play.

3. Become More Disciplined

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    It is important to recognize that the Caps' penalty kill improved considerably as the regular season progressed.

    The Caps PK ranked a lowly 27th in the NHL during the regular season, killing off penalties only 77.9 percent of the time. Much of that was due to a dreadful beginning to the season for the PK.

    In the playoffs though, the Caps were tremendous on the PK, killing off 92.9 percent of the power-play opportunities the New York Rangers had, including a couple of five-on-three chances.

    The problem with the Caps is that they just were not disciplined enough, and all those penalties, no matter how good the PK is, just completely kill momentum.

    The Caps had 34 penalties in their series against the Rangers, and they averaged 10.9 penalty minutes per game. In other words, the Caps were short-handed roughly one-sixth of each game. Is it any real wonder the team could not maintain momentum or rhythm against the Rangers over the duration of that series?

    I am not talking about huge adjustments for the team either. The Caps were the 13th least-penalized team in the NHL during the regular season as far as the number of penalties was concerned and ninth least-penalized as far as penalty minutes. It is not as if the team just recklessly takes penalties.

    But it was the timing of several penalties that really hurt the team. For instance, Mike Green's penalty late in the third period of Game 6 against the Rangers was one of those momentum killers discussed previously.

    Jason Chimera's interference penalty at the end of the second period of Game 4—literally seconds after Troy Brouwer had tied the game—might very well have shifted the momentum of the entire series.

    It is mistakes like those that the Caps simply will not have the luxury of making next season. Teams like the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders or New Jersey Devils will make the Caps pay—and pay dearly—for their lack of discipline.

    If the Caps hope to compete for a playoff spot next spring, they must play smarter and with quite a bit more discipline.

4. Be Aggressive in Free Agency

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    As part of my general belief that if the Caps simply stand pat and do nothing that they will go nowhere, I firmly believe the team needs to be aggressive when free agency begins on July 5.

    It is a subject I have already written about a couple of times now, and I recently wrote an article taking a look at five upcoming free agents I felt had to be on the Caps' radar.

    The Capital's biggest problem coming up is cap space. Washington currently has about $5.6 million in cap space. That is seventh-worst in the NHL for next season. As if that was not bad enough, that does not include the Caps going and re-signing several free agents of their own.

    For instance, if the Caps were to re-sign Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Matt Hendricks, their cap space would drop to about $2.7 million. That is not much to work with. Even if the Caps were to flat out send a player like Jeff Schultz to the minors, there would still be a cap hit of about $900,000 or so.

    Of course, this begs the question of what to do with a player like Mike Ribeiro, who had a great season, but is still going to be an unrestricted free agent as of July 5.

    In other words, the Caps will not have a lot to work with unless there are some contracts about to be restructured.

    Nonetheless, the Caps have to make a move in free agency. They have to. The team needs help on defense and they need another scoring threat or two. With their cap situation such as it is, they won't be able to do both. But they could still make a splash in free agency with at least one key signing.

    In my prior article, I made my case for players like Ryan McDonagh, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Bozak, Mark Streit or Valtteri Filppula. There are other quality players who might be unrestricted free agents come July 5, players like Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla, Vinny Prospal, Derrick Roy, Michael Ryder and Brad Boyes, just to name a few.

    Obviously, some of these players would be a better fit for the Caps then others. Players like Jagr or Iginla might be older than what the Caps are looking for. A player like Ryder or Roy might cost too much. Getting someone like McDonagh or Dupuis would probably just break the bank.

    All that aside, if the Caps hope to compete for a playoff spot in 2014, they have to do something and they have to bring in someone who will actually help the team. I am not talking about a band-aid—which is how I felt about the Martin Erat trade. Instead the Caps need to bring in a player who cannot just help the team win now, but who will help them win for years to come.

    The Caps don't have a lot to spend, and they must spend wisely. Even so, if the Caps hope to compete for a playoff spot in 2014, then they will have to be quite a bit more aggressive than usual during free agency.

5. Name a New Captain

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    Of all the suggestions in this article, this one is going to be the most controversial.

    Let's at first acknowledge what a great season Alexander Ovechkin just had. The man just became the first three-time winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy, and he is also in the running to win a third Hart Memorial Trophy.

    Ovi led the league with 32 goals this past regular season. In the playoffs, however, Ovi, inexplicably had his worst outing ever. He had only one goal and one assist during the entire seven-game series with the New York Rangers.

    Compare that to Ovi's only prior series where he only played in seven games—the now infamous series against the Montreal Canadiens in 2010—and you can see how far down Ovi's numbers slid.

    In that 2010 playoff series, Ovi still had five goals and five assists. If the Caps had gotten even half of that from Ovi during the 2013 playoffs, the Caps would likely still be playing.

    That is not what happened though. A bigger problem for the Caps is that they need someone to truly lead them as opposed to just trying to take over the game by himself. More so than in the past, Ovi did try to lead by example in  the series against the New York Rangers, but it was still not enough.

    Ovi is an immensely talented player with amazing stick skills and a fantastic wrist shot. But he cannot get the Caps to the Eastern Conference finals. For six years now, Ovi has tried and he has failed every time.

    He has been the team's captain since January 5, 2010, and having that responsibility bestowed upon him has not helped at all. This past series, when the Caps needed their captain the most, he just did not deliver.

    Hockey captains are a different breed of player. In hockey, one player—and one player only—is given the honor of having the "C" placed on his sweater. There may be one or two alternate captains who get to wear the well-recognized "A" on their jersey, but the man wearing the "C" is different—and everyone knows it.

    This is one of the main reasons the captain of a hockey team is, arguably, more important than the captain, or captains, of teams in other major sports. In football or basketball, the team captain(s) is quite often the superstar of the team, or the best player or perhaps even the most marketable.

    In hockey, the team captain might not be close to being considered the best player on the team. Very frequently in hockey, the team captain is not the best skater, or the best scorer or the toughest guy on the team.

    The single most important trait of a great hockey captain is that he leads. He leads by example on the ice and he leads by example off the ice.

    While captains in other sports are certainly leaders in their own right, only in hockey can that leadership be merged directly with the ability to influence a game.

    Being the captain of a hockey team is also not a task to be taken on lightly. The captain is usually the one to speak up for his team and defend their actions. This requires a level of confidence that most other players just don't have.

    This is where Ovechkin has failed. He is a great player, no doubt about that. He is one of the most gifted players in the world. But he does not know how to truly lead. For years now, people have compared Ovechkin to Sidney Crosby. So let's draw some proper comparisons.

    Crosby does all of the little things a captain is supposed to do. He leads by example. When his team is down, you can count on Crosby doing something to try and get either the crowd back into the game or to somehow gain some momentum for the Penguins.

    Ovi will try and do the same, but the results are just different when the games count the most. Look at the numbers for the playoffs alone for both guys. Crosby has played in 76 playoff games with 39 goals and 63 assists. Ovechkin, on the other hand, has played in 58 playoff games and he has 31 goals and 30 assists.

    Crosby has a definite edge over Ovi as far as stats are concerned—but Crosby has played in more games. Crosby also has something Ovechkin does not—a Stanley Cup championship to show for his efforts.

    When one considers all the things that Crosby does for his team in the playoffs, and then they look at the steady string of playoff failures for the Caps, one may very well reach the conclusion that perhaps Ovi needs to be removed as the captain.

    It would be a controversial decision to be sure. Still, Ovechkin has repeatedly shown that he cannot get the Caps to the next level. As great a player as Ovechkin is, when you compare him to great captains of the past—such as Ray Bourque or Steve Yzerman or even Crosby—Ovi just does not measure up.

    So I say to remove the C from Ovechkin's jersey and give it to someone who would be a more effective team captain? Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer would seem to make good candidates for such a job. Both men know how to lead and they would provide some great insight for the Caps as well as for the younger players.

    Make Ovechkin an alternate. That's fine. He deserves at least that. But removing the C from his jersey might actually be somewhat liberating for the Great 8 and might actually remove some of the pressure he has likely felt the past few years.

    Ovechkin has had more than enough chances to lead this team to the next level, and unfortunately, he has failed. It is time to let someone else be the captain and see if the results are any different.