The 2013-14 NHL season might still be nearly five months away—heck, we still have to decide whether the Boston Bruins or Chicago Blackhawks will be the 2013 Stanley Cup champions—but it is never too early for teams like the Washington Capitals to start looking towards the future.
After all, what else do the Caps have to do but work on their collective golf swings right about now?
For the Caps, the 2013-14 season looks like it will be one of the more important seasons in the franchise's recent history.
Alexander Ovechkin is once again the top goal scorer in the NHL.
Adam Oates will be in his second year as head coach.
The team had the best power-play unit in the NHL.
They suffered yet another disappointing playoff failure this past season.
They are moving to a new, and infinitely more difficult division, for the 2013-14 season.
For the Caps, the big question on the minds of many is whether their window of opportunity has closed or whether they remain viable contenders for the Stanley Cup this coming season.
To get a good feel for that answer, several X-factors have to be considered.
Here are five potential X-factors for the Washington Capitals for the 2013-14 season.
Mike Ribeiro is one of several free agents the Caps will be looking at this offseason.
As far as X-factors go, one of the bigger ones the Caps will face is how they are going to handle free agency as of July 5.
The biggest obstacle the Caps face is a lack of salary cap space.
The Caps have only about $6 million in cap space available to them at the moment—and that does not include the Caps re-signing restricted free agents such as Karl Alzner or Marcus Johansson, never mind trying to sign Mike Ribeiro to an extension or keeping Matt Hendricks in D.C.
In reality, when all is said and done, the Caps might have as little as $2-3 million to work with once free agency begins. That is not a lot at all.
The situation with Ribeiro is particularly dicey. Without question, the Caps would love to keep Ribs in D.C. But how exactly can they do that with, at best, about $4 million dollars to work with?
Ribeiro absolutely earned a contract extension in 2013. He was one of the most consistent players for the Caps all season long. Ribeiro was third on the team in goals with 13, second on the team in assists with 36 and second on the team in points with 49.
And the Caps probably will not have the cap space to keep him in D.C. Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com wrote an article summarizing just how difficult of a position the Caps will be in this offseason. It is not a pretty picture.
It is extremely troubling because the Caps need to do something to improve. They cannot just maintain the status quo. That is just not going to work for this team any longer. Chemistry is one thing; running in place is something else entirely.
If Ribeiro leaves, the Caps ability to sign other top free agents does not improve. When you look at the best free agents who might be available as of July 5, none of them will come cheap.
Whether it is Pascal Dupuis, Michael Ryder, Tyler Bozak, Mark Streit, Valtteri Filppula, Derek Roy or anyone else, all will carry a price tag that will likely be more than the Caps can afford.
Will the Caps do something almost desperate? Would they trade or perhaps even amnesty a player like Martin Erat? And if Erat is a possibility for one of the Caps two amnesty buyouts over the next two seasons, who else might be a possibility?
It raises some interesting questions and will put even more pressure on general manager George McPhee to make the right decisions.
The Caps need to do something in free agency. What they do and how they do it will be one of the biggest X-factors heading into the new season.
How much will Adam Oates smile in his second season?
There is little question that Adam Oates did a tremendous job in his rookie season with the Washington Capitals.
The Caps went through some real growing pains with Oates early in the season. They struggled to grasp his system completely and stumbled out of the gates to a 2-8-1 start.
Once the Caps grasped the general concepts of Oates' system, the team played very well. The Caps went 25-10-2 over their final 37 games, won the Southeast division for the fifth time in six years and qualified for the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season.
The team also was outstanding on the power play. The Caps led the NHL in power-play efficiency with a 26.8 percent success rate. A season earlier, the Caps power play ranked 18th in the NHL with a 16.7 percent efficiency rate.
In other words, in just one shortened season, Oates was able to improve the Caps' power play by an astonishing 10 percentage points.
From an individual standpoint, Oates had a huge impact on key players for the Capitals, none more so than Alexander Ovechkin.
Ovi had a tremendous season in 2013 as he became the first three-time winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy for leading the NHL in goals scored. A season earlier, Ovi was fifth in the NHL in goals scored and finished a full 22 goals behind Steven Stamkos.
Oates did a lot to make Ovechkin less predictable and tried to make him more dynamic. To a great extent, it worked.
Other players, such as Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Mike Ribeiro had tremendous seasons and, had an 82-game schedule been played, might very well have had the best seasons of their respective careers.
So what will Oates do in his sophomore campaign? Can he continue to keep Ovechkin at or near the top of the league as far as goals and points? Can the Caps' power play continue to be as lethal as it was a season ago? What sorts of adjustments will Oates make to his system to try and keep the Caps from becoming too predictable?
Those are all important issues and questions. But Oates will also face other questions, some very difficult. Will he keep Ovechkin as team captain? Can he improve team discipline, so that they avoid taking the types of stupid penalties that have killed them in the playoffs the past two seasons against the New York Rangers?
How Oates does in his second season in D.C. is another huge X-factor that could decide the Caps' fate in 2013-14.
The Capitals vs. Penguins rivalry should be even more intense with the two teams becoming division rivals once again.
Perhaps the biggest X-factor facing the Caps in 2013-14 will be how they navigate their new division.
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 times, however, are 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 Islanders played the Penguins very tough in the playoffs and the Rangers eliminated the Caps in seven games. The Pens seemed unstoppable until the Boston Bruins pulled off a stunning sweep of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Blue Jackets barely missed the playoffs this past season while the Flyers, Devils and Hurricanes will all likely improve in 2013-14 after having an off-year during the past lockout-shortened campaign.
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.
This past season, the Caps went 8-10-2 against their new divisional opponents—and they did not play the Blue Jackets at all.
Compare that to the Caps record of 15-3-0 against the Southeast division in 2013 and the quandary becomes apparent.
The Caps will have to play much better and more consistently—particularly against their new divisional rivals—if they are to have any hope of succeeding in 2013-14.
How well they navigate their new division is an enormous X-factor for how the Caps will do this coming season.
The Caps 2013-14 season might just hinge on how these two guys perform.
The Washington Capitals are obviously not a one-, or even two-, man show.
Nevertheless, the fortunes of the team might very well hinge on how well Alexander Ovechkin and Braden Holtby perform this coming season.
To me, anyway, Ovi and Holtby are the two bookends. Ovechkin is the Caps most important player on offense while Holtby is the most important player on defense.
In 2013, Ovi was the "Great Eight" once again. He collected 21 goals over the final 20 games of the regular season. Ovi claimed the Rocket Richard Trophy for a third time—the first player to do so—with 32 goals.
Ovi actually equaled the number of goals he scored during the entire 2010-2011 season, when he also scored 32—and he did it in 31 fewer games. Ovechkin's performance was enough to get him nominated for a third Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP.
Ovi would have been on pace to score 55 goals had the 2013 season been of the 82-game variety. That would have been his third-highest total ever. Whether he can actually put up numbers like that this coming season is one of the more intriguing questions facing the Caps.
Is Ovi really back? Is he really an elite player? Or did that dreadful playoff performance against the New York Rangers—where he had just one goal and one assist—signal that the "Great Eight" might not be so great after all?
Similar questions exist for Holtby. What effect, if any, will Holtby's Game 7 meltdown have on him? Will he be able to shrug it off and move on or will it eat away at him and affect his overall game?
Those are valid questions and concerns. The 2013 season was a pretty crazy one for Holtby. He endured a really rocky start to emerge, quite clearly, as the Caps' No. 1 goaltender.
Along the way, Holtby would end up in the top 10 in several key categories for goaltenders, including wins, with 23 (good for fourth); saves, with 1,033 (good for eighth) and shutouts, with four (good for sixth).
In the playoffs, Holtby was up and down. He started off very strong. In Games 1 and 2 of the series, Holtby yielded only one goal despite facing 60 shots. In Game 2, Holtby collected his first shutout in the playoffs of his career
Holtby had a phenomenal .986 save percentage through the first two games.
Then came Games 3 and 4. Holtby gave up eight goals against just 56 shots as the New York Rangers evened the series.
Holtby's save percentage in Games 3 and 4 was a rather average .875.
In Games 5 and 6, Holtby was back to being spectacular, giving up only two goals and registering a .963 save percentage.
In Game 7, Holtby would fall apart, yielding five goals and having a pretty paltry .815 save percentage as the Caps lost, 5-0.
How Holtby responds to this disappointing end to his 2013 season will define his 2013-14 campaign. Is he really the Caps' goalie of the future? Can he be consistent? Does he have what it takes to compete for a Vezina Trophy?
Holtby has yet to play a full 82-game regular season. 2013-14 will be his first. He is an excellent young goalie, but he needs to improve in a few key areas if the Caps are going to compete and excel in 2013-14.
Whether Ovechkin can continue to dominate and whether Holtby can continue to improve is one of the bigger X-factors facing the Caps this season.
Tom Wilson might provide the Caps with the physical presence they desperately need.
The final—yet very important—X-factor for the Caps heading into the 2013-14 season is trying to figure out what sort of impact their young prospects might have and, perhaps more importantly, when that impact will be felt.
The Caps have some very promising prospects playing in the minor leagues that could possibly make an impact if given the chance to play.
There are players like Stanislav Galiev and Connor Carrick who have shown a lot of potential. Galiev was selected in the third round of the 2010 NHL draft by the Caps. Carrick was drafted in the fifth round by the Caps in the 2012 NHL draft.
Galiev just turned in a very strong season for the Reading Royals of the ECHL, scoring 23 goals, handing out 24 assists and registering a plus-16 rating in just 46 games for the Royals.
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 having another player like that is a problem most teams would like to have.
As promising as Galiev and Carick are, though, there are two other young men who will likely have a much greater impact on the Caps in the 2013-14 season.
One of them is Tom Wilson. Wilson was taken with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft by the Caps. Most figured it would be a couple of years before we actually saw Wilson skate with the Caps. Instead, when the team needed a lift after Martin Erat was injured in Game 4 of the Caps series with the New York Rangers, the Caps turned to the 19-year-old right winger.
Wilson played in three games against the Rangers and one would never know that those were his first three NHL games ever. He looked poised. He looked confident. Most importantly, though, he looked like he belonged.
In the three games he played, Wilson did not score a goal, but that was OK. It was how he played that mattered. In the Game 7 debacle Wilson might have played his best game. In fact, he may have been the best player on the ice wearing a red jersey.
Wilson needs to be on the roster once the doors to training camp open. There is nothing more he can do with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL and having him spend time in Hershey would be a waste of talent.
In the 2012-13 season with the Whalers, Wilson scored 23 goals, had 35 assists and a plus-36 rating in just 48 games. He was again stellar in the playoffs with nine goals, eight assists and a plus-eight rating. He is a difference maker and if general manager George McPhee has a brain in his head, then Wilson will be with the Caps once the puck drops on the 2013-14 season.
The biggest X-factor of all, however, might be Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov is the best prospect in the entire Caps' organization. The 21-year old center has star written all over him. He can skate with the best of them, pass, score, make plays, has fantastic vision and has even improved his game on defense and as a penalty killer.
His stats this past season while playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL certainly demonstrate his potential. He had 19 goals and 25 assists in 51 games during the regular season. In 25 playoff games, Kuznetsov had five goals and six assists, including one in the KHL Championship where Traktor fell in six games to Dynamo Moscow.
The X-factor here is whether Kuznetsov will actually come to D.C. this season. Earlier this year, Kuznetsov stated that he would come and play for the Caps after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
If he does come to Washington after the Olympics, he has the potential to be an immediate game changer for the Caps. He would also likely arrive right when the Caps would be in the thick of a playoff chase and his addition could be what pushes the Caps over the top.
Conversely, if he does not follow through on coming to D.C., it raises the very real possibility that he will never come to Washington and McPhee will have to think long and hard about trading away this fine young talent and getting something back for him.
The impact of players like Wilson and Kuznetsov—and the timing of that impact —is yet another big X-factor that will determine the fate of the Washington Capitals in 2013-14.