How will the Caps fare in their new division?
Is Alexander Ovechkin really back to being an elite player?
Is Brooks Laich the second-line center George McPhee hopes he is?
Which young prospects will make the biggest impacts for the Caps this season?
There are obviously lots of questions and, at this point in time, there are not many answers. Regardless of that, though, there is little question the Caps will make headlines on more than one occasion this coming season.
Here are five headlines I expect to be written about the Washington Capitals during the 2013-14 season.
I expect to see Mikhail Grabovski in a Caps jersey before opening night in Chicago.
This is a headline I think we will see in the next couple of weeks. Why it has not happened yet is a mix of uncertainty and stubbornness on the part of Caps general manager George McPhee.
The debate on Mikhail Grabovski—whether he fits in with the Caps, whether the Caps are even an option and whether his coming to Washington would even be a possibility—has raged ever since Mike Ribeiro bolted to Phoenix via free agency.
McPhee has publicly stated that Brooks Laich will be the Caps' second-line center this coming season. But is Laich the answer for the Caps as far as a second-line center is concerned?
It would not appear so. After all, the Caps went down that path before and it did not work out so well.
The Caps began experimenting with Laich as a true second-line center during the 2009-10 season. Sergei Fedorov left the Capitals, thus beginning the Caps' seemingly annual search for a second-line center. Laich assumed much of this role during the 2009-10 season, and he played very well.
Statistically, Laich had his best season yet, with 25 goals and 34 assists. The experiment, however, took a turn for the worse during the 2010-11 season. Laich was pretty much the full-time second-line center, but he struggled in this role. He scored just 16 goals and had only 32 assists, an 11-point reduction.
In 2011-12, Laich's struggles as the second-line center continued. He scored 16 goals and 25 assists. But he was also a minus-eight as opposed to the plus-14 rating he had the year previously. His faceoff win percentage dipped sharply, down to 47.6 percent.
This is why McPhee's confidence in Laich as a second-line center seems misplaced. If Laich was such a natural fit for a second-line center, then why did McPhee trade for Ribeiro in the first place?
McPhee may be many things, but he is not stupid. And unless he is in a complete state of denial, he has to be well aware of the Caps' glaring lack of depth down the middle.
The best solution to this problem would be to sign Grabovski, who, somewhat surprisingly, is still available.
A recent Japer's Rink mailbag explored the Caps' depth issues at the second-line center position in excruciating detail, and there is a ton of great information and analysis there. You can read the article for yourself and probably make arguments for and against signing Grabovski.
Here, though, is something else to consider: Marcus Johansson remains unsigned. Moreover, as reported by The Hockey News, the Caps might be looking to trade MoJo.
If Johansson is traded, regardless of who the Caps get in return, the team could be facing depth issues on two fronts. Laich would become even more valuable in this situation, as he plays wing probably better than he plays center.
But if Laich might have to spend time as a top-line winger—or perhaps share time in that spot with Troy Brouwer or Martin Erat—then the Caps' absence of a second-line center would become more pronounced and obtaining Grabovski would no longer be a luxury—it would almost become a necessity.
Most Internet sources indicate that Grabovski is close to signing with one of three teams, although no one is quite sure of the teams involved.
With Ribeiro gone—and if the rumors of a Johansson trade are true—then the Caps signing Grabovski is a headline to watch for in the next few weeks.
One of the highlights of the coming season will take place on opening night, October 1, when the Capitals travel to Chicago to take on the defending champion Blackhawks.
Obviously, it will be a big night for the Hawks and their fans, as they will be celebrating their second Stanley Cup championship in the past four seasons. The 2013 Stanley Cup banner will be raised that night, and the mood should be quite festive in the Windy City that evening.
And don't be a bit surprised if the Caps ruin the champions' big night.
Over the past decade, the defending champions have not fared well on opening night. There have been nine such opening nights (the 2004-05 opening night never happened due to the lockout), and the defending champions have a record of 2-6-1.
As far as the Blackhawks are concerned, the last time they were the defending champions—after the 2009-10 season—they lost their season opener in overtime, in Denver, to the Avalanche, 4-3.
The home opener in Chicago did not go any better, as the Blackhawks lost to the Detroit Red Wings 3-2. The Blackhawks' slow start plagued them all season, and they had to scratch their way to the No. 8 seed in the 2011 playoffs.
There they rallied from a 3-0 series deficit against the eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks and fell in overtime of Game 7.
Obviously, the Blackhawks will want to avoid getting off to another slow start like that. The Caps, however, will have other ideas.
The last time the Blackhawks were the defending champions, they did not play the Caps until late in the season and the Caps prevailed with a 4-3 overtime win in Washington on March 13, 2011. The Caps have actually won two of the past three meetings they have had with Chicago.
Now, I am not saying the Caps will be a better team than the Blackhawks this season—but on opening night, I think they will be party-crashers.
What a difference a year makes.
A year ago at this time, many of us were writing the epitaph on Alexander Ovechkin's career. His production had been down the past couple of seasons, and he was no longer being mentioned in the same breath as players like Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos.
When the 2013 season got underway, Ovi got off to a very slow start that did nothing to allay the fears that perhaps his best years were behind him.
He did not score a goal until the fifth game of the season. He had only two goals through the first 10 games of the season. The Caps were struggling, as was Ovi. Both seemed lost.
On February 23, Ovechkin got a hat trick against the New Jersey Devils and the wheels of the old machine that was the Great "8" began to roll again. Ovechkin would score 23 goals over the Caps' final 23 games and go on to capture his third Rocket Richard trophy, becoming the first man to win the trophy three times.
He would then go on to win his third Hart Memorial trophy as the NHL's MVP.
Not too bad for a guy supposedly past his prime.
I expect much more of the same from Ovechkin this coming season.
His motivation levels should be enormously high. Ovechkin will have something to prove after a very disappointing playoff series against the New York Rangers in which he only managed one goal.
Ovechkin is also a very intelligent player, and he knows that the gravy days of the Southeast Division are gone. Playing against better competition on a regular basis should also motivate Ovechkin to want to excel and continue to prove that he is still one of the elite players in the NHL.
He should have many opportunities to do this. The Caps look like they will end up being as reliant on Ovechkin as ever, possibly more so. If their power play, which ranked No. 1 in the NHL last season, is half as good this season, then Ovi should be very productive.
Ovechkin led the NHL with 16 power-play goals last season, half of his overall total. If he can repeat that this season, with an additional 34 games to play, we could see Ovechkin return to being a 50-goal scorer.
He certainly seems to be taking his offseason training fairly seriously. For instance, this article from Russian Machine Never Breaks indicates that Ovi is engaging in some different, yet fairly intense, types of training exercises. It is good to see Ovechkin taking the offseason so seriously—the Caps will need every bit of production from him that they can get.
I think Ovechkin gets at least 45 goals this season and firmly re-establishes himself as one of the most dominant players in the game.
Tom Wilson could be poised for a big season.
One of the things I really like about Japer's Rink is the detailed analysis you get about topics that might not have seemed problematic at first blush.
The Tom Wilson situation is a good example of this. In my opinion, Wilson needs to be on the Caps' roster opening night. There is nothing left for him to prove in the OHL.
The 6' 4", 217-pound forward played in 60 games last season in the OHL (regular season and playoffs). He had 32 goals, 75 points and 145 penalty minutes. He was voted the best body checker in the OHL's Western Conference for the second straight season in a coaches' poll.
He is too young to play in the AHL and pretty much too good to go back to the OHL. He showed great potential for the Caps in his limited playoff appearance against the New York Rangers this past spring.
But if you take some time reading through this Japer's Rink mailbag, you will see that there are obstacles to getting Wilson into the Caps' lineup.
Where, indeed, do you put him? Who would be a healthy scratch if Wilson is part of the regular lineup?
Is trading Troy Brouwer or Joel Ward a realistic option? I know in speaking with many Caps fans, the idea of trading Ward is embraced much more than the notion of trading Brouwer.
Regardless of the logistical difficulties that may exist in getting Wilson onto the Caps' starting roster, I firmly believe Wilson will be in Chicago on opening night. Moreover, I think he will turn in a season that will have him being discussed for the Calder trophy as the NHL's outstanding rookie.
That might seem like a bold prediction, but if you look at the last few Calder trophy winners who were forwards, Wilson should have a very good chance to win the trophy if, in fact, he plays.
The last three forwards to win the Calder trophy were Jonathan Huberdeau this past season, Gabriel Landeskog in 2011-12 and Jeff Skinner in 2010-11.
If you take the average statistics of those three players, then you get an idea of the stat line Wilson might need in order to win the Calder trophy. It would look something like this: 26 goals, 30 assists and 56 points.
The 26 goals might be a bit much to reach for Wilson, but he could very well be a 20-goal scorer. The 30 assists seem attainable.
Unless the Caps solve some of their depth issues, then young prospects like Wilson, Michael Latta or Riley Barber might actually get more playing time than any of us are anticipating.
And if, by some miracle, Evgeny Kuznetsov arrives this season and centers a line with Wilson—even if it does not happen until after the Winter Olympics—you very well might see a late-season run by Wilson to win the Calder trophy.
Wilson is NHL-ready now. Beyond that, I think this young man will only get better with some real NHL playing experience. I truly think he can make some noise as far as rookies go this year, and I would not be the least bit surprised to see Wilson competing with Filip Forsberg for this trophy at season's end.
How ironic would that be?
Much has been made of realignment and the impact that will have upon the Caps making the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
There is every reason to be concerned. The Caps are leaving the friendly confines of the now-defunct Southeast Division and moving to the resurrected Patrick Division, renamed the Metropolitan Division.
The other members of the Metropolitan Division are all old rivals of the Caps from the good old days, when the Patrick Division existed and fierce rivalries were the norm. We are talking about the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Without question, the road to the playoffs will be much rougher than in previous seasons. And, to be sure, the Caps—on paper anyway—look to be weaker this season than in seasons past, while several of the other teams in the Metropolitan Division look stronger.
But when you break down Eastern Conference realignment, you will see that the road to a seventh consecutive playoff berth is actually very attainable.
For those unfamiliar with realignment and how it works, it is best explained by Dan Rosen of NHL.com:
The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It will be possible, then, for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends three.
In the Eastern Conference, the other division is the Atlantic Division, which consists of the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Bruins, along with the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings (the other Western Conference team transferring to the Eastern Conference this season), Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.
If realignment had been in place this past season, the Caps would have actually finished second in the Metropolitan Division, although they would have been a good 15 points behind the division-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps would not have even been a wild-card team—they would have been one of the automatic qualifiers.
The only difference from the actual 2013 Eastern Conference playoffs would have been that the Pens would have opened the playoffs against the Red Wings, while the Islanders would have missed the playoffs yet again.
This is not to suggest the Caps will have an easy time of it, not by a long shot. The Caps will be playing the Western Conference teams this year after being able to avoid them thanks to the lockout last season. Beyond that, though, thanks to realignment, the Caps play each Western Conference team twice.
That means two games against the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and other very good Western Conference teams. Roughly 35 percent of the Caps' schedule will be against Western Conference foes, and that alone will make the road back more difficult.
As for their old Southeast Division rivals, the Caps only play them 12 times this coming season. That means the remaining 42 games will be against divisional opponents or Atlantic Division foes.
Clearly, that will be no easy task. But have the Caps really regressed so much that they are no longer one of the eight best teams in the East?
I think they will rise to the occasion, and I believe Adam Oates will solidify himself as one of the best new coaches in the NHL as he guides the Caps back to the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
What happens once they get there is, as always, the million-dollar question.