For the star players of the Washington Capitals—and for the fans as well—the start of the 2013-14 season cannot get here soon enough.
It has been an eventful offseason for the Caps. There were some truly low moments, such as losing both Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks to free agency on the very first day.
Losing Ribeiro was a particularly tough blow to take. It wasn't just that the Caps lost their second line center and one of the best players on the team. It was that they lost him and got nothing in return making the decision to not move Ribeiro at the trade deadline look pretty foolish.
There were some good re-signings along the way too, such as locking down Karl Alzner for the next four years.
Still, the sense was that the Caps had missed the boat this offseason and that the loss of Ribeiro would be too much to overcome.
It's funny how one move changed the vibe of this team entirely.
Last week, the Caps made a great move when they signed Mikhail Grabovski to a one-year, $3 million contract.
The general consensus—ironically among Toronto Maple Leafs' fans mostly—is that Grabovski was badly misused in Toronto by Randy Carlyle and that he could thrive in the Capitals' system. Either way, Grabovski will be a more than adequate replacement for Ribeiro and his addition changed the complexion of the Caps dramatically.
With the sour taste of the Game 7 drubbing by the New York Rangers still in their mouths, one can only imagine how eager the Caps are to get back onto the ice and try and right that wrong.
The Caps might not be quite as star studded as other teams but there are some truly excellent players on the team, each with their own attributes that make them who they are. How these players mesh together—and how their individual attributes contribute to the whole of the team—will go a long ways towards determining how well the Caps fare this season.
In this article, we will take a look at the Caps' star players and identify their best attribute.
Braden Holtby has been a clutch performer for the Caps the past two seasons.
It would be a miscarriage of justice for anyone to look at Braden Holtby and equate his performance in Game 7 of the Caps 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals as being representative of his skill and talent level.
The young man has proven time and time again that his best attribute is the fact that he just has ice water running in his veins. Nothing seems to phase him. He has turned in stellar performance after stellar performance in some of the most pressure filled situations possible.
And, yes, he had a bad game in Game 7 last spring. All the great goalies had one of those at one time or another. Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Grant Fuhr—all of them had a bad game in the playoffs from time to time.
Holtby has played in three Game 7's now in his young career. He beat Tim Thomas, 2-1. He lost to Henrik Lundqvist 2-1. Then came the 5-0 defeat this past season. That is still a 2.67 goals-against average in Game 7's—and Holtby is only 23 years old.
Dig a bit deeper and it becomes apparent just how clutch Holtby has been for the Caps, particularly during the playoffs.
So far, Holtby has played in 21 playoff games. He is 10-11 in those games with a shutout, a 2.04 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. He has faced 664 shots in those 21 playoff games.
Probably the most impressive performance of Holtby's playoff career so far came in his debut series. During the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, he outplayed the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Thomas, as he led the Caps to a stunning upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
That series is the only one in NHL playoff history in which each of the seven games was decided by just one goal, in and of itself an incredible stat.
Think about that for a moment. Holtby outplayed the man widely regarded as the best goaltender in the game at the time—and he did so with every game being as tight as it could possibly be.
He very nearly repeated the feat against Lundqvist, ultimately being just one goal inferior to Lundqvist, who won the Vezina trophy in 2012.
During the 2013 playoffs, Holtby was again Lundqvist's equal for six of the seven games. Both goalies exchanged 1-0 shutouts of each other.
And let us not forget that Holtby beat Lundqvist in both of the overtime games played in the series.
Holtby is just one of those players with ice water in his veins. He is as clutch a player as you are going to find and his ability to rise to the occasion is his best attribute.
John Carlson is one of the best shot blockers in the NHL.
Shhhh...don't tell anyone, but John Carlson is one of the best shot blockers in the entire NHL.
Carlson does not get the fanfare of someone like Dan Girardi, Greg Zanon or Brooks Orpik. But when it comes to shot blocking, Carlson is as good as any of them.
Carlson rather quietly emerged as an excellent shot blocker during the 2011-12 season. He registered 153 blocks during the regular season, good enough to be tied for 18th in the NHL. While he was almost 100 blocks behind the leader, Josh Gorges (who had 250), Carlson surprised many with this rather unexpected attribute.
In the 2012 playoffs though, Carlson took things to another level. With all of the Caps defenders buying into Dale Hunter's defensive approach and selling out on every play, Carlson emerged as the best shot blocker on the team.
He led all Caps players with 38 blocks and ended the playoffs with the sixth most blocks of any player. The players ahead of him were members of the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils or Los Angeles Kings, all teams that reached the Conference Finals.
This past lockout-shortened season, Carlson finished third in the NHL in blocked shots with 123. Zanon finished second with 124 and Girardi finished first with 125.
In no time at all, Carlson had become one of the top shot blockers in the NHL.
In the playoffs, Carlson had 22 blocks and was ranked 23rd among all players. However, Carlson was the only player in the Top 25 who played in less than 10 games, which makes his numbers all the more impressive.
Carlson has emerged as one of the elite shot blockers in the game. With the Caps moving to a much stronger Metropolitan division this season, they will need that sort of defensive excellence if they hope to be successful.
Mike Green's shot—especially on the power play—makes him very dangerous.
Where John Carlson is more of a defensive defenseman, Mike Green is, in many respects, the opposite.
He might be a defenseman, but he is much better known for his offensive contributions then for anything he has done as far as true defense is concerned.
Front and center of Green's offensive contributions is the tremendous shot that he has. It is this tremendous shot that first helped Green gain national attention during a three year run from 2007 to 2010.
During the 2007-08 season, Green exploded onto the scene with 18 goals, 38 assists, 56 points, a plus-six rating and four game-winning goals.
This would be the first time, but not the last, that Green would lead all NHL defenders in goals scored.
The following season Green scored in his eighth consecutive game and set a record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman.
The record still stands.
Green would end the season with a phenomenal 31 goals. That has Green tied for 11th as far as most goals in a season for a defender. He shares this spot with players such as Denis Potvin and Ray Bourque. That's not bad company to keep at all.
The next season, Green would become a more polished all-around player. His goals slipped to just 19, but he also had 57 assists and a plus-39 rating. His 76 points gave him back-to-back 70-plus-point seasons for the Caps.
Green would have issues with injuries the next two seasons, but was relatively healthy during the 2013 season. His great shot was on display all over again. He would lead all defenders with 12 goals and scored the game-winning overtime goal in Game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against the New York Rangers.
That goal against the Rangers demonstrated how great a shot Green has—and how that shot makes him a lethal asset for the Caps on the power play.
The Caps and Rangers were locked in a scoreless struggle that spilled into overtime when the Caps got a lucky break and got a power-play opportunity. Green, playing at the point, was set up perfectly by Mike Ribeiro, and the Caps skated off with a 1-0 win.
Four of Green's goals from last season came on the power play. Green also led all Caps defensemen with 10 power-play assists last season.
So much of what the Caps do on the power play begins and ends with Green and so much of that is the result of the great shot that Green has. He is one of the best two-way defenders in the NHL.
Having that great shot he has is a very valuable attribute indeed.
Could Martin Erat actually sneak up on people this year?
You might be asking how in the world "low expectations" can be considered an attribute.
When you are talking about Martin Erat though, it might very well be his biggest attribute this coming season.
You, of course, remember Erat. Erat was acquired from the Nashville Predators, at the trade deadline, in exchange for Filip Forsberg, one of the Caps most highly ranked prospects.
The trade was a very unpopular one among Caps fans. I have been quite vocal in my disapproval of the trade.
Erat's performance as a member of the Capitals did nothing to make me feel like my disappointment was unjustified.
In nine regular-season games with the Caps, Erat had all of one goal and two assists. In the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Erat did absolutely nothing except have a plus-one rating—and he missed the final three games of the series when the Caps could arguably have used him the most.
Erat's performance was so disappointing that it is easy to already declare him a bust for the Caps—and Erat might be able to really exploit that this season.
Erat is a very good player. He is relatively young at 32 years old and there is no doubt he has a lot of skill left.
Without question, his numbers have been down the past few seasons. He has not had a 20-goal season since the 2009-10 campaign. Even when he was in Nashville prior to the trade, he was not the same Martin Erat who had scored 36 goals, had 72 assists and a combined plus-26 the past two seasons.
On the other hand, Erat is a player who has scored at least 20 goals on three different occasions and has had at least 50 points in five seasons.
Could he have a true bounce back season with the Caps this year? The general consensus among Caps fans and faithful is that he will not.
With expectations for Erat being so low though, he might just get overlooked as a viable threat by the opposition—and Erat has all the skills necessary to prove many of these opponents wrong.
The fact that not much is being expected from Erat could be something he truly exploits this coming season.
Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer are two of the leaders of the Caps.
I have grouped Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich together as both men play a similar, and vitally important, role for the Capitals.
No matter how you might want to mix and match the Caps' lines, Brouwer and Laich are likely going to be considered Top Six forwards.
And the best attribute both men have is how they lead the team. They are both natural leaders on the ice and they are spiritual leaders of the club as well.
Look at Laich first. For many years now, Laich has been one of the more consistent, reliable and flexible players on the Caps. Up until the Caps acquired Mikhail Grabovski, Laich was being slotted as the Caps second line center.
With Grabovski in the mix, Laich can be moved just about anywhere as far as offense is concerned. He can be a top line wing. He can be a third line center. The diversity Laich brings to the Caps is almost immeasurable.
So often in his career with the Caps, Laich has led by example, and the best example he has given to the Caps over the years has been his durability.
From 2007 through 2012, Laich played in all 82 games four out of five seasons. The only season in which he did not play in all 82 games was the 2009-10 season—and even then Laich played in 78 games.
During that five-year stretch, Laich really made a name for himself and firmly implanted himself as a top player for the Caps. He scored 101 goals, had 137 assists, 238 points and a plus-18 rating.
As one can see, when Laich is healthy he is extremely effective and an essential part of the Caps' offense. And, as was saw last season, when Laich is not in the lineup, the Caps struggle to find a rhythm and an identity.
The same can be said about Brouwer.
Brouwer's 19 goals and 14 assists last season were a pleasant surprise for the Caps—but a very welcomed one. Brouwer made the Caps' second line formidable, filled in the gap created by Laich's absence and gave the team some much-needed depth.
Brouwer showed some improvement with his defensive game as well. No, he probably won't be in the conversation for the Selke trophy but there was some improvement there.
In reality, Brouwer is one of those players who just does what he does and flies under the radar. Like Laich, Brouwer has so many qualities that will be vital to the Caps' success this coming season.
Both men are some of the hardest workers on the team and they are not afraid to get down and dirty to try and get the goals that the team needs when the team it most.
Personally, I think either Laich or Brouwer would make an excellent captain—if Alexander Ovechkin were ever stripped of the role.
Leadership like that is hard to find.
The Caps are lucky to have two such leaders on their team.
Mikhail Grabovski will add a defensive aspect to the Caps that Mike Ribeiro did not.
It has been said that Mikhail Grabovski is a replacement for Mike Ribeiro.
The reality of the situation, however, is that in many respects Grabovski is actually an upgrade for the Washington Capitals.
One of the biggest areas where Grabovski is an improvement for the Caps is with respect to his two way play.
Grabovski has always been a hard worker and a center who can play well in the offensive and defensive zones.
Last season, when he was being largely misused by Toronto Maple Leafs' coach Randy Carlyle, Grabovski was frequently—and inexplicably—placed on checking lines. Despite the pretty gross waste of his talents in this position, Grabo played quite well as a mucker of sorts.
Ribeiro on the other hand...not so much. Ribeiro played very well but as far as his defensive skill set is concerned, Grabovski is a significant upgrade.
Grabovski also makes everyone else on his line better and this might be the biggest attribute he provides to the Caps.
After the Caps acquired Grabovski, Russian Machine Never Breaks posted an article discussing this and comparing Grabovski and Ribeiro. There are some fascinating numbers in this article.
Grabovski excels at what the article called "tilting the ice." Grabovski is excellent at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and driving it into the offensive zone, maintaining possession and creating scoring opportunities for the offense.
Let's be honest here—the Caps have not really had that since Sergei Fedorov left town.
Look at the "Teammates by Possession" graphic in that article as well. Grabovski made 12 of his teammates better when he was on the ice while Ribeiro only made four such teammates better.
Sure, stats can be slanted to pretty much establish whatever you want. Nevertheless, Grabovski's stats certainly suggest that his two way play and his ability to tilt the ice in favor of the offense could give the Caps an added dimension that they did not have last season.
For a relatively minor investment, the Caps might just have tilted much more than the ice in their favor.
One of the more underrated centers in the NHL.
Nicklas Backstrom is, in my opinion, one of the more underrated centers in the NHL.
He is also one of the best.
Here is a player with elite potential, a player who can really dictate the flow and tempo of a game and someone who can make a huge difference to the Caps and how their offense produces.
He has great vision and is a grossly underrated playmaker.
This past season, Backstrom became one of the best setup men in the NHL. His 40 assists led the Caps, and he ended up finishing third in the entire NHL in that category. He would have been on pace for 68 assists, which would have tied him for his career high, set in the 2009-10 season.
It was a good return to form for Backstrom, who saw his numbers drop during the 2010-11 season to just 47 assists in 77 games played. The following season, Backstrom missed 40 games and had only 30 assists for the entire season.
Backstrom has always been a great setup man and Alexander Ovechkin would not likely be half the player he is without Backstrom by his side.
There is also the potential there for Backstrom to become a more prolific goal scorer. He absolutely has the talent to do so. In the 2009-10 season, Backstrom scored 33 goals so a 30-goal season is not out of the question.
Backstrom's one obstacle to becoming a bigger goal scorer is that his unselfishness tends to reduce his own scoring opportunities. For instance, Backstrom had only 82 shots-on-goal this past season, which had him ranked sixth on the team.
By comparison, Jason Chimera had 92 shots and Troy Brouwer had 111.
It's a relatively simple equation: The more shots you take, the better your chances of scoring. If Backstrom decides to shoot the puck more—as opposed to trying to set up Ovechkin as much as he does—then I think you could see Backstrom's goals soar.
Even if he decides not to go in that direction, Backstrom will be more than content to keep setting up Ovi or Marcus Johansson or Brooks Laich or whomever is on the top line. With elite vision and tremendous play-making ability, Backstrom can make just about anyone look like a superstar.
He is absolutely one of the best players on the Caps and one of the finest centers in the NHL.
There is no more dangerous player on the power play than Alexander Ovechkin.
There is no more dangerous player in the NHL when his team has a man advantage than Alexander Ovechkin.
Last season, Ovi led the NHL in goals with 32. Half of those goals were scored on the power play. No one was really close to Ovechkin in this category. Steven Stamkos was a somewhat distant second with 10 power-play goals.
If you spend some time to look at Ovi's goals from the 2013 season, his lethality on the power play becomes readily apparent.
What has to be frustrating for the opposition is that they know what is coming. It is no secret that Ovi is going to float to the left faceoff circle and try and set up for a slap shot or for one of the best wrist shots in the game.
Everyone knows this—and no one can seem to stop it.
It is almost unfair at times. Ovechkin has one of the best shots in the NHL, whether it is a one-timer, a slap shot or a wrister. To give him a clear line of sight to the goalie—with all that skill at his disposal—well...good luck stopping that.
And more often than not, opponents can't stop him. Beyond that, though, with the opposition having to account for Ovi's whereabouts at all times, it opens up opportunities for other players.
This is why the Caps led the NHL in power-play percentage last season. Since everything gets funneled toward Ovechkin, the opposing penalty killing unit must respect that or pay the price. Quite often, the price is paid anyway.
Last season, three of the top 30 power-play goal scorers were members of the Caps. Troy Brouwer was tied for 15th with seven power-play goals, while Mike Ribeiro was tied for 19th with six power-play tallies.
I expect more of the same this season. Teams will still have to key on Ovechkin out of necessity, and he will still score a lot of power-play goals. What will be interesting to see is how players like Brouwer, Brooks Laich or Mikhail Grabovski might benefit from teams having to focus so much on shutting down Ovechkin.
Without question, Ovechkin is one of the best overall players in the world. He is a threat to score any time he touches the puck.
When the Caps are on the power play though, the Great 8 is on another level entirely. His proficiency as a power-play specialist make the Caps power-play unit one of the most dangerous and effective in the NHL.