With the start of the NHL regular season just one week away, it is now time for predictions of all varieties to start coming fast and furious.
The 2013-14 version of the Washington Capitals are going to be a difficult team to try and forecast.
On the one hand, they could be very good. The team that got so hot at the end of last season is still largely intact.
Alex Ovechkin is still there. So is Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson.
On the other hand, the team might slip considerably. The Caps lost one of their best players from last season when Mike Ribeiro went to the Phoenix Coyotes during free agency. The Caps also lost a very popular player when Matt Hendricks signed with the Nashville Predators during the offseason.
One must also take into consideration the fact that the Caps have moved to a much more difficult division. The new Metropolitan division looks a lot like the old Patrick division. Chances are, it is going to feel a lot like the old Patrick division too.
So the Caps are a tough team to figure out as the season begins. But that is not the purpose of this article now, is it?
No, this article is about making some bold predictions for the Caps this coming season. It is time to let expectations take a bit of a back seat to unbridled optimism and, to a certain extent, let our imaginations run a bit wild.
As you read these predictions, I would ask that you, dear reader, keep that in mind. There will be a time and a place for a "Reasonable Expectations For The Capitals" article. This, however, is not that time or place.
Here then are five bold predictions for the Caps for this coming season. Some of them are much more likely than others.
But all of them are possible.
George McPhee will have had enough of the drama with Evgeny Kuznetsov and he will trade him before the trade deadline.
Would the Caps really trade away the top prospect in the organization before he ever sets foot on the ice?
Trading away Kuznetsov—the best prospect in the entire Caps organization— would appear to be one of those decisions dripping with such stupidity that it should immediately cost general manager George McPhee his job.
But based on the tortured history between the Caps and Kuznetsov—and all the drama that surrounds the issue of whether Kuznetsov will ever play for the Caps—trading Kuznetsov is not a bad idea at all.
If Kuznetsov is traded, it absolutely will have nothing to do with his skill or talent. This kid has it. Whatever that "it" factor is, Kuznetsov has got it in spades.
Kuznetsov has exceptional stick-handling skills. He can deke as well as any prospect in the Caps' entire organization and he has a great shot. His decision-making is at an NHL caliber already.
In short, the young center can do it all. 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 last season for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL 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.
So with all this talent and skill, why would the Caps trade Kuznetsov? Because it is not at all certain that Kuznetsov will ever come to D.C. and play for the Caps.
The 26th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft has still not set foot on the ice in North America—and yet he has caused an incredible amount of stress within the Caps' organization. There is a growing concern he might never actually play in North America, and his recent comments have done nothing to quell that unease.
Those who have been following the Kuznetsov saga since he was drafted in 2010 are familiar with the chronology and the frustration.
In the early part of 2012, Kuznetsov announced he would be staying in Russia for two more seasons. This meant his arrival in D.C. would not happen until 2014, and many Caps fans, understandably, got nervous they might not ever see the talented Russian forward.
Earlier this year, though, the hope of Caps fans was buoyed when Kuznetsov stated that he would come and play for the Caps after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
Before any of us could really feel too good about things, though, the saga took a turn for the worse again.
As reported by NBC Sports Pro Hockey Talk, general manager George McPhee indicated that he does not expect Kuznetsov to come to the Caps until late this season or, quite possibly, not until the 2014-15 season.
A few weeks ago, things got interesting again when several outlets reported that Kuznetsov would actually stay in the KHL—and never come to play for the Caps—if the right contract was offered to him.
"If I am offered a contract here for five to seven years, then I would seriously think about it," Kuznetsov said in an interview with Sovietsky Sport (via SI.com). "A long-term contract guarantees stability, and I want to feel confident about the future."
That has to make you, the fan, feel confident, right? To make matters worse, Kuznetsov then went and injured his shoulder, yet again, in just the second game of the KHL season.
Kuznetsov will be out for a while, according to Russian Machine Never Breaks. And if you read the comments made by his current coach, you will likely reach the conclusion that it is as up in the air as ever as to whether Kuznetsov ever comes to D.C.
For McPhee, this then becomes a difficult nightmare. Does he stand pat and believe that Kuznetsov truly wants to play in the NHL and will play for Washington sometime in 2013-14—or does McPhee trade him away sooner rather than later when the value for Kuznetsov would likely be quite high?
Kuznetsov would be an almost immediate impact player. He is top-six forward material already and would give the Caps some much-needed scoring depth.
On the other hand, if McPhee starts to get a feeling that Kuznetsov is not going to come to Washington, then I would not be surprised at all to see Kuznetsov dealt.
I expect the drama with Kuznetsov to continue, and McPhee—after having watched Mike Ribeiro leave town and the Caps get nothing in return—will get fed up with it.
McPhee will deal Kuznetsov at the trade deadline in a move that will probably be very unpopular—but it is a move that could benefit the Caps greatly as they gear up for a playoff run.
This is the year John Carlson becomes an elite NHL defenseman.
It would be easy to take a look at the Caps defense and presume that Mike Green would be the most likely candidate to win the Norris trophy.
After all, Green was at least in the running for the Norris trophy last season and actually finished 17th in voting.
It is very easy to equate the Norris trophy with the defenseman who scores the most. When P.K. Subban won the Norris trophy last season, a key factor was because he led all NHL defenders in scoring and was a key reason the Montreal Canadiens had the fifth best power play in the NHL.
But the Norris trophy is not awarded to the best scoring defenseman in the NHL. If that were the case, than Green would have won a couple of such trophies by now.
No, the Norris trophy is awarded to the top defensive player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.
The best all around defenseman on the Caps is not Green—it is John Carlson.
Carlson is not the goal scorer that Green is, but he is not bad in this area at all. Carlson was second only to Green among Caps defenders last season with six goals.
Somewhat surprisingly, Carlson actually shoots the puck more than Green. Last season, Carlson had 97 shots on goal as compared to Green's 96. The difference is that Green has a better shot and is more accurate. With some more effort—and perhaps some better luck—Carlson could very easily score quite a bit more.
But Carlson is an excellent defender in other, more important, categories.
He has quietly emerged as one of the best shot-blockers in the entire NHL. In 2011-12, Carlson led the Caps with 153 blocked shots, which was good enough for 18th in the NHL.
During the 2013 season, Carlson again led the Caps in blocked shots with 123. Carlson actually ranked third in the entire NHL in blocked shots during the 2013 season.
Carlson is also as durable as they come. He played in all 82 games during the 2011-12 season and played in all 48 games this past season.
As far as overall defense, Carlson has definitely been improving. For instance, Carlson was a minus-15 for the 2011-12 season, but a plus-11 this past season.
Carlson has all the skills and tools necessary to become one of the best defensemen in the entire NHL. At 6'3" and 212 pounds, he has the size necessary to be an excellent defender.
He has become such a staple of the Caps' defense that it is hard to believe that he has only been in the NHL for three full seasons. He has steadily improved each year and there is no reason to think that he could not be in the running for the Norris Trophy.
In fact, I think 2013-14 could very well be the season that Carlson proves to everyone that he is as good a blue liner as there is.
One of the biggest issues the Caps might face between now and opening night in Chicago is what they will do with Tom Wilson.
If there weren't any issues involving roster space or size, there is no doubt that Wilson would be on the bench in Chicago with the rest of the Caps on Oct. 1.
The problem, however, is that if Wilson is on the Caps roster, it means that another player—and an established player at that—will likely not be on the roster. If Wilson is in, then it increases the chances that someone like Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Aaron Volpatti or Jason Chimera are going to be out.
I think the Caps take this chance—and smile all the way to the bank.
At 6' 4", 217-pounds, Wilson has big-time potential written all over him. He 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 absolutely ready to compete at the highest level. Wilson has two goals so far this preseason. One came against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins.
The other came against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Is there any real doubt this young man is ready to take a major step forward?
Not only do I believe that Wilson will make the team, I think he will greatly exceed all expectations. He might very well be in the conversation for the Calder trophy.
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 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.
I think Wilson gets to 20 goals and solidifies himself on not the Caps fourth line, but on their third line.
Watch for Wilson to make a major impact with the Caps during the 2013-14 season.
Remember how a year ago many of us were ready to hammer the final nail in the coffin of Alex Ovechkin's career?
To be fair to many of us—myself included—there was a lot of evidence to support the notion that Ovi's best years were behind him.
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 he just was not the same sort of player.
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 player to win the trophy three times.
He would then go on to win his third Hart Memorial trophy as the NHL's MVP.
The only individual accolade that was missing was the Art Ross trophy for being the player who leads the NHL in points.
I think in 2013-14, Ovechkin gets the hat trick and wins all three awards.
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.
So far this preseason, Ovi looks pretty good.
He took a nasty stick to the face in the Caps preseason opener against the Winnipeg Jets that left him bloody but unbowed.
He scored a power-play goal in a preseason loss to the Chicago Blackhawks a few days ago.
The key this season to this bold prediction having a real chance is whether Ovi can keep his shot totals as high as a season ago, when he led the NHL in shots on goal, and whether he can actually get some help from not just the top line but from the second line as well.
If Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson score more, it will be much more difficult for teams to focus as much attention on Ovi.
And if Mikhail Grabovski, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat and Brooks Laich can give the second line some much needed explosiveness, that is the sort of depth that makes the Caps a more balanced and more dangerous team.
Ovi might have just turned 28 years old. But if you think he is somehow past his prime or that his best years are really behind him—well I believe Ovi will prove you wrong as he will have one of his best seasons in recent years.
Is this the year the Caps finally break through?
If you are going to have some bold predictions, you might as well make the boldest one of them all.
The Caps will win the Stanley Cup this year.
Yes...I said it.
Before you dismiss this prediction as being utterly ludicrous, consider a few things.
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. But if the Caps can successfully navigate their way into the playoffs, they might very well be better prepared to succeed than any Caps team in history.
When you break down Eastern Conference realignment, you will see that the road to, at a minimum, a seventh consecutive playoff berth is actually very attainable.
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.
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.
The Caps have always played the Bruins tough and they should match up fairly well against any of the other Eastern Conference potential opponents.
If they can reach the Stanley Cup Final...who knows.
If you really look at the Caps roster, there is absolutely the potential there for the team to do something really special.
The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson could be just as good as last season, perhaps even better.
There is some great depth on the second line with the addition of Mikhail Grabovski, who had two assists in the preseason loss to the Bruins on Monday night. Add in Martin Erat, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich and the Caps second line should be better than a year ago.
The bottom six is very deep as well with players like Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and, quite possibly, Tom Wilson.
Defensively, the Caps look very solid with Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Steve Oleksy.
The Caps also have depth on defense with players like Dmitry Orlov, Tomas Kundratek and, perhaps, recently signed Connor Carrick as well.
In goal, the Caps also look to be set with Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth between the pipes.
The 2013-14 version of the Caps will be able to build off of the experience they have gained over the years. They will be hungry to try and exorcise the demons of past playoff failures and they will have a decent influx of young talent that should be able to help them.
The 2013-14 version of the Caps will be a very good team. They might even be great.
Hey...it could happen.