For Washington D.C. sports fans, the return of the Washington Capitals cannot come at a better time.
The Washington Nationals completed a horrendously disappointing season—and that might be an understatement.
The Washington Redskins and Robert Griffin III are struggling—although they did beat the Oakland Raiders on Sunday to finally break into the win column.
The Washington Wizards—well let's remain cautiously optimistic on that front.
Let's not even talk about D.C. United.
The Caps, however, look to provide the D.C area with a good hockey team and perhaps even a great one.
With the season opener in Chicago now just a day away, the Caps look ready for action.
May 13, 2013 seems like a long time ago—and then again not so long ago. Of course, that was the day the New York Rangers obliterated the Caps 5-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, sending the Caps to another early playoff exit and ending an otherwise remarkable season.
The stench of that defeat still lingers heavy in the Verizon Center. But now the Caps have a golden opportunity to wipe clean the nastiness of that debacle and take a major step forward in the progress of the franchise.
The potential for a truly memorable season is there. Will it come to fruition?
Without question, the 2013-14 season will have some truly memorable storylines attached to it, and here are the five biggest ones to keep an eye on as the season progresses and unfolds.
The Caps' 2-10-1 start to the shortened 2013 season was very nearly their undoing. It took the team almost the entire season to get back on track, and but for a rather unbelievable run near the end of the season, the Caps' run of consecutive playoff appearances would have come to a crashing halt.
One might look at the 2013-14 season, note that it is a full 82-game schedule and surmise that the Caps' margin for error is greater this season than last. As such, it would be easy to believe a similar slow start might not be fatal.
Such a belief would not be wise.
It would be almost foolish to think the Caps could get off to a similarly dreadful start and turn things around to qualify for the playoffs again, particularly now that they are in a loaded Metropolitan division and a very tough Eastern Conference.
However, I do not believe the Caps will get off to another slow start.
A key factor is the fact that the Caps have had a full preseason to get ready and work on some of their deficiencies. Beyond that though, the Caps have played more preseason games this year than any other team in the Metropolitan division except the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders.
The Caps have played eight preseason games this year. The Jackets and Isles also played eight preseason games but the Caps opposition was much stiffer, including two games against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins, and two games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The additional games have already had a visible impact on the Caps. Earlier in the preseason, every game the team played seemed to go to overtime or a shootout. In two of the past three games, however, the Caps pretty much overwhelmed their opposition, including a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators and a 6-3 win over their old/new divisional rival, the Philadelphia Flyers.
The 4-3 overtime loss to the Blackhawks on Saturday seemed to verify that the Caps are ready to begin the season.
Alexander Ovechkin already looks like he is on track as he had four goals and an assist in five games.
Mikhail Grabovski had a goal and seven assists in the preseason. He was tied with teammate Eric Fehr for the NHL lead in preseason points with eight.
And perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the preseason has been the emergence of Connor Carrick, who played his way onto the team much sooner than anyone anticipated. In the past few games, I have seen him track down Jarome Iginla, score a goal against Tuukka Rask and assist on a power-play goal by Ovi.
Yes, you cannot put too much stock into any preseason and the outcome of these games means next to nothing.
But when you watch how the Caps have improved throughout the preseason—and how some of their young players have excelled faster than expected—it has to make you feel confident that the Caps might just get out of the gate quickly.
With the road to the playoffs being much more difficult this year, the Caps will need every advantage they can get.
Can the Caps really compete for a Metropolitan division championship?
Much has been made about realignment for the 2013-14 NHL season, and the Caps are one of the teams to whom realignment might have the biggest impact.
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.
All good things, however, must come to an end. 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 this season.
But to summarily dismiss the Caps as an afterthought in this admittedly more difficult division would be a mistake.
As mentioned in the preceding slide, the Caps ended up playing more preseason games than all but two of their new divisional foes and the Caps preseason schedule featured much stiffer opposition.
Aside from that though, all of the Caps' Metropolitan division opponents have some real question marks surrounding them.
What difference will a healthy Cam Ward make to the Hurricanes—and can he remain healthy?
Was the Blue Jackets' late run last season real or a mirage and how will they fare in, perhaps, the toughest division in hockey?
What will the Rangers look like under new coach Alain Vigneault?
Can the Islanders maintain the momentum from last season and did they do enough to overcome the loss of Mark Streit on defense?
Can the Flyers erase the memory of the Ilya Bryzgalov disaster and find enough consistency to be a contender?
Can the Devils survive without Ilya Kovalchuk?
Can the Pens dominate again with their goaltending situation not nearly as reliable as it was a season ago?
The Caps have their question marks too, no doubt about that. How well the youth meshes with the veterans will be a key to how successful the Capitals can be in 2013-14.
But consider the fact that 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.
Can they compete for the Metropolitan division title? Absolutely.
Whether they actually do or not is one of the biggest storylines to follow this coming season.
Will the Caps enjoy more success in Adam Oates' second season?
For a while there last season, the decision to hire Adam Oates as head coach of the Washington Capitals looked like it was going to be a colossal mistake.
The team started the season 2-10-1. Alex Ovechkin could not score and it did not matter whether he played left wing or right wing. The power play was mediocre at best, the penalty kill was atrocious and Braden Holtby looked nothing like the playoff hero who defeated Tim Thomas and nearly beat Henrik Lundqvist.
As we know though, Oates and the Caps righted their respective ships. The team went on a tremendous tear at the end of the season, winning 15 of their final 20 games to capture the Southeast division title and advance to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
Ovechkin more than re-discovered his scoring touch as he won a third Rocket Richard trophy, leading the NHL with 32 goals, and a third Hart Memorial trophy.
The power play was the best in the NHL, operating at 26.8 percent efficiency.
Holtby turned in a solid performance, Mike Green led all NHL defensemen in goals and a lost season became one of hope—at least until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.
One of the bigger storylines this season then is how the Caps do in season two of Oates' tenure as head coach.
Obviously, having a full training camp and the extra preseason games will have given Oates an opportunity he did not have last season to truly implement his strategies and schemes.
It also gave him the best chance possible to evaluate the players he had at his disposal and figure out which ones would be able to carry out those strategies the best.
What I like about Oates is that he sure seems to be a problem solver. He was able to figure out how to get the most out of Ovechkin, who is not the fastest or most explosive player in the NHL any longer—but is just as skilled as he has ever been.
He was able to figure out how to modify the Caps' power play and turn it into something very dangerous. The way Oates uses Green and Ovi on the power play is nothing revolutionary—but it sure is effective.
This season, Oates will have to figure out how to keep Ovechkin flying high, how to keep the Caps' power play performing at a high level of efficiency and he absolutely has to make the Caps' penalty kill more effective.
Some interesting sub-issues will be to see what exactly Oates does with Mikhail Grabovski—who had a very strong preseason for the Caps—and how Oates brings the younger players like Tom Wilson, Michael Latta and Connor Carrick—all of whom appear to have made the final roster for opening night—along and into the mix.
If Oates can have similar success in his second season as he did in his rookie campaign, the Caps should get back to the playoffs.
If that happens, then Oates can find out for himself if he learned anything from his first playoff disappointment almost five months ago.
If there is a feel-good story coming out of the Caps preseason, it has to be the surprising and inspiring play of Connor Carrick.
Carrick was drafted in the fifth round by the Caps in the 2012 NHL entry draft. He spent last season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL where he made real strides in his overall game. He led all Whalers defenders with 12 goals last season and developed some real leadership traits and qualities.
When the preseason began, no one really expected Carrick to challenge for a roster spot. Instead, Carrick played in five preseason games and impressed the coaching staff with his skating, decision making, speed and overall play.
He even got a goal against Tuukka Rask, had four assists and a plus-one rating.
So, at the end of the day—and as reported by The Washington Post—when the Caps made their final roster cuts, Carrick discovered he was sticking around while a player like Dmitry Orlov, who many expected to challenge for a roster spot, was on his way to Hershey.
Thus, it appears that the Caps will have seven defensemen on the roster on opening night in Chicago: Carrick, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green, Jack Hillen, John Erskine and Steve Oleksy.
Without question, the Caps have depth on defense. More importantly though, they have diversity. When you look at those seven players, they each bring a little something different to the table. The sum total of all of them together should make for a very effective defensive corps for the Caps.
Alzner and Hillen have a solid, all-around game. They are not the goal-scorers. But they might be the most well-rounded of the Caps defenders.
Carlson is one of the best shot-blockers in the NHL, finishing third in this category last season.
Green led all NHL defensemen in goals last season and is a tremendous quarterback for the Caps' power play.
Erskine and Oleksy are the enforcers on defense, the guys who will get physical and drop the gloves when the need arises.
And Carrick has youth, enthusiasm and a skill set that is improving at a truly incredible rate. Inserting him onto a defensive line at just the right moment could be the sort of thing that changes the course of a game.
The 2013-14 Caps defense looks to be as balanced as it has been in many years and there is already a great deal of continuity and chemistry there.
Watching how the defense continues to progress and improve will be a great storyline to watch this season.
The move is significant because it allowed the Caps to keep both Tom Wilson and Michael Latta on the roster for opening night in Chicago.
For Wilson, the No. 16 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft, this was expected. Wilson has had a solid preseason with three goals and it sure looks like we are all going to find out if he is as NHL ready as he appears to be.
Latta is not nearly the goal-scoring threat that Wilson is, at least not yet. But he has played with as much raw passion and emotion as anyone on the Caps. This really impressed general manager George McPhee who told The Washington Post's Katie Carrera:
He’s going to play here whether right now or in the near future. He brings something to this team. He did a good job in Boston being able to pick off passes, having his stick in the right places, and be in the right places to block shots.
Apparently, the future is now for both Latta and Wilson and I expect to see the two of them on the Caps fourth line opening night. Both men play a very physical style of game, but they both can score. It is a nice dual threat the Caps have not had enough of over the years.
Beyond those two, however, the Caps have an unusual amount of depth with the bottom six.
Eric Fehr was actually tied for the NHL lead in preseason goals with five and points with eight.
Joel Ward had two goals. Martin Erat also had a goal.
Jason Chimera was tied for second on the team in preseason assists with four.
During the 2012 playoffs, when the Caps were playing the Boston Bruins, one of the concerns was that the Caps just did not have the depth to match up with the powerful Bruins. I am not saying the Caps are now as deep as the Bruins or the Pittsburgh Penguins—but they are absolutely getting there.
In the preceding slide, I mentioned the depth and diversity of the defense. The same can be said for the offense and, in particular, as to the bottom six. Between Fehr, Chimera, Ward, Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti, you have quite a bit of experience, mixed with some physicality and the ability to score the tough goals.
Now, add Wilson and Latta into the mix. If those two young men develop their game a bit more quickly than expected, then the Caps' depth could very well rival that of any of the powerhouses of the Eastern Conference.
And if that happens, then the Caps might experience a level of success that might be worthy of the best storyline of them all in 2013-14.