As Capitals fans wait anxiously for the puck to drop at the Madhouse on Madison, there are a few things they should expect from their beloved team. These items will be covered as part of this official preview of the 2013-14 season.
First off, Caps fans will undoubtedly notice something peculiar about their team's opening night opponent. With a full 82-game schedule, the Caps will once again play opponents from the Western Conference, such as the Blackhawks. However, this season will include a new wrinkle in the schedule where each Eastern Conference team will play a home-and-home series with every Western Conference team, for a total of 28 games against the West. To that end, the Caps will play eight games against teams from the West in the first month of the season.
Sticking with the schedule, Capitals fans will also notice a difference in regards to their team's opponents in the Eastern Conference. The Caps will once again play every team in the East. This season, the Caps will play three games against every Eastern team outside of their division. But things change when it comes to the Capitals' division.
For starters, they will play every team at least four times, and two of the teams five times. But more importantly, the teams that make up their division have changed dramatically.
Gone are the days of the Southeast Division, which was comprised of the Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets (originally the Atlanta Thrashers). The Caps won this weak division five straight times from 2007-2011 and once again last season, in its final year of existence, according to Hockey-Reference.com.
But in the offseason, the NHL officially ratified divisional realignment. This plan should have been called "Systematic Oppression of the Southeast," or S.O.S.
The Jets were flown to the Western Conference, and are now playing in the Central Division. This division also includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues. Three of the six teams in Winnipeg's new division made last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. But, hey, at least the Jets will travel less this season.
The Panthers and Lightning drew the same short straw. Both Florida teams were relocated to a division "with six of the seven other teams coming from 'snowbird' areas in the northeast, Michigan and Canada," according to George Richards of Miami Herald, adding "that means a full building many nights as fans of 'original six' teams Toronto, Boston, Montreal and Detroit make their way" to Florida. Hopefully that lessens the sting of playing in a brutal division.
That leaves the Caps and the Canes. They are being moved to the new Metropolitan Division, which looks eerily similar to the old Patrick Division, part of a divisional alignment last seen during the 1992-93 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com. The new Metro Division should be similar to the Patrick Division in two regards.
First of all, the Metropolitan Division should be very competitive. Of the seven Eastern Conference teams joining this new division, four of them made the playoffs last year, according to the final 2012-13 standings. And the one Western Conference team joining this new division—the Columbus Blue Jackets—would have missed out on the postseason by losing a tiebreaker to the eighth-place New York Islanders.
The new Metro Division will also be very physical. Last season, two of the member teams—the Philadelphia Flyers and the Columbus Blue Jackets—ranked in the top 10 in the NHL in team fighting majors, according to HockeyFights.com, finishing second and third, respectively. Two teams from the former Southeast Division—the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Winnipeg Jets—also ranked in the top 10 in team fighting majors, but not until fifth and ninth place, respectively.
But what about offense?
The Metro Division will boast plenty of that, too. Four teams—the Penguins, Capitals, Islanders and Flyers—ranked in the top 10 in the NHL in average goals for per game, more than any other newly formed division. In terms of the power play, the new Metro Division boasts only three teams in the top 10 in total power play percentage from last season. However, these three teams—the Caps, Pens and Flyers—represented the three best power play teams in the league.
This brings us back to the Capitals. The team's offense and power play were their two biggest strengths last season, but they figure to be the team's two biggest question marks for this season.
The catalyst for both the offense and the power play last season was Mike Ribeiro. He finished the season with 13 goals, 36 assists and 49 points, and was fifth in the NHL in assists and first in power play assists. But Ribeiro is now a member of the Phoenix Coyotes. Someone (or a few someones) on Washington will have to replace Ribeiro's production.
Mikhail Grabovski is the leading candidate. The 29-year-old signed a one-year deal with the Capitals worth $3 million on Aug. 22, according to Dmitry Chesnokov.
Last season, Grabovski scored nine goals with seven assists for 16 points, with zero power play goals. Despite the glaring disparity between Grabovski's 2012-13 production and Ribeiro's, Adam Oates thinks Grabovski "fits into our puzzle", as he told Mike Vogel of the Caps' Dump 'N Chase blog. Oates may be proven right by the time the season ends, but until then Grabovski is the Capitals' biggest X-factor for the 2013-14 season.
Grabovski is not the only Capitals' player with questions surrounding him. Here is a list of several Caps who will have added pressure on them this season:
- Alex Ovechkin: Can't let Sochi become a distraction. Also, must prove that his return to form in 2012-13 was not the product of a shortened season.
- Brooks Laich: Can he stay healthy? And when he does play, will his presence disrupt the pre-existing chemistry of the other forward lines?
- Jason Chimera: Which season was the fluke: 2011-12, or 2012-13?
- Tom Wilson: The 19-year-old debuted in the playoffs last season, and has a chance to bypass the AHL this season. Can he cut it at the highest level?
- Mike Green: The offensive savant showed flashes of his former self last season, once he stayed in the lineup. A continuing trend on both fronts may help the power play unit deal with Ribeiro's loss.
- Steve Oleksy: A 27-year-old rookie last season, Oleksy will now have to manage the grind of an entire season. Plus, he will most likely fight a lot more with the departure of Matt Hendricks.
- Braden Holtby: Appears to be the No. 1 goalie entering the season. A failure to repeat last year's regular season success will cost him his job.
And finally, there's Adam Oates. The Capitals head coach was a rookie last season. He got off to a slow start, but led the Caps to an impressive comeback just to make the postseason, before flaming out in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
The aforementioned issues present significant obstacles to Oates repeating his success in his first full season as a head coach in the NHL. If Oates thrives, we may be talking about the Capitals' farthest advance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1997-98. If Oates struggles, we may be talking about the first missed postseason since 2006-07.
No pressure, coach.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.