Biggest Potential Problems for Washington Capitals' 2013-14 Season
Since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench in Washington, the Capitals have appeared to be on the verge of icing a Stanley Cup contender each and every year.
But, for a variety of reasons, the Caps have failed to truly reach their potential as a team, as they've fallen short during the last six postseasons.
Five division titles later, the Capitals are still lead by a strong core consisting of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich, so at least on paper, this is a team that has enough firepower to make a serious run at the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 2013-14.
However, at least for now, there are a handful of obstacles that head coach Adam Oates's team will have to overcome, so here's a look at the team's biggest potential problems this season.
Not Enough Depth on the Back End
Though the Capitals' defensive corps are headlined by a trio of top-flight NHL rearguards in Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, there are a lot of question marks from there.
Last season, John Erskine, Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen were all thrust into top-six roles, and despite strong performances from all three a year ago, it's tough to imagine a team winning a Stanley Cup with any of them playing big minutes on the back end.
The sudden emergence of rookie Connor Carrick during training camp was encouraging, but as the offensively gifted youngster demonstrated against Chicago during the Caps' season opener, he still may not be ready to be a force in Washington.
I'm not saying that Washington can't make the playoffs with its current group of defenders, but they aren't as stacked as some of their division rivals in this regard.
It's no secret that Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and the vast majority of Washington's top offensive weapons struggled mightily during the early stages of 2013, and though they all figured things out after the halfway point of the season, their ability to score consistently has to be a concern.
In particular, Ovechkin and Backstrom have to remain among the league's most productive offensive players in order for the Capitals to remain afloat.
Obviously, Oates' defense is a much bigger concern given that Ovechkin is coming off a season that saw him win the Rocket Richard Trophy and finish third in the league in scoring, but one never knows exactly what to expect from the Russian captain.
The addition of Mikhail Grabovski is certainly a big help, but it'll take more than a four-point debut to decide whether he's a suitable replacement for former All-Star pivot Mike Ribeiro.
A Tougher Division
One of the Capitals' biggest problems down the road will be making the playoffs while playing much better teams more frequently, as the new Metropolitan Division is loaded with talented teams.
After beating up on weak Southeast Division foes for years, Washington now has the daunting task of competing against the Penguins, Flyers, Islanders, Rangers and Blue Jackets, and each are at least capable of securing postseason berths.
And, with Carolina and New Jersey also skating in the same division, there will be far fewer easy games for the Caps, so it's more than likely that Oates' squad will be playing playoff-caliber hockey long before the regular season comes to a close.
Last year, the Capitals were faced to compete without one of the team's best players in Brooks Laich, and lost then-second line winger Martin Erat during Round 1 against the Rangers.
During training camp, Laich once again struggled with injuries, and if he can't stay healthy this year, Washington's chances at coming away with a playoff spot will be in serious jeopardy.
Beyond Laich, Mike Green has consistently been an injury concern for the team, and his presence on the ice always puts the Caps at a major disadvantage.
In general, this is not a team with a sufficient amount of depth at any position, except in between the pipes, to overcome significant injuries to key cogs in the lineup.
Yes, Braden Holtby has proven that he's among the game's most promising young stoppers, but as longtime Capitals fans have seen with Jim Carey and Semyon Varlamov, early success in Washington isn't always a clear indication of sustained excellence in the Caps' net.
As we saw during the first game of the season in Chicago, as well as the Caps' home debut, Holtby's prone to giving up goals in bunches, which has to be at least a slight worry for Oates going forward.
Holtby's been good, if not great, during his first two seasons as a part-time starter in Washington's net, but this team is not what one would call a stellar group defensively, so solid play in between the pipes is critical for the Capitals.
If he struggles, Michal Neuvirth will absolutely get a chance at the No. 1 job, but either way, one of the two has to emerge as a legitimate starting goaltender for the Caps to be successful.