Washington Capitals' 5 Biggest Questions Ahead of the Olympic Break
So far, the 2014 calendar year hasn't been kind to the Washington Capitals, as the team has plummeted down the Eastern Conference standings in a hurry and is now in danger of entering the Olympic break outside of the playoff picture.
A lot of that is due to the Caps' recent seven-game losing streak, but on the whole, this team hasn't been able to muster up much consistency down the stretch.
Head coach Adam Oates has to be wondering how he can get his troops to put together 60 minutes of solid hockey on a nightly basis.
For a team with a wealth of talent, Washington will only be sending three players to Sochi. That's critical for the Caps, as this squad has been decimated by injuries in recent weeks.
With that in mind, here's a look at the Capitals' five biggest questions ahead of the Olympic break.
The Status of Mikhail Grabovski
The Capitals have relied heavily upon Mikhail Grabovski, who has been a revelation during his first season in Washington.
So, when the talented pivot went down in late January, the Capitals were suddenly thin down the middle. Not surprisingly, they have struggled to score since.
Grabovski gives Washington a legitimate No. 2 center, which is something the team's missed desperately since the departure of Sergei Fedorov. His health will play a big factor in deciding whether the Caps are ultimately able to turn things around.
For now, it looks like he'll be on the shelf until after the break. If his absence stretches much longer, this team could be in serious trouble.
It's no secret that the Capitals as a whole have been struggling as of late, but it'd be foolish not to place some of the blame on the play of the team's goaltenders.
In particular, Braden Holtby hasn't emerged as the true No. 1 in net, as the 24-year-old has been lit up far too many times this season. While he's received the majority of the starts, both Michal Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer have arguably been more consistent.
Though it's a little surprising that it became a public matter, George McPhee's recent comments to NBC's Joe Micheletti (h/t Katie Carrera of The Washington Post) on the play of his goaltenders are spot-on:
During NBC’s broadcast of the Capitals’ 6-5 overtime win against Detroit Sunday, analyst Joe Micheletti said that General Manager George McPhee told him that Washington would have 10 more points with better goaltending this season.
Simply put, if the Capitals are going to earn a postseason berth for the seventh consecutive season, both Holtby and Neuvirth have to be better. Moreover, one has to take control of the starting job.
Despite failing to make Canada's Olympic team, Mike Green has generally had a decent season for the Capitals. His recent injury has the potential to be a crushing blow to a team that's already thin on the back end.
Green's failed to stay healthy for the last three seasons, and though he's still among the team's most valuable players, the two-time First Team All-Star's future in Washington may be in doubt.
As Mike Wise of The Washington Post suggested, McPhee's best course of action may be to deal the sublimely skilled rearguard, assuming the market for him is still big enough to net a worthwhile return.
If he is ultimately traded—when he's actually cleared to play—Green's departure would create a gaping hole in Oates' power play. Despite all of his flaws, the 28-year-old is still arguably the most dynamic defenseman in the game when playing with confidence.
The Arrival of Kuznetsov
With the Caps struggling to score on a regular basis as of late, one has to wonder how the addition of former first-rounder Evgeny Kuznetsov would impact the team's offense.
As arguably the best forward currently not in the NHL, Kuznetsov would certainly slide right into a top-six role in Washington. According to allhockey.ru (h/t Russian Machine Never Breaks), he could be making his North American professional debut pretty soon.
He's dominated on the World Junior and KHL levels, and given his exceptional skill and skating abilities, the Caps' style of play should suit the Russian sniper well.
With Grabovski, Green and Brooks Laich all out of the lineup at the moment, Kuznetsov's arrival could not come any sooner. This is a team in dire need of offensive support.
While the Caps haven't received an inordinate amount of offense lately, this isn't a Jacques Lemaire-caliber defensive team either.
The injury to Jack Hillen hurt—as did the aforementioned one involving Mike Green—but on the whole, Washington's defensive core simply isn't in the same stratosphere as that of other supposed Stanley Cup contenders.
Yes, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick and Tyson Strachan each have upside, but does anyone honestly think any of the them are ready for top-four duty?
Carrick and Orlov have the raw talent to be quality offensive threats from the blue line, and they probably will be one day.
However, if the Capitals are intent on making a run this spring, McPhee needs to move for a veteran defender to complete the quartet that currently has an opening after Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner.