Washington Capitals' 5 Biggest Questions in Final Month of 2013-14 Season
Generally speaking, the Washington Capitals have been arguably the NHL's most dominant post-deadline team over the course of the last decade, which has been a big reason why this club has been to the postseason in six consecutive years.
As The Hockey News' Josh Elliott wrote earlier this week, the Caps have put together a handful of very impressive runs during the most important stretch of the regular-season schedule, and they'll need one more to climb into a playoff spot in 2013-14.
Adam Oates' squad is clearly in a much more difficult division than what they're accustomed to, but there's more than enough talent on this roster to bring playoff hockey back to D.C. for a seventh consecutive spring.
Given that the Caps have been wildly inconsistent thus far, there are a lot of moving pieces in play in order for this to happen, so here's a look at Washington's biggest questions heading into the final month of the 2013-14 campaign.
Can the Goaltending Hold Up?
Braden Holtby just hasn't been good enough on a consistent basis since the team's blowout loss to New York in the finale of the Caps-Rangers Round 1 clash in 2013, and that's why George McPhee has given Jaroslav Halak an opportunity to audition for the starting role.
In the Slovak Olympian's debut with the team he tortured in 2010, Halak backstopped Washington to an all-important victory over Phoenix, and if he continues to win, one has to think he'll grab the No. 1 job away from Holtby.
Holtby is still viewed as the Caps' primary netminder down the road, but after watching him struggle regularly, McPhee had no choice but to make a deal to acquire a proven commodity to provide stability between the pipes.
This team's puck-moving approach is intended to create quality scoring chances offensively, but as a result, Grade A opportunities often go in favor of the opposition, so the play of Washington's goaltenders will have a big impact on whether this team makes the postseason.
Will Brooks Laich Stay Healthy?
For the past two seasons, the health of assistant captain Brooks Laich has been a constant question mark for the Caps, as the versatile forward has suited up for just 58 games, including just nine of the team's 48 contests in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.
Perhaps just as worrisome has been Laich's obvious decline in production, as the former 59-point man has managed a paltry eight goals and 14 points since the beginning of the 2013-14 schedule and doesn't seem to have the same touch around the net that he demonstrated earlier in his career.
Laich's value certainly goes much further than his goal and point totals, but with a cap hit of $4.5 million for at least another three years beyond this season, if he can't stay healthy, can McPhee really afford to keep him?
There's no doubting his character, leadership or positive influence within the locker room, but Laich needs to prove to McPhee and his staff that he's worthy of his current deal, because for a player to be eating up that much cap space, he's simply got to provide a greater return.
How Will Evgeny Kuznetsov Adjust?
The additions of Dustin Penner and Jaroslav Halak were the headlines of the Capitals' deadline activity, but perhaps the biggest acquisition was the signing of a former first-rounder.
As Katie Carrera of The Washington Post reports, despite the high-profile nature of Kuznetsov (who will receive $1.8 million over two years), he won't be thrust into the spotlight immediately.
The Capitals plan to ease Evgeny Kuznetsov into the NHL as much as they can Monday night, starting him on the fourth line against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kuznetsov took line rushes in the morning skate on the left wing of a unit with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson.
While he may be starting as a bottom-six winger, Kuznetsov will absolutely get the opportunity to move up the depth chart soon, as the Russian playmaker is among the most skilled youngsters to enter the league in a while.
We've seen him dominate on big stages in the past (his 2011 and 2012 World Junior performances come to mind), and if he excels early, he'll be a top-six threat before long.
The Caps need him to contribute offensively in order to out-gun other Eastern Conference powers over the next month, so whether he can step in and light the lamp immediately will be vital to this team's success.
When Will Mikhail Grabovski Return?
The Capitals thought they'd addressed their glaring lack of a legitimate No. 2 pivot by going out and getting former 58-point man Mikhail Grabovski last summer, and early on, it'd looked like the former Maple Leaf scorer had all the tools to fill this role.
Unfortunately, Grabovski's lingering ankle issues have allowed him to play less than one period of hockey since the beginning of February, and with The Washington Post's Katie Carrera reporting that he's been placed on injured reserve, he probably won't be back for a little while.
Grabovski's 33 points in 50 games are respectable, especially given that he hasn't spent much time (outside of power-play minutes) playing with a sniper on his line.
If he can rejoin the Caps before the final 10 games of the regular season, Oates' boys will have a much more realistic shot at earning one of the three Metropolitan Division auto-bid spots.
How Will the Special Teams Fare?
Currently, the Capitals' power play is the league's second-most efficient, humming with an impressive 23.2 percent success rate, which has been a big factor in this team's ability to stage rapid comebacks.
But this isn't anything new, as Washington lead the NHL in that category last season and did multiple times under Bruce Boudreau, yet struggles on the kill continue to plague this team.
With the No. 23 penalty kill, Oates has to be searching for ways to fix this very mediocre unit that has given up the fifth-most power-play goals against thus far.
That's not going to be good enough to get the Caps into the playoff picture, especially given that the vast majority of Washington's remaining games are against Eastern Conference foes currently in postseason position.