Washington Capitals with the Most to Prove as 2013-14 NHL Regular Season Ends
With the Washington Capitals now realistically headed for the golf courses prior to the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2006-07, there's no shortage of players that have failed to meet expectations this season.
Assuming Washington does indeed miss the postseason, changes are sure to be abound in D.C., and the futures of George McPhee and Adam Oates will be item No. 1 on the agenda of majority owner Ted Leonsis.
Regardless of whether it's McPhee or a new face in charge of assembling a playoff-caliber roster, few names will be safe on the depth chart come June.
As a result, these final games of the 2013-14 campaign will serve as a final opportunity for many Capitals to prove that they deserve to remain a part of the organization, or at least the National Hockey League, next season.
Here's a look at the Caps with the most to prove in this three-game stretch that will bring to a close what has been a frustrating regular season for Oates' club.
After spending the second half of last season skating alongside Washington's two most talented offensive weapons in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson has regressed slightly in 2013-14.
Yes, Johansson remains among the Caps' top scorers this season, but he has still yet to truly break out as a viable top-six forward.
With the necessary speed, hands and creativity in the offensive zone, Johansson appears to have all the tools to provide the Caps with a solid secondary scoring threat, but it hasn't happened yet.
If Johansson were racking up the otherworldly assist totals like Backstrom, one wouldn't worry about the rather meager eight goals he's scored. For a player of his talent level to be outscored by Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr, it's clear that the recent Swedish Olympian is capable of more.
After four full seasons in the NHL and little tangible development over the last year or two, Johansson needs to show up to play, or he won't be automatically receiving top-six minutes in Washington to start 2014-15.
It's not exactly a secret that McPhee and the Capitals were harboring doubts about whether Braden Holtby was the same goalie who has served as the team's No. 1 during each of the last two postseason runs, and that's precisely why Jaroslav Halak ended up in Washington at the deadline.
That being said, until it's made clear otherwise, Holtby is Washington's presumed starter of the future, so unless a new general manager is appointed, the promising young stopper probably won't be moved.
He's demonstrated an ability to elevate his game in the postseason, but the lingering issue with Holtby continues to be his tendency to give up goals in bunches (the Caps' 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 last spring comes to mind). His consistency has been a big cause for concern this season.
Simply put, Holtby hasn't been good enough this season to give the Caps a fighting chance to win on many nights, and if he doesn't step up now when his team needs him most, one has to think Washington will be kicking the tires on available goaltenders this summer.
Since Cristobal Huet left via free agency in 2008, the Capitals have had no less than six starting goalies,(Holtby, Halak, Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer, Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore). For Holtby to end this revolving door in net, he's got to show Washington he can be counted upon more often.
When Washington inked former Toronto standout Mikhail Grabovski to a one-year, $3 million deal, it seemed that the then-29-year-old pivot would be a good fit in Oates' system.
For a time, he was, as Grabovski was among the league's top point producers during the early stages of the season.
Unfortunately, the ankle injury he sustained just prior to the Olympic break effectively put an end to Grabovski's time as a go-to threat for the Caps. Unless something very unexpected happens, CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley has reported that that the speedy center will be looking for a new home this summer.
If that's the case, Grabovski could cement himself as one of the summer's top free-agent targets up front if he's able to show potential suitors he's finally healthy.
Including the games he played prior to his injury, Grabovski has struggled mightily to get on the board of late, and he picked the wrong time to be mired in a drought that's seen him tally a lone assist in his last 10 outings.
If he can help Washington mount a late push, it'll certainly help his value, as well as at least force the Caps to entertain the notion of directing a multiyear offer his way prior to July 1.
While it may seem that Ovechkin's name belongs here rather than his fellow Russian forward in Evgeny Kuznetsov, the younger of the two has a lot more to prove than the three-time MVP sniper.
Given that Kuznetsov has been widely considered to be among the world's very best offensive threats outside the NHL level, as impressive as his eight points in 13 games have been, there's a lot of room for growth.
The trouble is, if this Washington team is ultimately set to undergo some sort of rebuild, Kuznetsov would be among the franchise's most desirable trade chips, so if he can put forth the best efforts of his young NHL career in these final three games, his future at the Verizon Center will be more assured.
If not, Kuznetsov (or someone like Johansson) could be dangled on the trade market for a veteran defender or a goaltender, even if the disaster that was the Martin Erat-Filip Forsberg trade remains fresh in the minds of Caps fans.
His heroics in shootouts have been noted thus far, but after seeing the former World Junior MVP in action in front of them, the Capitals will have the opportunity to peddle him, especially if they don't believe he's on track to be the surefire impact threat that he's been long believed to be.