Burning Questions Ahead of the 2014-15 Washington Capitals Season
As the Washington Capitals near Barry Trotz's regular-season debut as the team's head coach, many questions remain unanswered.
There are crucial decisions to be made with regard to line combinations, player movement and strategies, and there's no question that these final preseason games will help Trotz and new general manager Brian MacLellan moving forward.
We know that Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and half a dozen others will play leading roles in 2014-15, but beyond that, there's more than an inkling of uncertainty in Washington.
Heading into the final week before the Capitals host the Montreal Canadiens in tilt No. 1 of the regular season, here's a look at the team's biggest burning questions.
Where Will Burakovsky and Kuznetsov End Up?
Since the beginning of training camp, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have been in a heated competition for the job of centering the second line.
And now, it finally appears that Trotz has narrowed the race to two, according to CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley:
NHL teams do not need to submit their 23-man rosters until Tuesday but it appears Capitals coach Barry Trotz has already decided on Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky as his No. 2 and No. 3 centers.
“I don’t have any problem with them starting,” Trotz said Wednesday before boarding a team flight to Buffalo for tonight’s 7 p.m. exhibition game against the Sabres.
If Trotz is certain that the two rookies will start the season playing behind Nicklas Backstrom down the middle, the only question that remains is which European youngster will grab the role as the team's No. 2 pivot.
For now, Kuznetsov has to be viewed as the favorite, as the former World Junior Championship MVP has the advantage in pedigree, numbers (including nine points in 17 games last season) and experience.
But Trotz has openly raved about Burakovsky's game and maturity, such as to Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post, so until the puck drops on the season opener, all bets are off in this race.
What Role Will Fehr Play?
Last season, Eric Fehr was a valued member of Washington's exceptional third forward line, combining with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera to form the team's most consistent offensive unit at both ends of the rink.
But as recently discussed by Alex Prewitt over at The Washington Post, Trotz is still deciding where exactly he'll slot the former first-rounder in his lineup.
Like a utility fielder in baseball, Trotz can slot Fehr onto the penalty kill and the power play, as a first-line winger or a third-line center.
“I think we’re trying to sort that out,” Trotz said. “Each game, I’m trying to put another piece in and take a look at it. We’ve got to lock things down those last four games, just load it up.”
The latest iteration, on Sunday night at Montreal, put Fehr beside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the top line, a move that made Trotz “really happy.”
Fehr's demonstrated his goal-scoring abilities as a Capital in the past, as he's a former 20-goal man with size, hands and a fearlessness in the offensive zone.
It almost certainly didn't play a role in the thought process of Trotz, but Fehr's also a proven commodity at the Winter Classic, as the Manitoba native buried two goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in 2011.
If Fehr does stick on the first unit, it will allow one of the previously discussed centers, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, to fill Fehr's 2013-14 position centering Ward and Chimera on the third line.
How Much Will Mike Green Play?
Since Washington added Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in July, the elephant in the room on the Caps blue line has been the future of longtime franchise cornerstone Mike Green.
Once considered the game's premier offensive rearguard, Green suddenly appears to be in danger of losing his spot among the team's first two pairings.
That's because John Carlson and Karl Alzner are firmly entrenched as top-four defensemen, and with expensive new pieces in Orpik and Niskanen, Green will likely be relegated to the bottom pairing.
If that's the case, his cap hit of $6.083 million will be a burden, even if he continues to anchor the game's most dangerous power play.
How Will the Team Adjust to Trotz?
As the team's fourth coach in the three years, Trotz is inheriting a squad that has undergone several makeovers. But after spending 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, the hope is he'll bring stability to Washington.
Generally, the Caps have responded well to coaching changes since the beginning of the Alex Ovechkin era, making the playoffs during each coach's first season in charge:
Performances of Capitals Head Coaches During Season of Hiring (since 2005-06)
|Coach||Season Hired||Regular Season Win Percentage||Team Finish|
|Bruce Boudreau||2007-08||.664||1st in Southeast Division, Defeated in Round 1|
|Dale Hunter||2011-12||.558||2nd in Southeast Division, Defeated in Round 2|
|Adam Oates||2012-13||.594||1st in Southeast Division, Deafeated in Round 1|
Source: Hockey Reference
There is uncertainty about how the styles of Trotz and Alex Ovechkin will mesh, but with the former Nashville coach's track record of producing results without a glut of top-tier talent, Washington should be in the mix in the Metropolitan Division.
Ted Leonsis expects to make the postseason every year, and that's why he went out and got arguably the biggest name available to coach his team.