This year was supposed to be different.
After another encouraging offseason, the Washington Capitals were supposed to finally advance beyond the second round of the playoffs, but after a dozen games, it looks as if this group is a pretty safe bet to be playing golf when the puck drops on the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Sure, it's still early enough in this 48-game season for the Caps to turn things around in time to climb back into contention, but unless the team improves significantly in a few key areas, that won't be happening.
It All Starts in Net
Thus far, the Caps have underwhelmed at every corner of the rink, but the team's goaltending tandem of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth has been downright dreadful on too many occasions and hasn't kept Washington in games very often.
In Holtby, the Caps thought they'd finally found their goalie of the future, but so far both he and Neuvirth have looked more like AHL-caliber stoppers. If they fail to turn things around, George McPhee has to look elsewhere for help in net.
In fact, if McPhee sticks with this duo and the pair doesn't improve significantly, there's reason to believe that this could be the longtime general manager's final season in Washington.
It's sad to think that he could be let go by season's end after doing such a tremendous job with this team for over a decade, but his inability to find a legitimate No. 1 goaltender has been an ongoing problem that continues to be unsolved.
More Production From Stars
The struggles of captain Alex Ovechkin have been well-documented, but to be fair, the Russian superstar has improved during the last week or so and has shown flashes of the brilliance that Washington became accustomed to during his first five seasons.
But Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and surprisingly effective pivot Mike Ribeiro aside, the Caps' top offensive weapons have sputtered.
Nicklas Backstrom has not been the offensive catalyst that he was even a year ago, which is a problem because the team's power-play unit is built around Backstrom's ability to thread the needle to Ovechkin in the high slot.
In addition, Wojtek Wolski, who was brought in to help replace the offense the Caps lost when Alexander Semin left town, hasn't made much of an impact. Marcus Johansson has been no better.
On the back end, Mike Green has been reasonably impressive thus far, but 2011 All-Rookie rearguard John Carlson has been equally unimpressive and hasn't been contributing offensively.
One thing's for sure, though: Brooks Laich's return couldn't come any sooner.
The Learning Curve for Coach Oates
Adam Oates came to D.C. as a hyped power-play architect who would be able to find a happy medium between Bruce Boudreau's trigger-happy offense and Dale Hunter's ultra-conservative defensive style, but so far that hasn't happened.
While Oates has implemented what appears to be a reasonably effective defensive system, the Caps take far too many penalties and inevitably lose the vast majority of their games by tiring themselves out by spending a good chunk of the game short-handed.
The power play hasn't stormed out of the gates, but Oates has a proven track record with constructing effective power-play units, so he deserves more time to see what he can come up with.