For the first time in seven years, the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs in 2013-14. The result was sweeping change in the front office, behind the bench and on the ice.
Gone are general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates. The team’s former assistant general manager, Brian MacLellan, has been promoted to the top job in hockey operations, and long-time Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz has been tasked with overhauling tactics and deploying the troops more effectively.
The Caps expended serious money to give Trotz some options to work with. Defencemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik were lured away from Pittsburgh to stiffen a defence corps that had some significant weaknesses. The club did lose Mikhail Grabovski to free agency but has internal options to replace him.
The hope is that all this activity will arrest the fall of a team that has been trending downward since winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010.
What We Learned in 2013-14
The lesson of 2013-14 was that the Capitals’ collapse was likely to prove irreversible under the tag-team of McPhee and Oates, and that ownership really had little choice but to let both go.
McPhee’s handling of the team can be critiqued for many different reasons, but one constant has been the sorry state of the team’s defence corps. Even with three reasonably solid pieces to start with—John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Mike Green—McPhee consistently proved incapable of icing a blue-line group that matched the team’s lofty ambitions. It isn’t a coincidence that McPhee’s replacement bought the two most expensive defencemen on the free-Agent market immediately after assuming the top job in hockey operations.
Oates clearly had to go too. The Capitals’ five-on-five play had faltered badly under his watch and he seemed unable to find the solution to the problem. The team seemed to be in a state of constant drama, too, with players requesting trades; that may not have been Oates’ fault, but he didn’t help matters by publicly scapegoating his captain and airing his goaltender’s apparently private concerns.
Regardless of how the blame is apportioned, 2013-14 was the campaign where it became clear that Washington wasn’t in a momentary dip. The problems that had plagued the team forever and become more acute since the departure of Bruce Boudreau were not solvable by the people making key decisions. Now MacLellan and Trotz have the opportunity to try their hand at addressing the club’s problems.
Outlook for 2014-15
The good news for Washington is that the Caps have plenty of pieces to work with. Alex Ovechkin has seen his stock around the league fall, but he’s still a superlative goal scorer, and regular partner Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t really get the credit he deserves as a top-end centre.
They’ll be backstopped by a forward group that includes some solid veterans and a number of emerging young players of real note, though it’s group that's hurt by the absence of a clear No. 2 centre:
|Capitals Forwards, 2014-15|
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Alex Ovechkin||Nicklas Backstrom||Troy Brouwer|
|Brooks Laich||Evgeny Kuznetsov||Tom Wilson|
|Jason Chimera||Marcus Johansson||Joel Ward|
|Eric Fehr||Michael Latta||Jay Beagle|
In comments to NHL.com, Trotz indicated that he was going to try Kuznetsov and Johansson at centre as well as star prospect Andre Burakovsky, and that any of that trio might end up centering the second line.
“I'm going to let them play it out,” the coach said. “We're going to try to get the best three up the middle in terms of the people who are really good at distributing the puck and making things happen from the middle of the ice.”
The likely plan seems fairly obvious. The top line will share the responsibility for handling tough minutes with a third line built around veterans Chimera and Ward. Between those two units, the second line should have some softer minutes to work with, which will allow emerging young players like Kuznetsov and Wilson (Trotz also identified moving Wilson up the depth chart as a priority) a chance to take on more responsibility.
It’s a reasonable strategy in the short term, but in a lot of ways it seems like long-term thinking by the organization. The Caps have been plugging the No. 2 centre slot on a year-to-year basis for ages now, and rather than do so again they seem content to take the lumps associated with developing a player in the role in the hopes that he is a long-term solution.
The defence lacks a top-end No. 1 but makes up for that absence somewhat with the depth to play by committee:
|Capitals Defence and Goaltending, 2014-15|
|Left Defence||Right Defence||Goal|
|Brooks Orpik||Mike Green||Braden Holtby|
|Karl Alzner||John Carlson||Justin Peters|
|Dmitry Orlov||Matt Niskanen|
|Jack Hillen||John Erskine|
The pairing combinations above are extremely tentative and are going to be prone to mixing and matching by the head coach as he figures out what works. The assumption is that Alzner and Carlson will be left in the shutdown role where they’ve been relatively effective, while Orpik will be assigned to stabilize Green (and Green will be assigned to mitigate Orpik’s puck-moving struggles).
In theory this could work flipped, with Alzner assigned to Green and Orpik put in the shutdown role, but Alzner and Green have never been an especially effective pairing.
That leaves newcomer Matt Niskanen in a third-pairing role at evens, which perhaps isn’t ideal for a shiny new free agent, but it also means that he and the underrated Orlov have the opportunity to play in scoring situations and support a No. 2 forward line that looks like it may have some troubles along the way.
The team has No. 6/7 types in spades, too; Erksine and Hillen are in an intense dogfight for one or two spots and may end up facing stiff competition from prospects like Nate Schmidt.
The goaltending situation is going to rely heavily on Holtby proving his worth as a No. 1. He struggled at times last season but has been exceptional in previous stints and finished 2013-14 with a reasonably good 0.915 save percentage overall.
Peters was brought in to be his backup after a great year in Carolina, but it’s worth noting that the 28-year-old is only one season removed from a 0.891 save percentage over 19 NHL games. Washington has depth here, too; Philipp Grubauer looked good in limited action last year while 23-year-old Edward Pasquale is an AHL ‘tender.
The Capitals have the potential to be a very good team in the East. They’ll have at least two very strong forward lines, a solid group of defenders and the benefit of depth at all positions. If Trotz can cobble together a functioning second line while getting the most out of his more established players, there’s no reason why Washington can’t make some noise.
But it’s also far from certain. Many coaches have been stymied by this roster, and its combination of strengths and weaknesses is far different from those Trotz faced in Nashville. The team is hoping that youth can emerge up front, that many good defencemen can compensate for the lack of a great one, and that experienced players all over the roster rebound. If nothing else, it’s going to be an interesting year in Washington.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work. Statistics via NHL.com, Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com and BehindtheNet.ca; salary information courtesy of CapGeek.com.