Bold Predictions for the Washington Capitals as the 2014-15 NHL Season Begins
Though expectations aren't nearly as high for the Caps as they were during Bruce Boudreau's best years in D.C., there's no question that this squad is built to make the postseason now, and anything less will be viewed as a failure.
On the personnel side, new general manager Brian MacLellan made a big splash during his first kick at the can during free agency, inking former Penguins stalwarts Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to long-term deals.
And with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and the rest of Washington's core still intact, there's reason to believe this group has what it takes to help D.C. see postseason hockey once again.
Heading into a pivotal year for the franchise as a whole, here are some bold predictions for what will be in store this season.
Braden Holtby Will Emerge as a Bona Fide No. 1 Stopper
Since his breakout performance in 2011-12 in which Braden Holtby led Dale Hunter's Capitals to a first-round postseason upset of the defending Stanley Cup champs from Boston, the young goalie has struggled to find consistency during the regular season.
But Holtby remains one of the most promising stoppers in the game, and with back-to-back seasons with 23 wins a piece (with one coming during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season), it's time for him to take the next step in his development if the Caps are to do the same.
Fortunately, he's working with a pair of proven commodities in Trotz and goaltending guru Mitch Korn, who each played roles in the ascensions of one-time Predators charges such as Tomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne, Chris Mason and Anders Lindback.
Holtby's got the composure, size and raw talent to be the next successful stopper to emerge from the partnership of Korn and Trotz, so expect to see a 35-win performance from the 25-year-old in 2014-15.
And if he can get the Caps to the postseason, all bets are off, because we've seen the former fourth-rounder steal a series before.
Alex Ovechkin Will Lose the Rocket Richard Trophy
With two consecutive Rocket Richard trophies as the league's best sniper, Alex Ovechkin is obviously a front-runner to capture the coveted award once again.
However, under Trotz and his decidedly more defensive style of play, Ovechkin won't be free to roam the neutral and defensive zones with the same autonomy he had under Oates, and that should cost him enough production for a healthy Steven Stamkos to win the Rocket.
It will be better for Washington, as Ovechkin's most useful when he's contributing at both ends of the rink. But rest assured, the three-time leave MVP will still rack up 40-45 goals and maybe even more if the power play continues to be lethal.
Evgeny Kuznetsov Will Win the Calder Trophy
As of now, betting sites such as Bovada are listing Evgeny Kuznetsov a leading candidate to take home the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 2014-15, behind only Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin and Anaheim's John Gibson.
Beyond Kuznetsov and those two, the other front-runners have to be top-four picks from the 2014 NHL draft in Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl and Sam Bennett, but at least this writer believes the lone Russian of the group will come away with the hardware.
Unlike Drouin and Gibson, Kuznetsov knows he will be relied upon, but it won't necessarily be in a starting role right away. With the departure of Marty St. Louis, Drouin will be expected to carry a good chunk of the mail offensively, and the same goes for Gibson in the Ducks net since former All-Star Jonas Hiller left town this summer.
In addition, Kuznetsov's got legitimate professional and big-game experience, as the former first-rounder's made the KHL All-Star Game and won MVP at the 2012 World Junior Championship, so even if he begins the year on the second line, don't expect to be waiting long for the fireworks to begin.
His superior hands, vision and touch were on display during his 17-game cup of coffee in 2013-14, as Kuznetsov racked up nine points in 17 games (often with limited time on ice), so 55-60 points isn't at all unrealistic.
There Will Be a Second Capital in the Calder Race
I am firm in my prediction that Kuznetsov will win the Calder in 2014-15, but there's reason to believe there will be a second Washington Capital in the mix as the league's best freshman in Andre Burakovsky.
As the team's first-rounder in 2013, Washington obviously hoped that Burakovsky would one day develop into a serviceable NHL player, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many scouts that projected the Austrian-born forward to be on track to make his Washington debut a year later.
Nonetheless, that's where we are on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign, as the Swedish-trained sniper has outgrown major junior hockey after potting 41 goals and 87 points in just 57 OHL tilts in his only season of North American hockey.
According to NBC Washington's Adam Vingan, Trotz has been impressed enough with Burakovsky's game and progression to keep him at center to start the year.
He's got the offensive tools to be an impact player right away, and while totals of 40-45 points are more realistic for Burakovsky, he'll be among the best first-year forwards in the league this season.
Washington Will Advance to Round 2 in 2015
Since being swept by Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final, fans of the Washington Capitals have been waiting for the franchise to make a deep postseason run.
Sure, the Caps reached Round 2 twice under Bruce Boudreau and once under Dale Hunter, but a trip back to the conference finals hasn't happened, and that trend won't be broken in 2015.
However, the Caps have the depth, talent and roster construction to get beyond Round 1, particularly if Trotz has the type of success he did during his last few seasons in Nashville.
In a bitterly competitive Western Conference, Trotz failed to qualify for the postseason in 2012-13 and 2013-14, but prior to that, he lead the Predators to consecutive semifinals berths as well as seven playoff appearances in eight seasons from 2004-2012.
With more talent than ever before, Trotz will make his first season in Washington one to remember, as he'll get the Caps back into the postseason and steal a seven-game series in the process.