In the days of the old NHL Southeast Division – comprised of the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) – there was usually one team that finished first during the late 2000s and early 2010s: The Capitals; mainly because the other teams in the division were mostly terrible and they all played each other a lot.
Things are different now with the recent NHL reorganization that put the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division and ensured that each team in the league plays every other team in the NHL at least once. The Capitals found themselves vying for top spot in their division with the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and other decent teams. Washington has struggled to challenge for the top spot since the invention of the ‘Metro’ division, things will change next season. The club can end the season sitting atop the division, and here’s why:
1. The Top Line
The top-line right-wing position has been something of a conundrum for the Capitals – especially last season when Joel Ward (a third-liner at best)
was slotted into the role. However, a major trade deal July 2 saw T.J. Oshie move to Washington from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for forward Troy Brouwer, goaltending prospect Phoenix Copley and a third-round pick; that changes everything.
Oshie is just the right kind of player to step up into the top line. He’s tenacious, competitive and (more importantly) now has superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom alongside him. Oshie has scored 110 goals and 200 assists during his 443 career NHL games, and he chalked-up a 51.7 shot attempt percentage last year. Those are the kind of stats that the Capitals have long wanted in a top-line right winger. If all three players stay fit – and Backstrom is questionable given his recent hip surgery – this new top line will be one of the most feared in the NHL.
2. Braden Holtby
The one property missing for the Capitals in the past eight seasons was a goaltender capable of an extended run toward a Stanley Cup Final win. However, they now have a goalie with the best playoff save percentage in NHL history – one of the best in the NHL.
Many pretenders have appeared between the pipes for Washington but none as good as current number one Braden Holtby. As I predicted weeks before it happened, the Caps recently rewarded their netminder with a five-year contract worth $30.5 million for a 2014-15 season that was so magnificent it changed his career trajectory and made Holtby a household name for NHL fans.
Holtby was almost ever-present in goal last season and led the NHL for games played as a goaltender with 73 games. He also held the NHL’s best total saves tally at 1,887 stops on the term. Ultimately, Holtby recorded a career-best 2.22 GAA and .923 save percentage during the regular season and a 1.71 GAA / .944 save percentage in the postseason. Another season like that and the Caps will win the Metro.
3. The Power Play Unit
Last season, the Capitals finished first in the NHL for power play conversions with a 25.3 percent success rate. With Oshie added to the Caps’ already formidable extra-man lineup, the Caps will be near the top of the power play stats again in 2015-16.
They lost a couple of power play regulars in forward Troy Brouwer and defenseman Mike Green but right wing Justin Williams (acquired during free agency) and D-man John Carlson are more than ready to step up for power-play duties.
Ovechkin and Backstrom are the NHL’s best goal getters on the power play. Ovechkin scored 25 goals last season with the man advantage, while the rest of the team (combined) only managed a power-play goal haul of 35. Once the upcoming regular season reaches its conclusion, the Caps’ powerhouse power play will be one of the reasons they make the playoffs and perhaps win their division.
A paltry depth chart has hindered the Capitals in recent years but now Washington is looking forward to four strong offensive lines on a team that currently employs the ‘shoot first’ mentality. I agree with J.J. Regan’s recent prediction that we’ll see these four lines for the Capitals in October:
1st line: Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie
2nd line: Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Williams
3rd line: Stanislav Galiev – Andre Burakovsky – Tom Wilson
4th line: Jason Chimera – Jay Beagle – Brooks Laich
And, take a look at that fourth line. It’s not bad at all – and those guys have had plenty of second- and top-line experience. Going up a line, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky proved last season that they are ready for prime time, and if Marcus Johansson fails to impress, Burakovsky is capable of switching to the second line left wing position. The one wildcard is Galiev; his lack of NHL experience may warrant a change, but the Capitals still have Michael Latta waiting in the wings to enter the frame.
Ultimately, this group of Capitals’ lines is the best to hit the ice since their Stanley Cup Final run of 1998 – another reason why first place in the Metropolitan Division is within Washington’s reach.