Washington Capitals Season Preview: Not There Yet

The Washington Capitals missed the playoffs by three points last season under former coach and player Adam Oates, three measly standings points. There’s a lot that has changed in the nation’s capital for the team entering its 40th season in franchise history, from the front office, to player personnel and the coaching staff.

Former General Manager George McPhee was replaced this summer by Brian MacLellan. Barry Trotz quickly replaced Oates behind the Washington bench. Ross Mahoney took over the role as assistant general manager under MacLellan, the sixth GM in franchise history. Mahoney, a graduate of the University of Regina, spent the previous 16 seasons as the Capitals’ director of amateur scouting.

The players are different too. The preseason, where Washington finished 5-3, showcased multiple vibrant and youthful players, including Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and Swede Andre Burakovsky. Both need to make substantial impacts for Washington throughout the 2014-15 campaign. MacLellan added two former Pittsburgh Penguins blue liners in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to big-time contracts, filling multiple voids on defense while giving the team their best backend in recent memory.

(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)

Trotz, 52, comes to Washington with goalie coach Mitch Korn after spending the last 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators. He was the only head coach in Predators history and becomes the 17th coach in Washington franchise history. Only three current NHL head coaches have accrued more victories than Washington’s current bench boss. He’s posted a .533 point percentage in 1,196 regular season games. His postseason record stands at 19-31 through 50 appearances in Nashville.

Trotz is joined by assistants Lane Lambert and Todd Reirden on the Caps’ bench. Lambert, 49, worked under Trotz in Nashville the past three seasons. He previously coached the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL and was drafted as a player by the Detroit Red Wings.

Reirden, 43, had an enormous impact on Washington attracting Niskanen and Orpik. He was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh over the past four seasons, managing the Penguins’ defense and power-play. He had the opportunity of working with one of the best man advantage units in hockey over the past four seasons and will continue to do so in the nation’s capital.

What Went Wrong Last Season?

The 2013-14 season in Washington was a perplexing one. The team often struggled to play consistently, but found their game as the year progressed. George McPhee made some decisions that gave MacLellan a better chance to improve the club this offseason, which he did unequivocally. McPhee was able to unload Michal Neuvirth and disgruntled forward Martin Erat, both who had years remaining on their deals.

Alex Ovechkin notched 51 regular season goals in a non-playoff season, earning his fourth career Maurice Richard Trophy. The Capitals’ Captain has won the award the past two seasons and holds the record for his ability to earn that trophy. Over the past 14 seasons of the existence of the achievement, no player has won the award more than twice.

He also became the second player in Capitals history to reach 800 points with the club on March 1st against Boston, trailing only Peter Bondra who totaled 825 career points with Washington. Ovechkin is the fastest Russian in NHL history to accumulate 800 points and the sixth fastest player from Europe to accomplish that feat.

Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin (Tom Turk/THW)

Joel Ward had a career season as he approaches a contract year in 2014-15, notching 49 points. He set career highs in goals, assists, points and power-play goals (6). He’s joined by Trotz in Washington this year after spending previous time with his current head coach in Nashville, where Ward enjoyed a big-time playoff performance that helped him earn his multi-year deal with the Capitals from the departed McPhee.

“Last season, the Caps put themselves at a disadvantage in two ways. The first was going short-handed 284 times, eighth most in the league. And the second was allowing a ton of shots once they were on the kill: 1.8 shots per time short-handed, worst in the league.” –Neil Greenberg, Washington Post

Ward and Chimera formed a dynamic partnership on Washington’s third forward line, with the speedy Chimera collecting 42 points on the season. Chimera’s strong 2013-14 year set career highs in assists and points as he enters a contract year. The duo are expected to stay together to begin the season on Washington’s third line, with veteran center Brooks Laich between them.

2013-14 by the Numbers

  • Points: 90 (17th)
  • ROW: 28 (25th)
  • Goals per Game: 2.74 (13th)
  • Goals Against per Game: 2.79 (21st)
  • Fenwick: 47.1% (26th)
  • Corsi: 47.7% (24th)
  • Power Play: 23.4% (2nd)
  • Penalty Kill: 82.0% (16th)
  • Faceoffs: 48.4% (23rd)

2014-15 Outlook

The Metropolitan Division got substantially tougher this offseason. The Islanders added Mikhail Grabovski, Columbus acquired Scott Hartnell among other important moves. Washington made  changes too. They have rookie forward Andre Burakovsky as their second line center heading into the year, a role that has not yet been amended long-term. The team has a new fourth line, expected to include recently signed Liam O’Brien, Chris Brown and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The team has the potential to roll out four lines that can score every game.

Washington is set in goal with Braden Holtby and former Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters, who signed a two year pact with the Capitals this summer. Goaltending will not be an issue. Braden Holtby is a top ten goalie in the NHL and he’ll play behind a vastly improved Washington defense.

The PK needs work, as they allowed the most shots per sixty minutes in the league last season. The man advantage should continue to stay dominant in terms of ranking near the top of the NHL for team power play percentage. There are so many weapons that Barry Trotz can send out there, even on their second unit. It’s still uncertain which defensemen get the bulk of the time on the power play. Mike Green, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen all have experience running the show.

“The expectation for the Washington Capitals is very simple for the upcoming 2014-15 season: get back into the playoffs.  It is safe to say the Capitals had an off year last year and they were a weak club in several key areas.  The Capitals lacked good coaching and consistent goaltending most of the season.  They also lacked depth on the blueline and used many guys who were not fit to play in the roles they were put in.  During the summer, the Capitals addressed most of their holes in those three areas.  On paper, the Washington Capitals are a better club than they were a season ago.

Do I think the Capitals could win the Metropolitan Division?  Absolutely.  Do I think they will win the Metropolitan Division?  It is a long shot.  There are still some concerns with the lineup that I am concerned about, mainly the second line centre position.  I do have the Capitals projected to finish third in the Metropolitan Division behind Pittsburgh and Columbus.  I feel that the Capitals could finish as high as fourth in the Eastern Conference if they play consistent hockey the whole season.  The Capitals will be an improved club because they now have defensive structure under Barry Trotz.” -George Foussekis, The Hockey Writers

I believe The Capitals will miss the playoffs for the second straight season. They improved a lot this offseason, but there are still challenges ahead. The secondary scoring isn’t developed yet and there are substantial problems with the team’s puck possession ability. I think there will be troubles in face-offs too, with the exception of Nicklas Backstrom, one of the best centers in the league. I break down the Metro Division below.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins
  2. New York Rangers
  3. New York Islanders
  4. Columbus Blue Jackets
  5. Philadelphia Flyers
  6. Washington Capitals
  7. New Jersey Devils
  8. Carolina Hurricanes

The Capitals have an improving farm system in place with intriguing prospects. The youth of Burakovsky and Kuznetsov gives Brian MacLellan cheap talent that will catapult them into a contender in the coming years. The division will cause Washington problems and they’ll miss out on the Wild Card by a few points. Washington isn’t far away, but there are steps that still need to be transform into a Stanley Cup contender.