10 key questions facing the Caps this season
10 key questions facing the Caps this season
Another NHL season is almost upon us. The Caps once again enter the season with Stanley Cup aspirations. Will this be the year they finally get over the playoff hump and bring the Cup to Washington? Here are some key questions facing the Caps as they embark on the 2016-17 regular season.
Can Dmitry Orlov handle a top-four role?
The Caps said all throughout the offseason that they want Dmitry Orlov to take on a larger role. That will mean moving him into the top four in place of Brooks Orpik. While no one can deny his offensive talents, Orlov showed a tendency last season to make big mistakes in critical moments. A team with championship aspirations cannot have a top-four defenseman they can't rely on. If Orlov can't handle a larger role, the Caps may explore making a midseason trade.
Do the Caps have enough offensive depth to match other contenders?
In the old NHL, the first two lines were the scoring lines, the third line was an energy/checking line and the fourth line was a grinder line. Those days are now over. As good as they Caps are, they did not have the scoring depth to match a Pittsburgh team that featured Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel on its third line. To bolster their own depth, the Caps traded for Lars Eller who will center the third line. That move also improves the fourth line as Jay Beagle will now center that line. Will that be enough to spread more scoring across the lineup?
Will Braden Holtby regress after winning the Vezina Trophy?
Braden Holtby won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder last season. He certainly would not be the first goalie to take a step back after winning the Vezina and chances are he will...in wins. Holtby tied the NHL single-season record for wins last year with 48. That's a mark he is unlikely to match this season. Holtby has been rather consistent, however, in terms of save percentage and goals against in the last two seasons so some sort of massive drop off there seems unlikely. As good as the Caps are, Holtby has been critical to the team's success in recent years which is partly why he plays so many games. Managing his minutes will also be a key for Barry Trotz this season.
Will the Caps take the regular season seriously?
The big question after another early playoff exit was did the Caps peak too son? They were absolutely dominant in the regular season, earning the Presidents' Trophy for finishing with the best record in the NHL. Yet, once again they faltered in the postseason. There's something to be said for peaking at the right time, but that's not something that a team can manufacture. You can't plan for when things will click. With another 82-game slate in front of them, keeping the team mentally focused through the whole season is going to be a struggle for Barry Trotz. With the talent the Caps boast, even if some of the players try to coast through to the spring, they still should be able to make the playoffs, but they may not be quite as high in the standings as many expect.
Is it time to split up Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom?
Nicklas Backstrom did a tremendous job shutting down Sidney Crosby in the playoffs, but it came at the expense of the top line's offensive production. The Caps cannot continue to utilize Backstrom as a shutdown center if it completely handcuffs Alex Ovechkin. Does that mean Evgeny Kuznetsov could take over for Backstrom on the top line? Perhaps, but it is also important to keep in mind that while Ovechkin has become more responsible in the defensive zone, he still needs to be paired with a strong two-way player. Does a line of Ovechkin - Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie leave the team too vulnerable in its own end to risk that kind of a move?
What role (if any) will Stanislav Galiev have this season?
Last season Stanislav Galiev was too valuable to risk putting on waivers but not valuable enough to play. He appeared in only 24 games and no playoff games. Galiev brings speed and skill and looked like a clear choice to replace the hole left by Jason Chimera in the lineup. With the addition of Brett Connolly, however, it's hard to figure out just where Galiev fits in the Caps' plans. You have to believe they have some sort of plan for him considering they don't want to risk losing him, but there is no point in seeing him waste away in the press box. Will the Caps give him a chance, move him or keep him in NHL purgatory?
Do the Caps have enough defensive depth?
Having a strong top four on defense matters. Having strong depth, however, is also vitally important. Eight different defensemen played for the Caps in the playoffs last season and it's not as if teams will go easy on you because one of your regular defensemen is out of the lineup as Barry Trotz cycled players in and out of the bottom pair trying to find a tandem he trusts. Moving Dmitry Orlov to the top four will move Brooks Orpik down to the third which will be good for him. Fewer minutes will be good for the aging vet. It was very clear that the long season took its toll on Orpik in as he struggled in the postseason. Nate Schmidt also had his share of struggles in the playoffs, but he's a young developing player who should be better with another year under his belt. Taylor Chorney was passable when John Carlson missed time with an injury last year, but he has really, really struggled in the preseason. The prospects, however, seem to be playing well. If the team needs to, they can recall a player like Madison Bowey or Tyler Lewington and feel confident in plugging them into the lineup.
Has Tom Wilson progressed enough to handle a bigger role in the offense?
This will be a critical year for Tom Wilson. General manager Brian MacLellan spoke in the offsaeson about his hope that Wilson could develop into a Joel Ward type of player, someone with a strong net-front presence. He is going to get more opportunity to move up the lineup and see if he can solidify himself in that role. The Caps have a lot of depth at right wing so if Wilson can't live up to expectations, he may end up sliding back down to the third or fourth line and he may not be able to climb back up again.
How will the Caps manage the 14th forward?
The Caps intend to keep a 14th forward on the roster this season and cycle in prospects in order to get them experience. That's a great idea in theory, but the team will have to manage these players very carefully. Getting NHL experience is great, but getting playing time is better. Considering how stacked the Caps' roster is, it will be hard to get these prospects enough games to keep them on the roster for a prolonged period of time. Zach Sanford looks like a lock to take the 14th forward spot at the start of the season. He's not going to play 82 games. In fact, even if he stayed with the Caps the whole season, he would struggle to get 20. At that point, it would be better for him to go to Hershey rather than stay in the NHL and watch from the press box. The Caps are going to have to manage the 14th forward spot exactly right to make sure the players are getting enough playing time to avoid hurting their development.
Is this the final year of the Capitals' championship window?
T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner will be UFAs at the end of the season while Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Stanislav Galiev, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer will be RFAs. The Caps' roster could look very different at the start of the 2016-17 season. Considering Alex Ovechkin is 31 and Nicklas Backstrom will turn 29 in November, it's fair to wonder if this season will be the Ovechkin-era Caps' best remaining chance to win the Stanley Cup. Will that add fuel to their fire or will desperation hang over the time like a storm cloud?