It still feels like the season just ended, but with the draft and free agency already behind us, it's time to look forward to the 2016-17 season. We will preview every team in the NHL throughout August and take a look at what the new season may hold.
Team: Washington Capitals.
How they did last season: 56-18-8 (120 points). Claimed the Presidents’ Trophy. Lost in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
Notable acquisitions: C Lars Eller and RW Brett Connolly.
Notable departures: LW Jason Chimera; C Mike Richards; C Michael Latta; and D Mike Weber.
Analysis: In February, GM Brian MacLellan acknowledged that the Capitals—as currently constructed, at least—had a two-year window to contend for a championship.
Well, they’re now on year two.
After being dispatched by a white-hot Penguins’ team in the second round of last year's playoffs, MacClellan stood by his statement and made few changes to the roster.
In fact, MacLellan’s biggest moves were relatively minor tweaks—trading for third-line center Lars Eller and opting not to re-sign 37-year-old winger Jason Chimera.
The addition of Eller, who averaged 13.3 goals and 26.3 points the past three seasons in Montreal, should strengthen the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards, a glaring weakness, particularly when compared to Pittsburgh’s group in the playoffs. Can Eller, at 27 years old, flourish with better linemates and a steady role under a different coach? That’s the expectation.
Chimera, meanwhile, parlayed a 20-goal season into a two-year, $4.5 million contract on Long Island. Chimera’s speed will be missed, but the cap-conscious Capitals no longer had room for his salary following the additions of Eller and winger Brett Connolly, a 2010 first rounder who tallied nine goals and 16 assists in 71 games for the Bruins last season.
MacLellan made virtually no changes on defense. Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney are all back. Restricted free agent Dmitry Orlov, meanwhile, is expected to re-sign before camp opens later this month. Assuming that indeed occurs, Orlov could be an X-factor; Trotz mentioned earlier this week that he envisions the 25-year-old stepping into a top-4 role and contributing on special teams, as well.
In goal, the Capitals are in a great spot with Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. The 26-year-old workhorse recently confirmed that he battled through a knee injury during the playoffs. If the knee was an issue, though, he wouldn’t be playing for Team Canada in the World Cup. So scratch that from your list of potential concerns.
And finally, the coaching staff will remain intact after some anxious moments this summer as assistants Todd Reirden and Lane Lambert were finalists for the head coaching vacancies in Calgary and Colorado, respectively. While disappointing for Reirden and Lambert, it was welcome news for the Caps.
Indeed, the names in your game program this season are going to look awfully familiar. And that’s a good thing. Because after posting 56 wins, the Capitals didn’t need an overhaul or any splashy signings. They needed a tweak or two.
That said, Alex Ovechkin, who turns 31 later this month, and his teammates also must be acutely aware of their situation. With a few veterans entering the final year of their contracts and a handful of youngsters needing new deals next summer, this group has an expiration date. And it arrives following the final game of 2016-17.
Season prediction: After this season, veteran forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams as well as stalwart defenseman Karl Alzner all become unrestricted free agents. Meanwhile, young forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are set to become restricted free agents. And don't forget Reirden and Lambert figure to be candidates for head coaching positions again.
You can bank on the fact that not everyone will return, which adds a certain measure of urgency to the upcoming campaign. So it’s not much of a stretch to say this year is Cup or bust for the Capitals. Because if this roster doesn’t get the job done, you can also bank on this: things are probably going to look a lot different when the team gathers for training camp in Sept. 2017.
As for the here and now, I like the chances of Washington making a deep run. But also I’ve covered the NHL long enough to know that it takes more than a talented and deep lineup, good goaltending and a prepared coaching staff to win it all.
You also need to catch breaks that aren’t completely under your control. Things like good health, avoiding untimely suspensions, peaking at the right time and fortuitous matchups in the postseason.
Is this the year that it all comes together for Ovechkin and the Capitals? Impossible to know. That said, even the most skeptical fans can probably agree that a breakthrough is long overdue.
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2016-2017 NHL TEAM PREVIEWS