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Season preview: New Jersey Devils

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Season preview: New Jersey Devils

To get you ready for the 2015-16 season, we will be previewing all 30 NHL in 30 days, division by division. Check the bottom of the page for a schedule of each preview.

Today’s team: New Jersey Devils

2014-15 record: 32-36-14, 7th in the Metropolitan

How they finished: Did not make the playoffs

Coach: John Hynes (1st season)

Notable additions: D John Moore, C Kyle Palmieri

Notable subtractions: RW Steve Bernier, C Scott Gomez, D Peter Harrold, RW Michael Ryder, D Bryce Salvador, LW Dainius Zubrus

RELATED: Capitals' depth at center hinges on Backstrom's health

Schedule against the Capitals: Sat. Oct. 10 at Washington, Sat. Feb. 6 at New Jersey, Sat. Feb. 20 at Washington, Fri. Mar. 25 at New Jersey

Outlook: First-year coach John Hynes has his work cut out for him as he takes over a Devils team in transition.

Here's the good news: goaltending is not an issue and the defense is improving.

Corey Schneider provides stability in net and still managed good numbers last season despite New Jersey's dismal year.

Of the six defensemen expected to get the bulk of the playing time this season, five of them are 24 or younger. Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Damon Severson all gained valuable experience last season and return as the team's young core. Greene is 32, but still likely commands a spot on the top pairing. The addition of John Moore, 24, puts the pieces in place for what could over time become one of the top defenses in the NHL.

Here's the bad news: who the heck is going to score on this team?

The Devils finished 28th in the league last season in goals per game with 2.15 and two of New Jersey's top five point producers from last season, Scott Gomez and Steve Bernier, are gone. Only two Devils managed more than 40 points last season and no one had more than 50. Just to put that into perspective, the Caps had six players with more than 40 points and three with more than 50.

New Jersey has not had a 30-goal scorer since 2012.

As the Devils start to transition to a younger roster and a first-year coach, it is time for Adam Henrique to assert himself. Henrique has yet to surpass the 51 points he tallied in his rookie season in 2011-12. If he wants to become the superstar player the Devils hoped he could be, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

New Jersey will also have a choice to make before the start of the season with prospect Pavel Zacha. The Devils selected him sixth-overall in the 2015 Draft, but find themselves in the same position the Caps were in with Tom Wilson. Zacha can play in the OHL or the NHL, but not the AHL. Do they let their 18-year-old future playmaker develop in the OHL or does a team starved for offense risk bringing him to the big leagues?

Despite some of the older veterans who are still sticking around such as Patrick Elias and Mike Cammalleri, clearly this team is focused on getting younger. At 40 years old, Hynes is the youngest head coach in the NHL. He has spent the last five seasons coaching in the AHL where development is a must. Will that help him reach the young players the Devils are building around? You bet.

Expectations: With an established goaltender and improving defense, the Devils look to be just an offense away from turning the corner. Hynes has promised New Jersey will become a more aggressive, attacking team, but this will take some time. The Devils were 20 points short of the last wild card spot last season and I don't see them making that kind of a leap in what is going to be a very competitive Metropolitan Division this year.

The pieces are coming together in New Jersey, but I don't see Hynes in his first season as an NHL head coach being able to turn things around that quickly. 

MORE CAPS: Team Russia fined for walking off the ice at Worlds

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New York Islanders 8/26 
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Washington Capitals 8/30

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Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

Monday’s win over the Montreal Canadiens was Game 20 for the Caps meaning we are officially one quarter of the way into the NHL season. That means it’s time to take a step back and look at just how the Caps have performed thus far.

Here are the first quarter grades and awards for the Caps:

Offense: B+

The Caps boasted the top offense in the NHL for a short stretch, but the numbers were being propped up initially by the explosive power play. When it comes to five-on-five play, the offense is a bit weaker than the power play would make it seem. Evgeny Kuznetsov, for example, has six goals and zero have come at even strength.

Not having Tom Wilson in the lineup for the first 16 games due to a suspension clearly hurt the offense and Todd Reirden was forced to shuffle the lines as best he could looking for a spark. Now that he is back, the offense looks much improved and much deeper. Plus, Alex Ovechkin continues to be Ovechkin even at the age of 33.

The offense has had its full lineup for less than two games this season, but even despite that, Washington still ranks seventh in the NHL with 3.35 goals per game. This is already a top-10 offense and it’s trending up.

Defense: C-

In hearing Reirden describe the team’s defense, it involves a lot of commitment. All five players are expected to back check and get into shooting lanes every time the opposition has the puck. Obviously, the defense is more nuanced than that, but at its basic core, this is what the Caps want to do. That sort of commitment is easy to get in the playoffs, but it’s harder to get a team to constantly jump into shooting lanes in November. As a result, this is where the team’s Stanley Cup hangover has been the most glaring.

The defensemen have had their struggles, particularly Dmitry Olrov and Matt Niskanen, which has led to a shuffling of the pairs. The offense also has not been as quick on the back check as you would like to see.

Most critically, however, has been puck management. The biggest defensive breakdowns for this team have been self-inflicted with bad turnovers and lazy passes. As glaring as they may be, however, they also should be correctable.

Goaltending: B

The first month of the season has been a scoring bonanza so Braden Holtby’s numbers are not where you would want them, but in recent weeks he has started to look like the dominant netminder who foiled opponents in the playoffs last season. There is no reason to think he will not continue to get better as the season goes along and he develops more of a rhythm.

The real story here has been Pheonix Copley who was largely an unknown commodity at the NHL level heading into the season.

Copley’s play was shaky to start, but when Holtby suffered an upper-body injury and Copley was forced to start all four games of their current road trip, he played very well for the most part. You can point to Monday’s game in Montreal in which he was pulled in the second period all you want, but in terms of whether this team has a backup it can trust to plug into a game 20-25 times this season, Copley has shown he is capable of providing that.

Special teams: C-

Yes, the power play is great and ranks fourth in the NHL at 29.7-percent, but it has cooled considerably in recent weeks. In the month of November, the Caps have scored on six of 29 opportunities, good for 13th in the league at 20.7-percent.

The real issue for Washington in terms of the special teams is the penalty kill.

Reirden wanted the penalty kill to be more offensively aggressive this season, but so far the Caps have not been able to do that without leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. The result is that their penalty kill now ranks 29th in the NHL at 73.3-percent.

Reirden’s goal here, I believe, is not so much to generate offense at the expense of the defense, but rather to force an opponent’s power play to be aware of Washington’s offensive weapons and to help kill time by keeping and holding possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Thus far, however, it hasn’t worked.

If the Caps are going to keep this philosophy on the penalty kill, then the coaches need to sit down and study film of the Arizona Coyotes who lead the league in both the penalty kill (91.7-percent) and shorthanded goals (10).

Pleasant surprise: Madison Bowey

Bowey has been a highly touted prospect within the organization since he was drafted in 2013. He made his NHL debut last season, but seemed to struggle with the transition from AHL to NHL. This year, he looks like the most improved player on the team and has played well in relief of an injured Brooks Orpik.

What’s more, Bowey is showing a lot more confidence in his play. He is a two-way defenseman, but no one would have been able to tell that from how conservative he was last season. This year, he is being more assertive in the offensive zone and it should translate into more points.

Needs improvement: Andre Burakovsky

Burakovsky has just four points this season in 20 games. Tom Wilson, by comparison, has five points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Burakovsky has tremendous skill, but he remains an incredibly streaky player. It was thought that confidence was the major issue for him and he saw a sports psychologist over the summer. The results? Both he and Reirden say they see a difference and say he is a more confident player, but it has not translated into more production.

Burakovsky is not a shutdown forward, he is not a physical grinder, he is not a penalty killer. If he is not producing, he just doesn’t add that much to the lineup.

MVP: Alex Ovechkin

At times it looked like John Carlson or Kuznetsov would be the MVP, but through 20 games just about every player on this roster has had the ups and downs typical of a season and especially of a Stanley Cup championship team that is realizing playing in October is not nearly as fun as it is playing in June. The only player who is consistently great on a night in, night out basis is the Great 8 who shows no signs of slowing down even at the age of 33.

With 15 goals, Ovechkin sits second in the NHL behind only David Pastrnak’s 17.

Overall: B

Let’s consider everything Reirden has had to deal with in his first season as an NHL head coach: Wilson’s 20-game suspension, injuries to Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Travis Boyd, Braden Holtby, Michal Kempny and Brooks Orpik, a backup goalie making the jump to the NHL and a Stanley Cup hangover.

Yes, the Caps have played below the lofty standards we have come to expect and do not yet have a win streak of over two games this season. But considering everything, the fact that this team still sits in third place in the Metropolitan Division and appears to be trending upward is a good sign for the direction this season is going.

This team has another level it has not yet reached, but they are getting there, slowly but surely.

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Brooks Orpik undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his knee, will miss another 4 to 6 weeks

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Brooks Orpik undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his knee, will miss another 4 to 6 weeks

Brooks Orpik underwent an arthroscopic surgical procedure on his right knee and is expected to miss four-to-six weeks, the Capitals announced Tuesday. Orpik last played on Oct. 27 against the Calgary Flames, but has not participated in practice since due to what the team has called a lower-body injury.

Why did it take so long to have the surgery when he could have been recovering and nearing a return at this point? The specific nature of the injury is not known, but what typically happens in cases such as these is that the player and the team will wait to see if surgery is necessary. No professional athlete likes going under the knife and most will try to avoid it at all costs.

It could also be a case in which the severity of the injury was not known as is evidenced by the fact that he was initially labeled “day-to-day.”

With Orpik out, that will likely mean more time for Madison Bowey who has looked like one of the most improved players overall on the roster this season. It also likely gives an opportunity for Jonas Siegenthaler to get more games at the NHL level.

Siegenthaler has been with the Caps since getting recalled from the Hershey Bears on Nov. 9. He has played in two games. Originally, it looked like the young Swiss defenseman would make the Caps’ roster out of training camp with Michal Kempny dealing with a concussion, but the team had to get creative with the salary cap after Tom Wilson was suspended and the acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin forced Siegenthaler to the AHL.

In his two NHL games, Siegenthaler has not looked out of place at all at the NHL level.

If he remains with the team, it seems likely he will get into the lineup again sooner rather than later. As a young prospect the team hopes can be an NHL player, they will be loath to keep him in Washington another four to six weeks just to sit up in the press box and not play. Young players like him need the playing time.

With Orpik out possibly until the calendar turns to 2019, however, do not be surprised if the Caps elect to recall a player like Aaron Ness and send Siegenthaler back to Hershey. Ness is a veteran AHLer who the team can be more comfortable scratching from the lineup for a long period of time. If they don’t, then expect to see Siegenthaler crack the lineup again in the coming days.

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