10 teams that can win it all: Capitals

Every Tuesday for the next 10 weeks Ryan Porth gets you set for a fresh NHL season with in depth looks at the Top 10 teams that will compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup in the 2012-13 season.

A scorching 7-0 start quickly became a distant memory for Washington Capitals fans. Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau behind the bench after things got stale in the U.S. capital, but the change didn’t have much of a positive effect until a postseason where the Capitals overachieved as the No. 7 seed. They dramatically ousted the Boston Bruins and took top-seeded New York to a seventh game before being knocked out in the second round.

To no one’s surprise, there were more changes in Washington this offseason. Former Capitals star Adam Oates left his post as New Jersey Devils assistant to replace Hunter as the team’s head coach, which came days after GM George McPhee obtained centre Mike Ribeiro via trade from Dallas. Those were the key additions.

Subtracted from last year’s club was Alexander Semin, Dennis Wideman and Tomas Vokoun. The hope is these moves will help Alex Ovechkin (bound for the KHL in the meantime) and company fare better than last year’s relatively disappointing campaign.

Here are three reasons why the Capitals are and aren’t poised to lift Lord Stanley for the first time:

1. Addition of Oates and Ribeiro boosts offence

The Capitals are expected to get back to their old ways – less conservativeness, more run-and-gun – with Oates on board. With that approach, the Capitals recorded 121 points two seasons ago.

“I look at the Caps’ lineup and the talent level, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t push the pace, be an aggressive team, but at the same time not sacrificing defence and protecting our goalie,” Oates said after he was hired in late June.

While Semin was an impact loss offensively, McPhee’s most important addition should be a good fit in D.C. Ribeiro, one of the NHL’s most consistent producers, has racked up 348 points in 380 games over the last five years. He gives the Capitals a solid No. 2 centre behind Nicklas Backstrom.

Oates and Ribeiro give the Caps’ attack a breath of fresh air and a different look that will have a positive effect.

2. Braden Holtby could well extend his playoff success

The biggest reason why the Capitals were able to survive as long as they did last spring was the surprisingly superb goaltending from a 22-year-old. With Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth banged up and inconsistent, Holtby stepped up late and rose to the challenge. In his first postseason, all Holtby did was go toe-to-toe with Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist and post a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage in 14 games. Not too shabby.

This season will be the test for Holtby: Can he carry over that playoff success, or will he experience prolonged slumps in his first full NHL campaign?

Though Oates has yet to name his starter, Holtby – who represents the team’s future between the pipes – is the favourite to beat out Neuvirth. The sooner Holtby can emerge as a legitimate No. 1 backstop – something the Caps haven’t had since Olaf Kolzig – the better the club’s Cup chances.

3. Nicklas Backstrom is deadly if healthy

Ovechkin understandably gets the daily spotlight and headlines, but Backstrom is the straw that stirs the Capitals’ drink. Why? Because of his evolution into one of the league’s most complete centremen.

Backstrom missed 40 games in 2011-12 with a concussion, and the Capitals missed him dearly. In coachspeak, Backstrom is “detailed” and does all the “little things” that can impact a game in numerous ways. His faceoff numbers have improved drastically since coming into the league. He is dependable in all three zones, which makes him a threat whenever he steps onto the ice.

And when he is on, he racks up assists and points like they are going out of style. If he can stay healthy and productive, along with the addition of Ribeiro, it will give the Capitals a one-two combo down the middle that few Eastern Conference teams can rival.

1. Will it ever be Ovechkin’s time?

Ovechkin has the reputation of never being able to win the big one, and when his team loses – at the NHL or international level – the blame, warranted or not, is placed on him. Until he raises the Stanley Cup, that status will not change. Will it ever change?

The exuberant Russian, whose leadership has been put into question many times, just turned 27 years old, so there is still plenty of sand in the hourglass. However, Ovechkin’s 24-27 playoff record (and 2-4 mark in Game 7s) is less than mediocre, while his declining production (from 109 points to 85 to 65) is alarming. Not to mention: the pressure on him to carry the Caps to a Stanley Cup will grow with each passing postseason in which it doesn’t happen.

The longer Ovie goes on without winning the big one, the less it seems believable that he will ever put it all together when it counts.

And his eagerness to jump to the KHL in the face of a lockout won’t win him any more favour in North America.

2. Holtby and Neuvirth are unproven

While Holtby and Neuvirth ooze potential, they are still 22 and 24 years old, respectively. To expect either one to grab the reins, start 60 games and be an all-star is too much to ask at this time. They need more seasoning, and both will go through growing pains at the NHL level that they may normally experience in the AHL.

Neuvirth has 108 games and a mediocre stat line (2.65 GAA, .909 SV%) under his belt in three-plus seasons. He did lead the Hershey Bears to back-to-back Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010, but he is unproven. Holtby proved himself last spring, but has yet to do it over the course of a full NHL season.

The tandem of Holtby and Neuvirth could be a pillar of strength for the Capitals down the road. As soon as 2012-13? I wouldn’t count on it.

3. Defence isn’t built for playoff hockey

Preseason prognostications are made on paper. And on paper, the Capitals’ defense corps is below average.

For starters, the unit lacks a true workhorse. The team’s 2011-12 leader in average ice time, Dennis Wideman, is now in Calgary. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are young and still growing into top-pair defencemen who can absorb all the hard minutes. Mike Green is the big X-factor here. He has logged a lot of ice time in the past, but his health (81 missed games in last two years) and declining production are question marks. If he returns to his point-per-game ways, it will help the offence return to elite status.

With that being said, there are holes on the Capitals’ back end. They are holes that, on paper, could keep Oates from having a monumental first year behind the bench.

Prediction: Washington propels back to the top of the Southeast Division, Oates contends for the Jack Adams, and Ovie returns to being Ovie. However, the likes of New York and Pittsburgh will stand in their way of getting to the final.

How far will the Washington Capitals make it in 2012-13?

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