NHL 2014-15 preview: Washington Capitals

Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo! Sports joined Tim and Sid to discuss if the threat of KHL teams poaching Russian stars like Alex Ovechkin is credible, especially in light of the crisis in Ukraine causing tensions with the West.

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Washington is our 18th-ranked team.

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Washington Capitals

Division: Metropolitan
2013-14 finish: 38-30-14, 90 points, 17th overall; missed the playoffs
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin (79 points)
General manager: Brian MacLellan
Head coach: Barry Trotz
Captain: Alex Ovechkin
Opening night starter: Braden Holtby
Key acquisitions: Tim Kennedy, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Justin Peters, GM Brian MacLellan, head coach Barry Trotz
Key departures: Mikhail Grabovski, Jaroslav Halak, GM George McPhee, head coach Adam Oates

Off-season grade: B-. George McPhee’s time had come. It’s not that he did a poor job personnel-wise, but he’d been there since 1997, and his revolving door of coaches had failed to get much out of the team. Enter McPhee’s former assistant, Brian MacLellan, who overpaid on D-men Niskanen and Orpik but did address a problem in blueline depth. Orpik, at least, doesn’t have a no-movement clause. The Caps also did well at the draft, nabbing Czech Jakub Vrana 13th overall. Ahead of the draft, one scout said of him: “In puck skill, you put him with [Leafs draftee] William Nylander.” Of course, the biggest thing Washington did to make itself better was bringing in Barry Trotz to run the bench. No coach in recent memory has done more with less than Trotz, who led the perennially under-funded and out-gunned Predators to the playoffs six of the past nine seasons—in the Western Conference.

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Greatest strengths: With Ovechkin on the power play, the Caps will score. Their 68 goals were first overall last season and their 23.4% power-play mark tied for first. And that firepower allowed them to strike quick later in games—they were eighth in wins when trailing after the first period, and fourth when behind after two. There is some intriguing young talent surrounding Ovie and Nicklas Backstrom. Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov is many people’s pick to win the Calder this season. And after a 17-game warm-up last season, he’ll be ready to jump right in and produce. D-man John Carlson is also still on the rise. And it says here that netminder Braden Holtby is better than the numbers depict—he just hasn’t had any help. But the greatest strength will be Trotz. For the first time since Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his duties, the Caps will have a real, live NHL coach calling the shots. Dale Hunter and Adam Oates were nice homages to the past, but Trotz has been working continuously as a head man in the NHL since 1998. He’s an upgrade over not only Oates but about half the coaches in the league.

Greatest weaknesses: You just don’t know what you’re going to get with this team year to year. Will they play some D, or will they try to blow your doors off? One thing’s for sure: they’ve been on a steep decline the past five seasons. Only in 2012-13—when they didn’t have to face the West—did they manage to post numbers that (when pro-rated) reversed a falling points trend. One cause for that Jekyll-and-Hyde persona is that the Caps just aren’t very good 5-on-5. They’re a poor possession team and aren’t particularly lucky, a horrible combo that led to a 27th-overall shots-for percentage. They couldn’t hold early leads last season, winning just 64 percent when leading after the first period, fourth-worst overall. And in the 22 games they managed to out-shoot the opposition, were just a .500 team. If the leaders on the team commit to playing better team defence in front of Holtby, the Caps will be better. But a lack of depth is what kills them. Brooks Laich is a nice player, but he’s nicest on the third line. In Washington, he’s in the top six. Same goes for Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johanssen.

Biggest story line to watch: Will Ovie buy what Trotz is selling? And vice versa. You can be sure that a guy with tenure like Trotz doesn’t pander to starlets much. Every good coach knows how to make his best players happy, but every good coach also knows when to do what’s best for the team. Trotz has employed schemes in the past that were stifling defensively but also has shown he’s open to adapting when he’s got the horses. To be a success in Washington, he must find middle ground. Ovie is in for the long haul and has already seen four coaches come and go. But none were of Trotz’s calibre. No matter what you think of him, there’s no doubt Ovechkin is in it to win it. His horrendous plus-minus was a big to-do last season, but for everything it’s purported to be, it’s not an individual statistic. The simple fact is that Ovie’s linemates ran into some serious shooting-percentage issues while he was on the ice last year. It cost them, and him. And, in the end, the Caps.

2014-15 prediction: In tough to make the playoffs. Will need Philly to falter to have any hope.

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