Much like a few other teams in this new division, making the playoffs is simply isn't enough for the Washington Capitals as they go into every year with Stanley Cup aspirations. They have been to the playoffs every year since 2007, winning their division in five of those six years, but have still yet to get past the second round of the playoffs. Everyone seems to have their own theory on the Capitals post-season struggles but as far as last season goes, you can say that they were lucky to get as far as they did.
At the beginning of March, this was a team that was sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and heading towards a possible lottery pick. Then a light suddenly went off and the Caps became the hottest team in the NHL down the stretch. They went 20-7-2 in March and April and easily ascended their way through the Southeast Division standings, eventually winning their fifth title in six years. Given how strong they finished the year, the Caps look like a club that is on the rise and one that can contend in this new division. However, there were a lot of things that went in their favor which contributed to their playoff push.
Washington's incredible run to end the season was powered by their star player, Alex Ovechkin, catching fire and scoring 24 goals in his final 29 games of the season and goaltender Braden Holtby posting a .930 save percentage in March & April. Some argued that the players needed time to adjust to Adam Oates' system in a lockout shortened year with no training camp and while that might be true, it is still doubtful that either of these will happen in a full 82-game season. Ovechkin is still a fantastic player and one of the best goal-scorers in the league but the days of him scoring at a 67-goal pace are over and the odds of Holtby posting a .930+ save percentage in a full year seem low.
Given these points and that 11 of their last 20 wins came against the Southeast Division, it seems doubtful that Washington can go on this kind of run while playing in a tougher division. That doesn't mean that they can't be competitive, though. The Caps have enough pieces in place so that they can be in a "win now" mode every year and they always seem to make a few tweaks every off-season to improve their roster. This year was no different, but is it enough for them to stay a playoff team in a tougher division?
Capitals at a Glance
The Caps were a bad puck-possession team last year that was buoyed by a strong power play and great goaltending and that is usually bad news for future success, especially since Washington's power play scored on over 20% of their shots. It's unlikely that carries over into next season since power play success is often volatile on a year-to-year basis. That being said, replacing Mike Ribeiro with Mikhail Grabovski should make this team better at even strength and he could also take on penalty killing duties, which is another area of need for the Caps.
Is that enough to make them a positive possession club, though? It's possible when you look at where Ribeiro ranked among the team's forwards in Corsi last season. Ribeiro is a terrific play-maker & power play specialist, but his defensive play makes him a liability at even strength and Grabovski should make them better in this area. He was given hard defensive minutes on a Leafs team that was abysmal at even strength and was pretty decent at being able to get the play moving in the right direction despite that. It's unlikely that he will be constrained to this type of role with the Caps and Grabovski should have better scoring & puck-possession numbers as a result. That could have a positive effect on the rest of the team depending on how Grabovski performs.
C Mikhail Grabovski
C Mike Ribeiro
D Tyson Strachan
D Jeff Schultz
C Brandon Segal
LW Matt Hendricks
RW Matt Watkins
RW Wojtek Wolski
G David Leggio
LW Joey Crabb
D Tom Poti
Grabovski was the big addition for the Caps this summer and I already discussed how he can replace Ribeiro and more at even strength. The Caps will be a little worse on the power play, but their improvements at even strength could be enough to off-set that. All of their other additions were minimal at best, but Tyson Strachan could be a nice depth defenseman for them. Injuries forced him into a top four role with Florida last season and his underlying numbers suggest that he wasn't completely over his head, so he might find a place in Washington.
The other players departing from Washington are replaceable in the grand scheme of things. Hendricks was a role player and effective in shootouts, but there are other players like him available for lower than what he signed in Nashville while Schultz, Wolski, Crabb & Poti all struggled to consistently stay in the lineup. I think Wolski is someone who could help them a lot but Oates barely used him so this isn't a big loss for them.
In his first year as Caps head coach, Adam Oates gave most of the tough minutes to his top-six with his second line drawing the matchups against other team's best forwards. He seemed to trust Troy Brouwer a lot in these situations, which is interesting given that he has never been that great of a territorial player over his career. His poor underlying numbers could be a result of playing alongside Ribeiro for most of the year, though. He will likely be much better if he has Grabovski pivoting him instead. Having Erat on that second line for a full year will also make them more reliable for playing tough minutes, as he played that role for most of his career in Nashville.
A player not shown on the graph here is Brooks Laich and you have to figure that he will play a big role on the team if he is able to stay healthy for a full season. He is typically Washington's shutdown center and really excel on their third line with the right teammates. Oates isn't one to protect his top-six, but he didn't really have the personnel to do that last year. Having Laich in the lineup could change all of that.
Washington didn't add too many pieces on defense, so Oates' deployment shouldn't be too different from what you're seeing here. Although, I will be shocked if John Erskine is still playing the toughs by December since I do not think he is a great fit as a top-four defenseman. Oates seems to like using him with John Carlson, though and that is the pairing that typically got the big assignments on Washington's blue line last year. I don't think that will be the case next year but the Caps don't have a ton of options unless they add another defender between now and October.
It's funny how signing can re-shape the entire outlook of a team. Washington's center depth looked like a mess before the Grabovski signing but now that he is in the fold, they look very strong down the middle. Grabovski's underlying numbers look bad here, but he was also being completely buried in a defensive role by Randy Carlyle. His performance in previous seasons was much better and he could excel in a top-six role with the Caps. He is excellent in all three zones, plays a strong game along the boards and is capable of producing a lot of offense. Grabovski should mesh in well with Erat & Brouwer on that second line.
As much as I liked the Grabovski signing, the Caps will still only go as far as Alex Ovechkin takes them. That isn't a bad thing, though. His ability to drive the play has gone down, but he still produces more shots on goal than almost anyone else in the league and his goal-scoring touch is still there. He isn't as lethal as he used to be, but he can still be someone who scores 40 in a year based on how many opportunities he creates.
Ovechkin remains the team's catalyst, but Washington's supporting cast looks a little better this year and I think that will make a difference. Having guys like Eric Fehr & Mathieu Perreault on your fourth line instead of your second line can go a long way in a full season.
The top end of Washington's defense is very good. John Carlson is one of the best young defensemen in the league right now and Alzner has developed into a very solid shutdown defenseman, too. Mike Green also had a return to form last season, being very effective on the power play and posting decent numbers in a top-pairing role. Getting him to stay healthy for 82 games will be a challenge, though. The questions begin after these three, though.
John Erskine adds some sandpaper into their lineup, but he is not a top four defenseman and was destroyed while playing tough minutes last season. It's doubtful that he stays in that role for a full season. Who replaces him, though? The Caps have some options, but not many of them are proven. Jack Hillen is more of a third pairing guy while both Tomas Kundtraek & Dmitry Orlov are young and unproven as NHL defenseman. Orlov provides a lot of upside, though and could be a top-four guy soon. I don't know if he will be ready by next season, though. This is why I think the Caps will look to add someone else to their defense corps soon because they're short one top-four guy now but have some players who they might want to experiment with first.
Holtby got off to an awful start last year, posting a sub-.900 save percentage in six of his first seven starts. After that, he was lights out and posted a .930 save percentage in the final two months of the season. His limited track record in the NHL is impressive, but he has only 57 games of NHL experience. Next year will be his first full season as a starter and should give us a better idea of how good he really is. If he fails, then Washington has Michal Neuvirth to lean on. Neuvirth's upside is probably lower than Holtby's but he is definitely a serviceable goalie.
I mentioned that the Caps have some defensemen prospects who they can turn to if Erskine works out. Orlov & Strachan are a couple, but one who might be under the radar is Patrick Wey. He just finished up his senior year at Boston College and is a solid, physical defensemen who might have an outside chance of making the team if he is impressive in camp. Forward Tom Wilson will also look to make the team out of camp, as the Caps seem to be high on him and he can be someone who helps out their bottom-six right now.
The Final Word
The addition of Grabovski instantly improved Washington's forward depth and makes them a team that can contend even in a tougher division. They still have a ton of questions on defense, though because they don't really have a set top-four from the looks of things. Holtby is also somewhat of a concern with him being relatively unproven but if he continues to play well, the Caps will be in good shape and make the playoffs. If he regresses and their defense stays the way it is, then I see them being a bubble team that could end up on the outside looking in depending on how the rest of the division shakes out. There's a lot that can go either way with the Caps right now and we will probably be saying the same things a few months down the road.